SUPERIOR — Rose and Glen Beissel cling to the consolation that they lived to see Christmas.
The fire that started in their adjacent carport/garage woke the Beissels at around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 21 and proceeded to ravage their 1980s-vintage mobile home two miles up Cedar Creek. It took almost everything they had except their lives, her car, his truck and hat, and Bear, their aging Newfoundland/Rottweiler mix.
“When I look at this?” Glen said, pondering the question a week later as they stood in deep snow outside the ruins.
“I’ve got a heavy heart about it, but what are you going to do, you know? When it’s gone it’s gone. I feel bad because I couldn’t do anything to try to save it, other than call the fire department.”
“All of our gifts that we had from family are gone,” said Rose, who had been "a good girl" and waited to open a special present from her snow-birding parents in Arizona for her 54th birthday on Thursday. “But it is what it is. At least we’re alive.”
Most of us don’t have to experience the surreal fog that comes with sudden homelessness. It hadn’t lifted this week, even as another winter blizzard bore down on Mineral County.
“I’m just, like, overwhelmed,” Rose said. “It just feels different. It feels really weird.”
She was recognized the day before at the Christmas party at Mineral Community Hospital for her 25 years working in the hospital’s kitchen. The Beissels scrape by on her salary and Glen’s disability checks. He retired 12 years ago from the bark plant in Superior.
They couldn’t afford to insure the trailer that sat on leased land south of Superior.
But as so many tragedies turn out in "County 54," a support network the Beissels never saw coming kicked into gear almost instantly.
The former Tricon Timber Co. in St. Regis, recently purchased by Idaho Forest Group, donated a retired work trailer to replace their home.
“By noon I had my free trailer,” Rose said with a smile.
Courtesy of the American Red Cross, the Beissels are staying in the Big Sky Motel in town while they try to pull their lives together.
They had no savings account, but one was set up for them at TrailWest Bank in Superior. Donations can be made at any TrailWest bank in western Montana, in the Beissels’ names. Some $600 came in the first day after the fire.
A room in a building separate from the hospital is packed with clothes, dishes, and 500 or 600 pounds of food, according to Mitzi Francis, the hospital’s executive assistant who is coordinating donations.
“Rose has worked for us for 25 years and it’s like anything else,” Francis said Friday. “This little hospital of 60 employees is family, and when there’s a need, whether it’s a food drive for the elementary school or a fire with one of our own, we jump in and help.
“They’re having a rough time,” she added. “They were just here and went through some of the food. We got them some things that they can have at the motel. That should save them some money, so they’re not having to eat at the restaurant across the street all the time.”
So much remains up in the air. Investigators OK'd removal of the debris Wednesday. The Beissels were onsite Friday to start cleaning up, but rain and heavy snow was causing the roof to buckle. It was unsafe to continue.
“It’s hard to get things going. And Mother Nature doesn’t help either,” Rose said.
Now the hope is to get the site cleaned up next week, with help from landlord Kelly Johnston and his machinery. A towing company will bring the replacement trailer from Tricon grounds, where it once housed workers who came to the St. Regis mill to work on the boilers. It’s been empty for some time and needs a stove and some cleaning. But it’ll look like home to Rose and Glen.
They were planning a quiet Christmas at home, where on a good day they can look out back and see 10 or 12 elk down on the creek. After the fire, the Beissels were invited by her aunt and uncle, Marie and Clay Hopper, to spend the day in Missoula.
“They’re my rock right now,” Rose said.
Snow and road conditions nixed that option. When friends in Superior heard of it, the Beissels were welcomed to their home for a prime rib dinner.
“And I have some really awesome, awesome co-workers at the hospital,” Rose said. “If it wasn’t for what they did for me that first day ...”
She said she woke up that night to a pop-pop sound that she at first couldn’t identify. A look out the back window revealed the source, as flames leaped from the outbuilding where the Beissels kept the wood stove burning so their snow-removal equipment wouldn’t freeze up. Motor oil and gas cans were in there too, along with Glen’s pride and joy, a new riding lawnmower he got to manicure the half-acre of yard.
“That was the first new one I’d ever owned,” he said.
Rose fled the house in only her robe. Glen grabbed his jeans, hat and boots, along with the keys to the vehicles and the cellphones they used to call for help.
“I didn’t have time to ask questions, boy, I’ll tell you,” he said. “When we got outside, you could see it was coming just crazy.”
They and neighbors could only stand and watch at a safe distance as their home was gutted.
“I was bawling,” Rose said.
On Thursday, Rose was anxious to get a look inside.
“There’s some stuff in there that’s salvageable, which surprised me,” she said.
She thinks the cedar box made 40 years ago for her eighth-grade graduation gift in Stevensville is intact.
Family pictures, clothes, dishes and utensils were all either destroyed or too smoke-damaged to be of use.
“We just have to start over,” Rose said with a shrug. “I’m OK with whatever.”
But what will remain for the Beissels are memories of the aftermath, and the outpouring of support they never counted on.
"A lot of people," Glen said. "I don’t even know who they are."
"We’re getting strangers calling and offering: What can we do for you? What can we do?" said Rose.
Francis said one donor called to say she has her grandmother’s solid oak table and chairs in storage and wants the Beissels to have them.
"It's just — wow," Rose said. "It's an amazing journey. I'll never let this go, how much support we've gotten."