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FireWatch: Rebuilding from the ashes of South Obenchain

Several members of the Butte Falls Highway community are in the process of rebuilding their homes. Mike and Lona Sims finished rebuilding their home just days before the one-year anniversary of the South Obenchain Fire.

Posted: Sep 8, 2021 12:52 PM
Updated: Sep 9, 2021 11:16 AM

BUTTE FALLS, Ore. — Twelve months after the South Obenchain Fire devastated the community along Butte Falls Highway, several members are beginning to rebuild their homes. Some, like Mike and Lona Sims, finished rebuilding their home just days before the one-year anniversary.

“When we finally got the roof on, that’s when I started saying we are going to have a home,” said Lona.

For her husband, it took a little bit longer for the realization that their home was back.

“When I put the bed down, that’s when I knew this was it, we were here,” said Mike.

But the journey getting to this point hasn't been easy for the Sims' over the last twelve months. After all, the couple lost 38 years of memories and family trinkets when their quaint red and white home was swallow by the flames of the South Obenchain Fire.

“It was just all gone,” Lona said. “Our whole lives were up in the air.”

Lona told Newswatch 12 that the effects of September 9, the day that the fire destroyed their home, is still haunting them to this day.

“It’s just overwhelming,” she said. “We don’t sleep well at night and we keep trying to remain positive for our family, but it’s hard . . . it’s really hard. We put our whole life into that house.”

“To come back and see the barn that we built just gone just stunned me,” Mike said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Both Lona and Mike were able to save a few family photos and heirlooms from that day, along with dog and horses. But most of their family’s hidden treasures, the priceless items that can never be replaced, burned along with their home.

“There wasn’t any of the treasures from our parents that we idolized left,” Lona said. “It just wasn’t there anymore.”

For several days Mike and Lona had to stay at their friend’s home while they tried to figure out to do next. The couple said that they are so grateful to that family.

“They are really good people,” said Mike. “We were over at Eli’s and Katie’s and every night for 18 days, somebody brought dinner. There were nine of us there.”

Even after going through such a traumatizing event, the couple decided to rebuild their home on the same property that they had lived in for 38 years. The couple told NewsWatch 12 that the road to getting their home rebuilt wasn’t an easy process.

Lona and Mike say that when they initially begun the rebuilding process, the couple wanted to rebuild their home as a single story. But while dealing with FEMA, the couple ran into some problems. They claim that FEMA wouldn’t allow them to go through with their plans and that they wanted the couple to rebuild their home as it once was, a two-story home.

For over a month Mike and Lona fought with FEMA on the plans to their new home and eventually won, but their struggles with the relief organization didn’t end there.

Lona and Mike told NewsWatch 12 that for months FEMA would not come out to their property to remove the debris of their home.
Eventually, the couple decided to remove the debris on their own and out of pocket. Twenty thousand dollars, that they could have used in other areas of the rebuilding process, now gone.

The family continued to ask FEMA throughout the next several months.

“I called them and I said look we are on a set income and we need help getting some of this stuff done,” Lona said. “I have to grand kids and my daughter living with us. What are we supposed to do?”

But with no success.

“We never got a call back,” Lona said.

On top of that, the couple says that they did not get back nearly the amount of money that they should have from their insurance. They claim that for several items that were lost, their insurance covered a fraction of the price.

With all of these financial hurdles, the couple says that are between forty and fifty thousand dollars in the hole — but if not for their daughter tracking all of the items that were lost to the flames, that number could have been even higher.

“If it wasn’t for our daughter Stacey, we wouldn’t be where we are at today,” Lona said.

Mike and Lona also told NewsWatch 12 that community has been extremely helpful and caring during their time of healing.

“This community is great,” Mike said. “I have never seen so much outpouring of people wanting to help.”

The couple even shared that a former resident of the area — one who they barely knew — returned to the area to help them along with other members of the community.

“We will never be able to repay all of the people that helped us,” Lona said. “Thank you for helping us.”

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