By Starrla Cray
Financial loss is only part of the equation when it comes to house fires.
The emotional and personal loss can often be even more difficult to overcome, according to some local people who’ve experienced the tragedy first-hand.
“[A fire] is a devastating thing to have happen to you,” said Carol Ann Artmann of Winsted, whose house burned down in 2007. “It’s definitely an experience you don’t wish on your worst enemy.”
Having enough insurance, however, can definitely help make the loss more bearable.
“The worst thing that could happen is if your whole house burns down and you don’t have insurance,” said Tami Witt, whose Cokato home was destroyed October 2008.
“Safety-wise at home, you can only do so much,” said Roberta Venske, who lost her home near Winsted Jan. 20, 2007. “Things happen and you don’t know why.”
Roberta and her husband, Roger, were one of three families in a three-mile radius who suffered from a house fire within four months.
About a month before the Venske fire, it was the next-door neighbors, Tim and Colleen Flaig, and in March, it was Artmann and her husband, Ron.
“It was getting contagious,” Venske said. “I remember a neighbor boy asking his mom, ‘now can we move to Hawaii?’”
Winsted isn’t the only town impacted by fires, however. When Witt and her husband, David, had a house fire, Witt was thankful they had insurance to cover the loss.
“I can’t imagine going through the whole thing without insurance,” she said.
Currently, the Witt family is living in a rental house that their insurance company helped pay for, but they plan to build a new home soon. The insurance company is giving them one year from the time of the fire to build the house.
“Our clock is ticking,” she said. “For a while, it’s too overwhelming to even think about it.”
When the fire happened, nine of Witt’s 15 children were home.
“My big thing was to make sure everybody in the house got out,” she said. “That was the most important thing to me. The rest is just stuff.”
The fire started because of a candle one of Witt’s sons left in a pumpkin.
“We were lucky we found it when we did,” she said, because everyone had time to get out safely.
“I would just really recommend that everyone have insurance,” she said. “That is one thing I would not scrimp on.”
Although the majority of homeowners have insurance, many do not know exactly what their policy covers, Venske said.
When a fire destroyed the home of Mike and Kim Schauer of Lester Prairie in March, the $8,000 to $10,000 cost to tear down the burned house wasn’t on their policy. Their ATV was in the garage, but damage for that was not covered either.
“I thought my insurance covered it,” Schauer said. “You’re supposed to have different insurance for that. It would have been nice when you’re signing the paper, if they would have told you what you need.
“The main thing is, for homeowners, make sure you know what you’ve got,” he added.
“I never want to relive that again,” he said. Schauer, who is on the Lester Prairie Fire Department, said “there’s a difference between waking up to what’s happening versus going and attacking it.”
For Carol Ann Artmann, losing personal, irreplaceable property was difficult. Her grandmother’s Victrola was ruined, and although she could have purchased a new one, she said it wouldn’t have been the same. Her grandmother’s fancy dishes, however, remained intact.
Most of their clothing was in bad shape, she said, with black streaks across the shoulder from the hangers.
“Fire makes an oily, black stain,” she said.
The Artmanns carried replacement value insurance, which covers the cost to replace the items that were lost.
“We probably wouldn’t have gotten one penny,” Artmann said, if they would not have had replacement value.
“It does cost a little more, but then you don’t have to start from square one,” she said. “When I pay that insurance bill, I kiss that check.”
With insurance that takes depreciation into account, people are “shocked” to discover that their possessions aren’t worth as much as they thought, Artmann said.
“We went through a lot, but I feel that without the good adjuster relationship, it would have been a lot worse,” she said. “All in all, it’s about the best it could have been.”
The Venske family didn’t share the same good experience with their insurance company.
“We had quite a battle with the insurance company that time,” Roger Venske said.
“It wasn’t covering what it should have covered,” Roberta added. After the Venskes arbitrated with the company for nine months, they were awarded the full amount.
Before deciding on an insurance company, Venske said to ask the agent specific questions about the policies.
“People do not read their policies closely enough and some agents don’t explain it,” she said. “Make sure you’re with a company that stands behind its policies.”
One year and two days after the fire, the Venskes, along with Roger’s brother, Doug, moved into a new house. Before that, they lived in three barely usable rooms of the burned house.
“It was kind of a bad situation,” she said, because she couldn’t clean or walk around.
Venske remains optimistic, though.
“It could be worse,” she said. “We’ve still got our lives.”
She also sold property from her parents to help pay for the new house.
“It only took four months to sell,” she said. “The good Lord was watching us.”
Karen Lueck, whose father, Ed Brabec, had a house fire north of Howard Lake in December 2006, also stays positive.
“The firemen were awesome at doing their jobs,” she said. “They worked very quickly and efficiently.”
As a symbol of new beginnings and a reminder of the past, Lueck said she purchased a Christmas ornament in the shape of firefighter equipment.
“It was an awful year, but we’re all really thankful we’re together still,” she said. The support from neighbors and friends helped them get through it, she added.
Lueck recommends reviewing the insurance policy every year.
“Some people will short-change themselves,” she said. Fortunately, Brabec had adequate insurance and was able to have a new home built.
For possessions inside the house, Artmann said people should make a list of everything they own.
“We had to do it by memory,” she said. “It’s a big job to remember all of that stuff.”
“It’s a lot of paperwork,” Witt said, adding that for them, the financial loss wasn’t as bad as “the headache of it all.”