Whitefish counselor reflects on life after home burns

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  • Jerri Swenson and her dog Lucky sit together in her living room on Monday, December 18, in Whitefish. Swenson lost her home in a fire and was only able to save her two pets, Lucky and a cat name Rez. With the fires in California Swenson has a heightened awareness of how fortunate she truly is. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Steam rises up from the remains of Jerri Swenson’s home that was destroyed by fire last January. (Heidi Desch / Whitefish Pilot file)

  • Jerri Swenson and her dog Lucky sit together in her living room on Monday, December 18, in Whitefish. Swenson lost her home in a fire and was only able to save her two pets, Lucky and a cat name Rez. With the fires in California Swenson has a heightened awareness of how fortunate she truly is. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Steam rises up from the remains of Jerri Swenson’s home that was destroyed by fire last January. (Heidi Desch / Whitefish Pilot file)

It’s been 363 days since Jerri Swenson’s home and all that was in it went up in flames.

She sat in her car that bitterly cold night of Jan. 3, huddled with her dog Lucky and cat Rez, and watched the destruction while she waited 29 minutes — an eternity, it seemed — for West Valley Fire Department to arrive.

The fire ravaged her home south of Whitefish, burning hot enough to melt even her toilets. All that she found afterward was a singed medallion necklace that was able to be restored, and her torched safe, damaged but still containing the wills for herself and her mother, plus a few hundred-dollar bills.

Swenson lost a fair amount of artwork and jewelry, and things more precious than that — a lifetime of photo albums and irreplaceable personal mementos.

“I liken it to being alive at your own funeral,” she said, describing the days after the fire.

Swenson has spent almost 30 years as a therapist, helping her clients work through feelings, situations, life in general. Now it was profoundly her own turn to do the same for herself.

“It has changed what’s important in a way I didn’t know in my bones before,” she reflected. “I try to share that with others. You just realize the importance of reaching out to people in times of trouble.”

Swenson now values relationships and family even more than she did before the fire. She realized she needed, and wanted to spend more time with her two sons and three grandsons in Seattle, and she has, logging six trips to the West Coast this year.

“It changes your priorities,” she said.

On the evening of the fire — a night that was 20 below, she recalls — Swenson came home and built a fire in her wood stove about 6 p.m. and prepared to settle in for a cozy evening. Two hours later she smelled something, not smoke exactly, but a chemical smell.

“I heard drip, drip, drip,” she recalled. It was creosote dripping onto the fire in the stove. There wasn’t any smoke, and no fire detectors were going off, but Swenson had a hunch she was in trouble and she was dead right.

The fire started in the chimney and progressed rapidly. Swenson was only able to grab her two pets and head outside — no purse, no coat — but she did have her car keys.

Swenson said she fully expected the fire department to get there in time to save her house, or most of it, anyway. But by the time firefighters arrived the house was fully engulfed in flames.

The next few days Swenson navigated life in a daze. Both of her sons, Jesse and Ryan, flew in the next day to help with the aftermath.

“I somehow got $2,000 from the bank with no driver’s license, no ID,” she said. “I had to get a birth certificate and the lady at the courthouse knew me, so we got that done.”

As Swenson worked through the shock of losing everything, she was puzzled by her own behavior. She mixed up an Amazon order, ending up with two shower caps and three hairdryers somehow.

“I got lost trying to find the hotel,” she said. “I was back to work the Monday after the fire, grateful to have others to think about.”

The outpouring of support continues to amaze her. A friend set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for Swenson’s immediate needs. Donations came in from a wide array of supporters. She marveled that local churches to which she had no connection stepped up to help.

The Flathead Quilters Guild gave her a beautiful handmade quilt.

“I sleep under it every night because I feel the love,” she confided. “The amount of love has been equal to the amount of loss.”

Thankfully, Swenson owns a townhouse in Whitefish that happened to be empty at the time of the fire. Her insurance company paid to furnish the place and even paid her the rent she would have gotten from renting it.

One of the most difficult tasks was putting together an inventory of the personal belongings she’d lost in the fire.

“It was the hardest part; it was painful,” Swenson said. “I didn’t want to think about what I lost, and I was trying to remember, going room by room.

“My advice is to video your house and have [that information] stored in the cloud” via an online data storage system.

In time, she began to view the loss more pragmatically.

“You have to grieve the loss. I got to enjoy those things, and I enjoyed them for that amount of time I had them,” she explained.

The rebuilding of Swenson’s life continues both physically and emotionally. She is having her home rebuilt on the same property off Whitefish Stage Road, and expects to move in by early spring.

Swenson’s private counseling practice is going full bore, and she continues her work in helping an organization that rescues dogs and cats on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. With her family ties to Babb, it’s an effort that’s dear to her heart.

The Christmas season was a powerful reminder of what she lost. An old driver’s license that had been made into a tree ornament was gone, along with the rest of the ornaments she’d assembled through the years.

“When I put up a tree it won’t have any more memories than a tree in a hotel lobby,” she said. “I have nothing from my past. We are kind of defined by our mementos, and now, the things I acquire don’t have much meaning.”

What has the most meaning are the people in her life.

“The intrinsic goodness of people was shown to me in spades,” she mused. “It’s made me appreciate living in this community.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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