After 18 months of construction, Lisa and Steve Holett were almost ready to move into their dream home in Dayton, Montana. It had taken their savings to build the four-bedroom cabin, located on a hill above Flathead Lake.
It took a forest fire to burn it to ashes in minutes.
The Elmo 2 fire has exceeded 21,349 acres since July 29, leaving a path of devastation behind. Last week, 150 residences were evacuated and four primary residences were confirmed burned down.
On August 1, several people told the Holetts that the way the fire was burning, it would not reach their home. They went to do some shopping.
On their way home, the couple saw black smoke rising from the area of their property. The two ran to their house. The sheriff followed them and told them they had five minutes before leaving. With the sheriff’s help, the Holetts said, they grabbed little more than their dogs, passports, Lisa’s work computer and a handful of clothes from a shed and the RV they had been living in during building the house. The motorhome and shed were also destroyed.
Ten minutes after they left, Lisa says, they saw their house go up in flames.
Turning a dream into reality
In preparation for retirement, Steve and Lisa Holett, who are in their 50s, purchased land in Dayton in 2019.
They were living in Austin, Texas when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Lisa, who works for a semiconductor company, has started working remotely, allowing her to move to her retirement destination sooner.
To save money, they moved into an RV on their property, where Lisa worked from the kitchen table. During the winter months, water regularly came out when the pipes froze, she said.
Meanwhile, Steve was spending 12-15 hours a day building his dream home. A former prosecutor, he had never undertaken such a project. He said he would watch YouTube videos at night on how to do things like electrical wiring and roof installation, then do it the next day.
The Holetts’ goal was to have no looming house payments upon retirement.
“So we took all our money, bought the land – and it would be every penny we had [that went] in the house,” Steve told NPR. They paid cash for the materials as often as they could.
“We saved and saved and saved for this dream,” Lisa said. “We haven’t taken a vacation for five years.”
Including the land, the Holetts said they invested nearly $1 million in their property. Knowing that wildfires were a risk in the area, they invested $50,000 in a fire-resistant metal roof. They finished it at the end of May.
One of the most painful parts of this experience, according to Lisa, was a construction loan they took out for over $90,000. The term of the loan is only one year and they had planned to refinance it into a mortgage. But since they no longer have a house, they will not be able to obtain this mortgage.
The Holetts said the local bank had been incredibly kind – the bank president even offered them a campervan space at his home – but this disaster means they have to pay off the construction loan much sooner than expected. . Not to mention that they are paying for a house they will never even live in.
Home insurance is not available until a house is built. They said they were only able to get builders risk insurance.
“It’s a weird, petty policy – it covers products, without any of my 18 months of work,” Steve said. “It’s a third, at most, of our savings that it will cover.”
They had a small land loan left, so matched with their construction loan, he said, the insurance money disappeared. And they still have to buy back all the household items they use every day.
Community steps in to aid recovery efforts
Even just 18 months after moving to the area, the Holetts feel the support of their community.
Initially, they resisted crowdfunding. A former classmate of Lisa’s started a GoFundMe campaign anyway, and the donations started pouring in. As of August 9, 426 donors have contributed a total of $42,521.
The Holetts were surprised to see so many names they didn’t recognize on the donation list.
“When I’ve gone through the names, I know maybe 30% of them. So that 70% is just the community or people who wanted to remain anonymous,” Lisa said.
She said they were going to write a thank you to everyone who donated.
Local businesses are also participating by donating equipment to help clean up the burn site. But there remains the question of where the Holetts will live in the long term.
“It’s so sad, because there are certain things where I’m like, ‘Well, I’m going to want this in 20 years,'” Steve said. Knowing that he would one day want a carpentry shop, he spent more time doing little things like running wires where they weren’t needed yet.
“It’s just hours and hours and hours. Worthless. Gone. Whatever,” he said. “It’s just sad. Because, you know, I knew every hole, every screw, everything in that house.”
The Holetts are still unsure of what’s next. Currently, while staying in an apartment above the garage owned by a friend’s neighbor, they are looking for a rental for themselves and their two dogs for the next year. They said they didn’t have the budget to rebuild their dream home and they weren’t sure if they wanted to build something smaller on the same property and were reminded daily of what they had lost.
Since spending so much time building their home, Steve worries that he’s living in a scaled-down version that doesn’t live up to what he originally created.
More and more, however, he begins to feel like a new home would be a symbol of how their community has helped them, so it would come with fond memories.