Lauren Donovan, The Bismarck Tribune, Published December 16 2012
Living among the ashes: Woman displaced by wildfire moves back to Bucyrus
One day, she and her son Justin Wiskus were living in a lovely, turn-of-the-century two-story home in a tiny town west of Hettinger. By evening, her house was a smoldering ruin collapsed into the basement. She was homeless, living with another son four miles out of Bucyrus.
Three weeks later, while the country was preoccupied with the national election, she was moving into a 14-by-70-foot green trailer manufactured in 1972. It’s cozy and bright on a sunny day, but it’s a trailer nonetheless and filled with furniture donated by friends and strangers.
Such a swift and brutal change in life would be enough to make anyone’s head spin.
Linda Wiskus said she’s asked all the time why she returned to Bucyrus. The neighbors’ homes on either side of hers and one across the street burned to the ground.
Much of the destruction has been cleaned up and leveled over. But it is still raw and gaping there, like a bomb went off, which given the explosive force of the fire that day, is not far from what happened.
She said she sometimes wonders why she’s back, but she owned the property, in itself worth something in today’s market.
“I’m glad I’m here,” Wiskus said. “It’s a reminder every day, but I can deal with it. It’s still strange coming around the corner and there’s no house. I only realize now what I lost.”
Her former neighbors are also adjusting to changed circumstances.
Vern Milliren, 70, drives over from Hettinger and parks in the driveway where his house used to be. He keeps the motor running, and it’s a comfortable place to sit for a while and remember.
His, too, was a nice old two-story, the oldest home in Bucyrus, he said.
Milliren checks if there’s anything in his mailbox and contemplates what he should do with the metal garage and its contents that survived the fire. Sell it, probably. He’s not coming back.
“It was a big blow,” Milliren said. “I’ll always miss certain things. Bucyrus was a good, neighborly town.”
He and his wife, Lucy, purchased a place in Hettinger that’s handicapped-accessible, but, he said, “We do have to borrow money to complete this deal.”
A benefit fund was set up to help the four families who lost their homes and others who lost property in the fire that tore on for about 13 miles and finally burned itself out not far from Hettinger.
It’s expected there’ll be about $150,000 in donated cash to help the fire victims, said Bonnie Lueck at Dakota Plains Federal Credit Union in Hettinger, where the account is kept.
She said a committee will look at applications for assistance and money will be dispersed in mid-January or so.
Milliren said any money he and his wife get will replace everything from lost clothing to pots and pans and pay the next month’s mortgage.
“Our debt is worse than it was here,” he said, with a nod toward the ruination of his former home. “Financially, there’s a lot we’ll never replace.”
Coincidentally, Angie Kunkel is in the neighborhood that day, too, also checking the mailbox near the burned-out basement of her home. Her family of four is temporarily living in a rental home in Hettinger, but it’s only available for several more months.
In the meantime, she said, they’re looking at purchasing a modular home and returning to Bucyrus. It’ll be a challenge to get a new basement poured between now and then, she said.
She said they’ve made an application for assistance from the benefit fund. “It’ll help,” she said.
The only fire victims missing in town this recent afternoon are Mike and Evelyn Krug. They’re retired and moved to a rural farmhouse after their home was destroyed. Evelyn Krug said earlier that they’d spend the winter in Texas, as they have in past years, and decide where to go from there.
Linda Wiskus said her Alco co-workers and people she knows from town have been generous about trying to fill the immeasurable gap, which opens up in large and small ways.
Small is making a pie and remembering she doesn’t own a rolling pin. Large is the heirloom quilts and family antiques she’d hoped to pass along.
“What I miss most is all I cannot give to my children,” she said.
Justin Wiskus, her son, was home the afternoon of the fire but said he only had minutes to grab a few things.
“I stepped out and saw the smoke. Ten minutes later, I had to get out. The smoke was so heavy you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” he said.
A sheriff’s deputy was at their door, yelling “Get out, now,” he said.
Linda Wiskus said she doesn’t take any little thing for granted anymore, not after losing so much.
“When I find even a screw or a nail from the work we did here, I keep it. I keep everything now,” she said.
The benefit fund will be helpful, and she figures she’ll be OK if she can get past the cost of replacing what she lost, which in her case was not insured for fire.
“It’s all going to be helpful, whatever we get. It’s like starting all over, and I’ll accept whatever it is,” she said.