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Fire races through WL home

Donations to help the family may be made to "The Belinda Mueller Fund" at any branch of Washington Mutual.
by: Nick Cooley, Flames explode last Thursday through the window of a home on Michael Drive occupied by Jeff and Belinda Mueller, their 12-year-old daughter and the family’s dog.

Last Thursday, a gentle breeze wafted through the close-knit neighborhood surrounding Michael Drive.

By all accounts, it was a typical lazy summer afternoon.

Jennifer Butts was driving her mother and children to the west side.

Enjoying the view from her upstairs window, Linda Otos was watching her sleeping child.

Across the street, the Muellers had just finished an afternoon hamburger barbecue on the patio and Belinda had said goodbye to her husband, Jeff, as he began a trip to Vancouver, Wash., to begin a shift at his new job.

But the peaceful afternoon's hush was shattered in an instant by a man working construction on the next street. He quickly jumped two fences, dialing 9-1-1 as he ran to the Muellers' frontyard to pound on the front door.

'Get out. Your house is on fire,' he said as the door opened.

But Mueller already knew there was a fire. She had seen the flames a moment earlier as she descended the stairs in her tri-level home.

'If that man hadn't banged on the door, I might have done something stupid,' she said. 'My inclination was to get the fire extinguisher and put out a little fire.'

What she didn't know was that when the back windows broke from heat the flames would rush through the home with lightning speed toward the open front windows.

Luckily at that time of day, her 12-year-old daughter wasn't in her usual perch: in front of the TV in the basement family room with her dog at her side.

On that lower floor, they could have been trapped and engulfed by flames in a matter of seconds after the flames entered the home. But Mueller and her barefoot daughter and the dog exited quickly.

Handing the cell phone to Mueller, the man said 'Give the man your address.'

Immediately, firefighters from Willamette, Bolton and Mountain Road raced to the flaming home and connected to the fire hydrant at the edge of her lawn.

'I've never liked having that hydrant there,' she said, 'until that day.'

She called her husband from a neighbor's phone at 1:32 p.m. and said: 'Honey, come back home; the house is on fire.'

'It was very traumatic to watch it burn,' she said. 'You feel helpless because you know you can't go in and grab anything.'

Otos was traumatized watching the scene unfold across the street.

'We watched from the upstairs window as the flames came through the front windows and climbed to the trees,' she said. 'I was shaking.'

A woman on Royal Court called Butts' cell phone and told her to come back home because it looked like her home could be on fire. Butts admitted doing some 'white-knuckle' driving on the way home, anticipating the worst.

'It was a surreal feeling that our house was spared,' she said. 'I couldn't believe it.'

When firefighters arrived, flames were as high as the roof but were not threatening the Butts' home.

'We're so thankful,' Mueller said. 'We just feel so blessed that the fire department had a fast (three-minute) response. And the wind was blowing away from (Butts' home).

But the neighborhood has a lot of homes with shake roofing covered with fir needles, so when Mueller saw the trees go up in flames she became very concerned.

'I knew those needles were just like little matches,' she said, 'so when the flames shot up I just asked God to protect the neighbors' homes. I knew it was too late for mine.'

Otos expressed compassion for the plight of the Muellers. 'Everytime I … saw the house again,' she said, 'my heart dropped to the pit of my stomach.'

The Butts' lost a half-dozen Douglas fir trees that were adjacent to the Muellers' home, but the wind spared their home.

Mueller called her husband again, this time at 1:36 p.m. He was driving and didn't answer because he didn't recognize the caller's phone number. Her message this time (four minutes after the first call): 'Honey, the house is gone.'

One firefighter told her it was the hottest and fastest burning home he had worked on in 12 years.

Fire investigators believe the fire started in the barbecue on the concrete patio, but aren't sure how it transferred the four-foot distance to the home's outside wall, said Storm Smith of TVF and R.

The Muellers regret losing everything of sentimental value: family photos, a large library of books, all of their daughter's childhood memories, important papers and collections of items that were icons of their past lives.

'People should lock up everything of value in a fireproof safe,' Mueller said. 'People know they should do that, they just don't think there's a need to. Look at us: We never thought we'd have a fire.'

But they didn't lose what they value the most: their lives and their dog. Everything else can be replaced, she says.

Three of the Muellers' four grown children were vacationing in various parts of the world, and it took days to reach them with the news.

During the past week, the Muellers have been living with members of the Neighborhood Church, where they regularly attend.

The American Red Cross provided some personal items, and the insurance company is providing up to 12 months of housing while the home is being rebuilt.

Another neighbor, Peter Heald, has arranged for a donation account at Washington Mutual, 'The Belinda Mueller Fund,' to help with personal expenses not covered by insurance.

Ironically, Mueller had just left her job three weeks before the fire and her husband was embarking on a new career.

Mueller said she has so many people to thank that she loses count. There are the neighbors, firefighters, members of the Neighborhood Church, and Mark Hanson, representing American Family Insurance.

And the construction man.

'I would like to thank him,' she said. 'I don't even know who he was.'