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Devastating fire destroys home, leaves Maury family with little

A fire destroyed much of the family
A fire destroyed much of the family's home.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

A family of four lost nearly everything they owned in a devastating fire that swept through their unoccupied home on Maury Island Thursday night.

The blaze, thought to have been caused by an electrical problem, originated in the living room and quickly engulfed the entire house. Little if anything is recoverable, said Brett Kranjcevich, assistant fire chief at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue and the first to respond to the blaze.

Jeff Harkins and Brandi Westerhausen, who lived in the rental with Brandi’s two children, Ricky and Ronnie, did not have renter’s insurance.

Friday afternoon, Westerhausen, who had been camping at Lake Chelan with her sons, wept as she surveyed the damage for the first time. Her husband stood in the garage, the only part of the house undamaged.

“We lost everything we have,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

Ricky, Westerhausen’s 4-year-old son, picked up a plastic toy on the floor of the garage. “You’ve got one toy left,” his mother told him.

The blaze, Vashon’s second house fire of the year, quickly engulfed the white rambler, a modest home in a cul-de-sac overlooking Sandy Shores on the east side of Maury. Kranjcevich lives about a mile from the home, and he and his wife Jona, a volunteer EMT, arrived within six minutes, he said. All told, 28 firefighters — six career and 22 volunteer — responded.

“We had a great turnout,” Kranjcevich said.

The house is perched above a grassy slope, and Kranjcevich said he and other firefighters were concerned that a stray ember could start a grass fire. Fortunately, he noted, it was a damp night, and any embers the fire tossed were quickly extinguished. Even so, he said, this is a time of year that worries the fire department.

“We’re definitely entering that fire season,” he said. “Any time we have a structure fire of this magnitude, there’s a concern. Many forest fires are started from a house burning.”

Harkins, a construction worker on disability for a back injury, had been at a softball game when he returned to his neighborhood to find his street blocked off by fire engines. He knew his home was on fire when he saw his small fishing boat in the middle of the street; firefighters had pulled it out of the garage.

“I’m so glad we weren’t here when it happened,” said Westerhausen, a housekeeper who has lived on Vashon since she was 5.

Neighbors who watched firefighters attack the blaze Thursday night said it was frightening to have a fire so close; the nearest home is about 30 feet away.

“I’ve never seen so much smoke,” said Shirley Pountain, who lives two houses down the street.

But the tragic incident also included an element that some of the firefighters found moving. Kranjcevich’s 15-year-old daughter, Abbie, a freshly minted member of Explorers, a volunteer firefighting program for teens, was part of the team, helping to set up and run the staging area for the frontline firefighters.

Initially, Abbie decided not to respond to the fire, and her two parents ran out the door without her. But then she called her younger brother, who had ridden his bike to the scene.

“When my brother said, ‘It’s not small,’ I knew almost instantly that they were going to need as much help as possible. The first thing I thought was, ‘Go,’” she said. “I pulled dinner out of the oven, and I just ran. I just ran down the road.”

A firefighter responding to the call saw Abbie running towards the blaze and picked her up. She ended up spending about three hours at the scene, returning home at midnight, “reeking of smoke,” she said.

The experience, she said, was exhilarating but also sad.

“It’s not fun to watch someone have to go through something like that. It was devastating for me to watch this man lose his house,” she said. “But I felt really good about being there. A couple people came up to me and said, ‘thank you so much for being here.’”

Abbie’s grandfather, like her father and mother, was a firefighter on Vashon. So with Abbie’s participation, three generations of the Kranjcevich family have now fought fires on the Island, Brett Kranjcevich noted.

“She did well,” he said of his daughter. “I remember looking over at one point and thinking, ‘I can’t believe that — this is my daughter.’”

Those who wish to help the Harkins-Westerhausen family can send checks to Brandi Westerhausen at P.O. Box 13264, Burton, WA, 98013.

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