FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A family whose home was destroyed by an electrical fire two days after Christmas last year moved back home last month with help from the community, their insurance company and Native Americans for Community Action (NACA).
The Tso family, including their daughter who was in fourth grade (now fifth) at Puente De Hozho Elementary School, and their cat, were forced to live in hotels and rental places for the last year while their home was restored.
"We had almost a complete loss, 80 percent," Cassandra Tso said.
The family was out of town at their first grandson's birth, the day after Christmas, at the time of the fire. In a coincidence, the day the baby was supposed to go home, the same day the fire broke out, the hospital said they needed to keep him in the hospital one more night.
"We were at the hospital enjoying our new grandbaby when our neighbor called," Tso said.
Tso said it was quick thinking on their neighbor's part. The neighbor lives right across from the Tso home. The neighbor saw flames sparking in the front, outside. They called 911 as they walked toward the house thinking they could put it out themselves. The flame caught a pile of wood that the Tso's use in their wood stove, which made the fire even bigger. In another coincidence, there was a volunteer firefighter driving by who also the flames.
"While the neighbors were over there trying to approach the house, the volunteer firefighter ran to the propane tank and quick acting on his part, he turned it off," Tso said. "And then some explosion happened. I don't know what that explosion was but it was still under investigation. But, bottom line, they said it was electrical. Faulty outlet, outside, electrical wire that sparked it."
Summit Fire Department were two streets over attending to another emergency, luckily, Tso said, because the house is a ways from the fire department.
"They were already suited up," Tso said. "They were there within 10 minutes, which is ironic. We had a volunteer firefighter running over, our neighbor across [the street] trying to get to the house and the firefighters within five to 10 minutes response time."
The house was fully insured and the Tso's received a lot of help from their insurance company, American Family Insurance. The insurance company set the family up in a hotel while they looked for a rental property. Aaron Secakuku, NACA's Pathways program coordinator, which the Tso's daughter attends, helped get the word out that the family needed help.
Tso said that not only did the family receive donations but the Pathways program and Puente De Hozho teachers and students provided emotional support for her daughter.
"They helped us out a lot," Tso said. "I know she needed that support with kids and peers of her age. So they needed to know what was going on with her and to oversee her when she was away from me to see how she was coping."
The family was only able to salvage a few clothes from the house, most of their personal items were smoke and water damaged.
"We were in a hotel for about two months," Tso said, adding that it was her, her husband, her daughter, her son, his wife, the new grandbaby and the cat, which firefighters rescued from the fire.
They had a lot of help from the community and from strangers who dropped off donations at NACA with everything from clothes to toothbrushes, to a scoop for kitty litter, baby strollers and everything in between.
Secakuku said that he was just grateful to be able to help the Tso's and that donations came in from local people and from people on the reservation, too.
"We were just privileged to be able to extend a helping hand to help them get back on their feet," he said. "That, to me, was the rewarding part, was being able to teach the kids the cultural lesson of being able to extend a helping hand."
They received a lot of support from the school, too, especially from the fourth grade teacher at Puente de Hozho, Mrs. Lindsay Hillyard. Hillyard's fourth grade class put on a penny drive to provide a new bike for Tso's daughter, who lost her bike in the fire. Kids brought in their own piggy banks to donate. The school held money drives too.
"It was just a big outpouring," Tso said. "I was amazed at how much support a small community... the support was very, very overwhelming."
The house was restored to brand new, in fact better than brand new, Tso said.
"Better than before," Tso said. "From the insurance company, everything was paid for, with a little out of pocket for upgrades we wanted like closet doors. Just little things that we appreciate so much."
She is amazed that the house was restored in less than a year and that her family is safe and back in the house, except the cat who ran away during one of their moves from hotel to rental home back to a hotel.
"We took that hard again," Tso said. "It was just one thing after another."
Being back home is still an adjustment for the family, but a good one.
"Every night we appreciate our home because we live out in Doney Park and it's quiet," Tso said. "You can hear crickets. When we were in hotels, constant, constant people talking. A blessing with quietness. We all get to eat at one table. We're slowly getting back into our routine."
The routine includes pulling weeds, which they are grateful for, too.
"It's my weeds, it's my dirt that I can rake and move," Tso said.
In particular, the Tso family wanted to thank Summit Fire Department, Pathways Youth Program, Mammoth Restoration, which tried to restore some of the furniture but could not, Sonesta ES Suites, that provided places for the family to sleep and live and were very accommodating, R.J. Services, their builder, and numerous other community members and strangers who helped immensely.
"I really, really appreciate all the donations and the thoughts and they prayers, of course, just the outpouring of generosity," Tso said. "Our neighbors were looking after us. It is a well, well knit community. You feel safe. The donations from strangers, that is where I felt the caring."