Locals aid fire victims
A family lost nearly everything it owned when the 930-acre fire near Colfax torched its home last week. Family members were devastated, but then their 140-member church showed them how much the community cares.
The Wheelehans left for a short getaway in the Lake Tahoe area on Aug. 8. John; his wife, Joy; and their teenage children, William and Carly, had no idea that a fire had sparked down in the canyon below their home. They had not worried about leaving their two dogs inside.
“We didn’t know that we were evacuated until after we left,” said John Wheelehan, 54.
The family arrived at a friend’s home in Kings Beach, by Lake Tahoe, and one hour later the friend heard about the fire on the radio. The radio announcer soon said that Saw Mill Road, where the family lived, was being evacuated.
John and his son, William, 15, immediately drove back but were turned away by Placer County Sheriff’s deputies at a checkpoint.
“All day and all night, Channel 3 was allowed to get in, but the owners were not,” John Wheelehan said.
The two did not give up and instead found access to the Cape Horn neighborhood by hiking around the back of the hillside and walking along train tracks. In four minutes, they had enough time to pack money and get the dogs and John’s work van, which had many of his painting materials inside.
“I’m very glad they did that,” Joy Wheelehan, 53, said. “This is a very happy story.”
John and William returned to Kings Beach. The next evening, they saw on the news that their residence, a barn that had been converted into a rustic home, had burned down.
“My dad had just built a deck,” 17-year-old Carly said.
Joy Wheelehan called the pastor of her church, Colfax Assembly of God, and church members sprang into action.
“We’ve had a lot of offers of places to stay,” Joy said. “Some of them are nicer than ours.”
The church opened a trust fund to replace the family’s belongings. The rest will be given to them to rebuild their home or buy a new one. They are currently staying at the home of one of the church’s pastors.
“It’s life – it’s something to deal with. But everybody loves them,” said Stan Koon, the head pastor at the church. “The whole community has gotten on board.”
In an offering last week, enough money was raised to buy the entire family new clothes and have some left over. Pastor Koon’s wife, Julie Koon, has been keeping a list of things the family needs to replace, such as furniture, appliances and a computer. She said that she has had to tell people in the community that there is not enough room to store those things yet.
“It has been the heart of the Lord toward them,” Julie Koon said. “It would have hurt (church members’) hearts not to help.”
While the Wheelehans’ home was not insured, Joy said she is confident that her family will rebuild it. John and Joy Wheelehan conceded that they have gone through many emotions in the past week, but said they have been feeling better lately.
“Something like this happens, and you can see the love of people,” she said. “God has blessed us.”
The Wheelehans were not the only Colfax-area residents to lose their home in the Stevens Fire.
The blaze also devoured a home owned by Galen Goding and his girlfriend, Debbie Walker, on Saw Mill Road. Believing they could make return trips to evacuate the home, the couple lost several pet cats and most of their belongings when barred from returning to the area during the fire. One kitten was found alive after the fire.
HOW TO HELP
The Colfax Assembly of God has set up a trust fund to help the Wheelehans start over. The fund is at Bank of The West. The account number is 244-00-69-20. The U.S. Bank in Colfax is also taking donations for the family. Its address is 2 S. Main St., Colfax 95713. The phone number is 346-6211.
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