The fire came close: One family's tales from the edge of destruction

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Tyler and Nickolas Borst, 2 and 6, play in their yard where a rental home was destroyed by last year's Waterfall fire. The family has lived in the Rhodes Street home for nine years.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Tyler and Nickolas Borst, 2 and 6, play in their yard where a rental home was destroyed by last year's Waterfall fire. The family has lived in the Rhodes Street home for nine years.

Tom and Cherie Borst's two children play in an area of the yard that was scorched by the Waterfall fire a year ago. On July 14, 2004, they could barely see their way through the smoke as the fire closed in around their hogan-style home. The couple lost all hope that it would be saved.

Perhaps as a symbol of events on that fateful day, three horse shoes are nailed on the gate post of the three-acre property. Tom said it was all luck.

The Waterfall fire took everything but their home at 293 Rhodes St. They lost everything else on their property: a 1,100-square-foot rental home, a new fifth wheeler that belonged to Tom's mother, five vehicles, four boats, their fifth wheeler, two storage sheds and a barn.

He estimated they lost about $350,000 worth of property and recouped about $126,000 from the insurance.

The family is feeling the loss of $650 a month in rent for the small home. With the insurance money the couple hopes to start a storage shed business. The footprint of the rental is overgrown with weeds. A concrete pad shows where the porch once was. The dogs happily trot across it while playing with Tom and Cherie's two sons.

"My smoke detectors were going off that day," said Cherie. "That day was so scary. I was just freaking out getting ready to evacuate."

She packed her red Ford Explorer with family photos, important paperwork and clothes. The kids had been evacuated earlier with her sister. Tom was taking out sagebrush west of the house with a backhoe, which he luckily had borrowed before the fire.

He said the fire was burning up and down the mountain all that day. The fire department lit a back fire but, he said, the wind changed direction and the two fires merged.

The 37-year-old car salesman knew it was time to leave when a utility pole west of the property caught fire and collapsed on top of one of their trailers. At the time, Tom said, he was frustrated at the Carson City Fire Department for not watering down his property. It was a high-stress time. Now he recognizes that the department had to make tactical decisions and that was one of them.

His last-minute work probably kept the flames down. Cherie separated from her husband, first she went to Ming's Chinese Restaurant and then her dad's house. Even though the fire would come to surround her home, Cherie said she felt like they should have stayed there. Tom drove the backhoe to S&W Feeds, where he helped the owners move their hay so that the business wouldn't burn down.

It was a friend who saw the house intact and told Cherie.

"I came running through all the barricades. It was still here. I couldn't believe it. I cried."

Tom has lived on this property for about nine years. He looked warily at the weeds building up near the fence line. It's fire season and Tom knows that he needs to take those out. The only problem is he works about 50 hours a week and Cherie, 35, works full-time at Costco.

"A year later we're trying to get it cleaned up," he said. "We're happy to be here. You definitely should have defensible space around your house.

"You better believe I'll be out here with a weed whacker at the end of the day."

Even in destruction, children will find a game to play. Their oldest son, 6-year-old Nickolas, took the steering wheel off one of their boats that burned and attached it to his imaginary semi truck in the front yard.

His truck is constructed with plywood, a few picnic table benches and a plastic chair stationed in front of the charred steering wheel, which Nicholas has spray-painted bright orange. He and his brother Tyler, 2, play with plastic guns inside the truck.

"And count your blessings," Tom said.

Others on Rhodes Street feared the worst along with the Borsts.

Sierra Jujitsu Karate school owner John Chatwood, an eighth-degree black belt, was at his full-time job at IGT in Reno when the fire raged on the mountain above Curry Street.

He got his information over the phone from one of his black belts, Chaz Carter, who went to check on the school.

"They were doing a fire break a couple hundred yards away from the school," Chatwood said. "He was told the firebreak should stop the approaching fire. That did not turn out to be true."

At about 4 p.m. the flames were right up to the building. Carter came back to the dojo - the Japanese word for school - and picked up a few pieces of equipment. The school has been in that building for 10 years.

Two of Chatwood's sons, Chris and Tim, also tried to help get equipment out, but the fire was so close the firemen told the two to get out of there fast. The building next door exploded soon after they left, Chatwood said.

"I received several calls that the building had burned down. Due to the blockades I was not able to get there until 7 p.m. When I finally got close I could make out the outlines of the building through the smoke.

" It was an incredible relief. The tree next to the building burned down but the building didn't. Why it didn't I don't know."

An industrial equipment shop replaced the automotive repair shop that burned down.

"I learned to be very grateful for what we have," Chatwood said. "I learned the most valuable thing is our students and supporters. We've had an increase in business since then. We're happy to be there in one piece."

n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at or 881-1212.


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