HOLCOMB — Firefighters were still fighting the smoke and flames rolling out of 7275 Lindsay Lane in Finney County Tuesday morning when local residents, answering a call for donations on the Holcomb Community Fire Department’s Facebook page, began dropping off clothes, shoes and toys for the homeowners who had lost everything.
By the time response teams returned to Holcomb City Hall at 4 p.m., there were enough donations — everything from clothes to cash to towels to paper cups — to fill an SUV and the bed of a pickup, said Holcomb Fire Chief Bill Knight. Wednesday afternoon, residents brought in even more than the day before, he said.
“To tell you that the results were overwhelming from the community (would be) very much an understatement,” Knight said.
The department received a call about a structure fire at about 9:12 a.m. Tuesday, Knight said. When they got there, the fire was already “well involved,” — rising smoke was visible near the garage, front and back doors and flames were coming out from the front basement window, he said. Soon, fire crews from Holcomb and Garden City were on the scene.
The fire likely started in the basement, Knight said, but the department is not yet sure what caused it, or how costly the damage to the house will be. But the staircase to the basement collapsed, the first-story floor is insecure and the house’s interior is charred and black. The house, Knight said, is “pretty well gutted.”
Owned by Julia Perez, the space was home to 11 people — Perez’s children and grandchildren, including two toddlers and five more children under 15.
Perez’s oldest daughter, Jasiah Arteaga, 17, said she remembers her brother waking up and yelling that there was a fire as she got up in the haze of the smoking house. Her boyfriend, her brother and their children were all inside — everyone else was at work or school. At one point, her brother, scared their little sister was actually still inside, ran back into the house to get her.
“I covered myself up, covered my daughter up and just ran outside. And I called 9-1-1,” Arteaga said.
Perez and her family are being housed for several days by the Red Cross, which also provided some money and essential items, Knight said. After that, Perez said, family in the area had offered up their homes for the time being.
Perez said she’s grateful for everything. One person gave her $100, another $500. Knight said a woman from out of town had recently lost her parents and told the family they could take anything they wanted from the parents’ home for free. Another woman dropped off bags of toys and clothes silently at City Hall Wednesday afternoon. Perez and her children loaded them into the already crowded trunk of their car.
“They’ve all come together to help us … We had to rent a storage room to put all the stuff they’ve given us — like, a lot of stuff. Way more than we expected,” Perez said.
It’s a gratifying situation, but an uneasy one, Perez said. She’s a single mother. She's worked multiple jobs, raised her kids and offered her home to her eldest and their kids. She’s used to doing everything on her own and teaching her children how to do the same, she said. She’s given them “everything they wanted,” but also wants them to be able to take care of themselves.
And her children have picked up the lessons naturally, according to them. Arteaga has worked at the local Sonic since she was 14 and is on track to be manager. Along with reminders to be caring and kind, Perez’s youngest daughters, Kansas Arteaga, 11, and Karma Laurelez, 9, said their mom taught them to “be prepared for anything that could happen to happen.”
“And to never depend on a man,” Kansas said.
“Kick them out of the house if they’re not treating you right,” Karma countered.
With that mindset, accepting the donations and the temporary housing comes with a weight, Perez said. She appreciates it, but isn’t used to it. She grew up in Garden City, but hopes to stay in Holcomb, the community where her kids feel at home at school, where her family feels at home with their neighbors and where friends and strangers stepped up to help them when they had nothing.
From the early moments on the scene of the fire, it was obvious the family “lost everything,” Knight said.
On Wednesday, a chest-high pile of damaged and destroyed belongings — a bicycle, a playset, mattresses and broken down furniture — sat outside the burned garage, pulled out by firefighters during the extinguishing process. Inside the garage, the floor was half covered with soaked cardboard boxes, shoes and clothes, mixed together with stray rubble and a soupy floor. A box of photos and cards sat on a soot-stained washing machine outside. A giant teddy bear flopped forward on the front porch.
The things are just things, Perez said, but it wasn’t all they lost. The family’s pets — a pug, chihuahua and several cats — all died in the fire. Irreplaceable memories are now gone, Arteaga said. Perez and her family will have to move out of the warm neighborhood where the kids played with friends that lived close by.
But despite everything, Perez said she is glad her kids and grandkids are all safe — only one resident and one firefighter left the scene with minor burns. She said she’s grateful for what the community has done for her and her family.
“They’ve gone beyond,” she said.
“Don’t take things for granted,” said Kansas, following up on her mom’s words.
“And don’t think that bad stuff can’t even happen, because they can,” said Karma.
The City of Holcomb is no longer accepting donations, but those interested in helping the family can contact Perez directly at (620) 521-8056.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.