FIRE FORCES FAMILY TO LEAVE HOME

October 02, 2001 11:00 pm
HEAVY SMOKE, HEAT DAMAGE: Firefighters battle a blaze Tuesday morning at Tomi Johnston's home at 711 Division St. in La Grande. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
HEAVY SMOKE, HEAT DAMAGE: Firefighters battle a blaze Tuesday morning at Tomi Johnston's home at 711 Division St. in La Grande. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Tomi Johnston sobbed outside her home Tuesday morning. The fire just seemed to be one more thing, one more thing too much.

Johnston, whose parents and a niece were killed earlier this year in a traffic accident, watched with her 7-year-old daughter as their home was extensively damaged by fire.

The blaze, which burned mostly in one bedroom but left the entire home at 711 Division St. smoke- and heat-damaged, left the family with few possessions beyond some mementos that may be possible to clean and save.

Johnston does have insurance and family in the area, La Grande Fire Chief Bruce Weimer said, and was able to call in the fire alarm, call a sister, and get herself and her daughter out of the home as the fire spread.

But Johnston, he added, has two children, was buying the home, is an Eastern Oregon University student, and still recovering from the death of her parents and niece.

Her parents, Keith and Stacey Johnston of La Grande, died following a June 11 accident on Interstate 5 near Eugene. Also killed in the accident was Tomi Johnstons 16-year-old niece, Rusty Jean Thomas of Seaside.

She was just sobbing out here, Weimer said as firefighters worked to try and save the 1930s-era home. She kept saying, What else?

Johnston called in the 911 fire alarm from her living room at 10:15 a.m., after her fourth-grade son had left for school. Her daughter was staying home sick from school.

Firefighters arrived on the scene in four minutes, and as the extent of the fire became clear, notified the local Red Cross disaster team.

It took 12 or 13 firefighters, two engines and three support vehicles to extinguish the fire. Crews were at the fire until 12:25 p.m.

Jared Rogers of Elgin, with the Red Cross disaster team, was able to work with the Johnstons and arrange for the family to get some clothes and find a motel to

stay in for a few days as insurance is dealt

with.

We try to do what we can so they can

be focused on more important issues, he

said.

The Red Cross tries to help with their immediate needs.

Rogers added that more local volunteers are needed to help with disasters such as home fires and other situations. A training session is set for Oct. 17 to explain how more volunteers can help when immediate relief is

needed.

Weimer, at the fire department, said that while the cause of the fire is under investigation, the blaze was knocked down quickly and structural damage to the home was

minimized.

But he added that the fire burned so hot that walls in the main part of the home were black for several feet up from the floor.

It will take time, he estimated, to repair damage inside the home.

After a fire such as this, he said, Smoke gets into everything. Its just incredible.