Family loses home in blaze

Jon Jacobson, Jr., Randi Jacobson and Andrea Sowers look over the remains of the home. - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Jon Jacobson, Jr., Randi Jacobson and Andrea Sowers look over the remains of the home.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

Years ago, when her parents remodeled her bedroom, Erica Jacobson left her mark for posterity. Before the walls were covered with paneling, she painted:

“The home of Joyce, Jon, Erica, Jon Jr. and Randi Jacobson.”

Sadly, the message was uncovered as the home itself was lost – flames laid bare the wall Tuesday evening, in a blaze that left the Jacobson family homeless.

“They pretty much lost everything,” said Jim Walkowski, Bainbridge fire chief.

Family members reported the blaze at 6:40 p.m., and firefighters arrived at the West Port Madison home to find three-fourths of the structure in flames.

Crews extinguished the blaze in about 20 minutes. While the exterior walls were left standing, the inside was essentially gutted.

Officials believe the fire started when a table lamp fell over in a ground-floor bedroom, igniting the bedding. Flames quickly spread to other combustibles in the room, entering a wall space and shooting up to the second floor before anyone noticed.

The three family members home at the time of the blaze escaped without injury.

“You go from having dinner one minute, to losing your home,” Joyce Jacobson said.

“We ran outside with nothing – not even shoes,” she said. “It seemed like an eternity at the time, but I know the fire department came as soon as they could.”

She praised the 35 firefighters who responded to the blaze, saying, “They risked their lives for us.”

Members of the Jacobson family had lived in the two-story farmhouse, built in 1901, for three generations. “(My parents) brought me home to this house in 1955,” said Jon Jacobson.

The home was insured, but it was unclear whether it can be rebuilt.

The family’s loss has met with support from friends, local businesses and the Jacobsons’ colleagues in the Bainbridge Island School District.

Jon Jacobson is head custodian at Sakai Intermediate School, and Joyce is a district courier.

School officials took up a collection for the family this week.

“Our immediate thought as a staff was, ‘what could we do to help?’” Sakai Principal Jo VanderStoep said.

Contributions have already hit $1,500, and district officials hope to double that, school board members were told at their Thursday meeting.

“We care about them a lot,” VanderStoep said.

Also, a local motel has been providing discounted lodging for the family since the fire.

Marilyn Gremse, volunteer coordinator at Helpline House, said her agency “has received numerous calls from people in the community who were concerned and wanted to know how to help.”

Families in similar situations, she said, have received immediate clothing and food from Helpline, as well as access to Red Cross services and assistance from social workers.

A relief account was to be set up at a local bank, a family friend said, but details were not available at press time.

Walkowski attributed the speed with which the blaze spread to the age of the structure, which predated “fire blocking” in walls now required by fire code. Also, he said, there were no working smoke detectors in the house.

As cold weather continues, Walkowski urged homeowners to keep heat sources like space heaters at least 18 inches away from combustible materials. If a fire breaks out, residents should call 911 first, then close doors to the room that’s on fire and get out of the house.

“We’d rather get out there and find out it was a ‘nothing’ fire than have a 5- or 10-minute delay,” Walkowski said.

Walking through the ruins of her house Wednesday afternoon, 19-year-old Randi Jacobson struggled with her disbelief.

“It doesn’t even look like our house,” said Randi, who wasn’t home when the fire began. “It feels so much smaller.”

Some photographs were spared, but very little else – except the message on the wall of what was once Erica’s bedroom.

The family could see the message glowing in the fire.

“It is like a bad dream or something,” Randi Jacobson said.

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