A May 3 fire destroyed much of Herb Stettler’s 10-foot-by-50-foot trailer, melting his television, destroying all of the kitchen and burning memorabilia and framed photos of himself and local and state politicians he treasured.
But the fire didn’t take Stettler’s optimism.
“Fantastic,” Stettler said when asked how it felt to be starting from scratch, living in a new cabin built by volunteers on the ground where his old home once stood.
Stettler, 81, is a Korean War veteran and served in the Army. He now serves in a variety of community and veteran support positions with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10046.
He said he was able to save several important items from the blaze including his Bible that was only “singed,” and his blazer, boots, pants and other items he uses for VFW ceremonies. Stettler said the loss was estimated at $10,000, but he did not have the home insured.
Central Emergency Services Assistant Chief Gordon Orth said he and other firefighters and community members started planning how they could help Stettler the day of the fire. Orth said he remembers thinking that Stettler “has nothing and he does so much for this community.”
“The day of the fire, I showed up on the scene there and I was the second unit into that fire scene and I assisted with the suppression on it and once the rest of the crews showed up I stepped back and I realized whose place it was,” he said.
Orth said he immediately started helping organize and tie together various fundraisers in Soldotna and Kenai. He also worked with Emergency Services Inc., and other groups to coordinate donations from various building companies and asked for discounts on supplies to build Stettler a new home while he stayed at a friend’s home in Soldotna. The old trailer was scrapped and Stettler moved into the new cabin on Sept. 8, he said.
“It was just a bunch of people sitting around the table and somebody would step up and say, ‘Well, I’ve got a contact over here and they’d give them a call,’” Orth said. “Everybody we called stepped up to the plate. It was amazing.”
In total, fundraisers generated $22,582 in donations while in-kind donations and services totaled $57,400, said Dan Nelson, board president for Emergency Services Inc., a local organization of firefighters and emergency medical services personnel.
“I had no idea the response would be this great to come to my aid,” Stettler said. “Of course I did quite a bit in the past but I never really thought much about it. But, gee whiz, they said, ‘You helped the community a lot and we are going to help you,’ and here they are. Man, I got a real nice place to live.”
Orth said he talked to Stettler almost every night for several weeks and was taken by the veteran’s attitude about his situation.
“To me what was so amazing was to have someone like that who has donated so much time and effort into this community to stand back and say, ‘I don’t understand how I deserve this,’” Orth said. “That to me is incredible. He is extremely humble.”
From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sept. 23, Stettler will host an open house at the new cabin located at 21607 Tustumena Lake Road.
Much of the cabin is completed but there is still work to be done in the kitchen that likely won’t be completed until the last part of October, Stettler said. The cabin is roughly the same size as his old house but has many new “conveniences” including running water, a shower, a washer and dryer, a second source of heat and new kitchen supplies, he said.
The set up is “far more” than he would have been able to assemble by himself, he said.
“The people have been outstanding,” Stettler said. “I have been offered things that would just about take care of whatever I would need like dishes, silverware, towels, I was given a recliner ... the offerings are just beyond belief.”
Orth agreed — it’s been a “conglomeration” of businesses and individuals coming together, including other off-duty CES firefighters, and to be a part of the group effort is something he won’t forget, he said.
“For me to be able to kind of step up and be involved with this kind of a thing and help him to have a place to finish out his life that’s warm and comfortable, that’s just the right thing to do,” Orth said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.