Family takes inventory of life after house fire


The air stinks.

Not so overwhelming as to turn me away, but an acrid layer just above the smell of harvested hay lands in my nose as soon as I exit my car at Jeff and Cherie Leber’s house.

I take time to gape openly at the visual dichotomy in front of me. On one side of the wide, paved driveway is a sturdy, well-maintained shop. Farm equipment is lined up neatly and the landscaping is informally lush.

Lavender rises up in purpled salute in a generous flower bed while mature trees in the yard bear colorful Japanese lanterns.

And then, in the other half of the picture, is the family home.

Like a burned house on a movie set, charred timbers reach up in a jagged skyline, while every window is rickracked with shards of glass. A roof truss the color of tar lays where it sizzled out on the lawn, a cluster of black-eyed Susans springing up where the beams stop.

There is not a spot for the eye to land that wasn’t touched by the July 18 inferno that consumed this house, its cause not yet understood. “We only know that it came from the gas barbecuer,” Cherie said.

The grill wasn’t in use on the deck as she prepared dinner in the kitchen at 6:30 p.m. while Jeff tended harvest. Cherie was cooking hamburgers for the family, including the five sons who “define” her, she said. “They’re everything to me.”

Married in 2000, Jeff and Cherie bought the circa-1920 home in the countryside outside Milton-Freewater and started a remodel that would last to the day it burned down. It was a labor of love for the couple and their boys, taking a house that required bucket placement during rainstorms and creating a custom home that was perfect for their farming-family lifestyle.

“Each year we had a little bit of money and took that and did another room,” she said. “A rebuild can’t duplicate 14 years of what we did.”

When I visited, though, Cherie was on day No. 3 of duplicating in memory just exactly what was done and purchased for her home over that time period.

The thing people don’t know about losing a home to fire is the energy needed to put one back together, said Dave Wagner of the Seattle-based MVP Inventory Service.

His agency contracts with insurance companies to take customers inch-by-inch through their destroyed homes, physically or through their best recollection. It’s exhausting for everyone, Dave said.

Cherie knows. “I start the day like this,” she said, sitting up straight and clapping her hands together with enthusiasm. “By the end of the day, I’m almost in a fetal position from trying to remember. It’s not just that you’re remembering everything in that drawer in the bedroom, it’s that it is a memory, too.”

As Cherie and Dave head toward a table and chairs set up at the edge of the lawn ­— a temporary outdoor office — Wagner’s partner, Chris Williams, heads to the basement. He will spend all day sifting among the standing water and wet ash to physically inventory what remains.

After 25 years on the job, Dave knows that every loss is different, he said. “It’s so personal. Every homeowner has their own special affinity for certain things. And when they lose them, it’s unique.”

The previous day, Cherie worked to mentally see her bedroom closet — “She had a lovely wardrobe. She has good taste,” Dave said with a smile.

“What he’s trying to say,” Cherie said with a grin, “is I had too much clothing.”

Today the two will start with Cherie and Jeff’s bathroom drawers. She lists her “Happy” perfume by Clinique and heads into cosmetics.

Just how many tubes of lipstick or powdered blushes were in the drawer in not enough. Dave asks about brand and cost of each, predicting fairly accurately what dollar amount Cherie will say. “That’s one of the most disgusting things about my job. I have to ask about women’s makeup,” he said. “You can write about that.”

Could be worse, Cherie reminds him with a laugh. “It was sanitary products yesterday.”

While some homeowners may choose to take a preset allowance on their loss, it behooves people who have invested in their homes to do a line-item list, Dave said. “A large percentage of people who have fires are in generally older homes of lesser value. They are poorly-kept homes and those homeowners have poor safety habits.”

Not the case here, he adds. “This was a beautiful home, I will say that.”

As the Lebers rebuild, the replacement process may last up to two years. That means saving and turning in every receipt for every little thing, Dave said. “Almost everyone is surprised at the process.”

Even as a bystander, I’m exhausted as I mentally check through my own bathroom drawers. How much would I recall if it was all gone? Would I remember the seldom-used but most precious hot water bottle MacMama bought me as a broke college student? What about my mother’s last blush, mine since her 1994 death?

I have nothing irreplaceable in my bathroom. Except the memories, floating in a bottle of bright pink nail polish from a kid who sees me as glamorous. Or glittering on a headband in a drawer for a girl who needed pizazz the year her daddy died. How much would those be worth?

I prepare to leave as Dave and Cherie use their phones to check prices of hair dryers and styling tools. A look back at what was clearly a beautiful front porch reminds me of Cherie’s words. Even as she and Jeff are crazy grateful no one was hurt in the fire, on some days she’s just plain homesick.

“Like when you go on vacation and it’s fun, but then there comes that day you’re ready to go home. But I can’t go home.”

Still, Jeff told me, upon stealing a minute from harvest to come home, “other people have real problems. This can be fixed. It sucks, but it can be fixed.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or


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