By Tess Hunter, Managing Editor
Following a devastating house fire last week, Hartland native Steve Howard is trying to rebuild from the ashes. “I lost everything but the clothes on my back,” he said in an interview with the Standard on Monday.
Howard describes the day of the fire, Sunday, April 2, as “a beautiful morning. I got up early and came outside and everything was just like I’ve done for the last 40 years.”
Howard was working in his woodshed, located some 200 feet from the house that morning. “I went back inside to stoke the fire, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll bring some pieces in from outside,’ because I didn’t have very many pieces inside. So I [went in and] set them down to stoke the fire. And I closed my stove door tight and and I got a drink of water. And I came right back outside.”
Howard wasn’t outside for long when a wind came through. “All of a sudden, such a cyclonic wind came up. And I was like, ‘Wow, this wind is really crazy for this month.’ And it blew all the chips around my knees and everything. So I just kind of kept working. And then all of a sudden, I turned around, and I go, ‘Oh, my god, oh my god!’ It was a big cloud of smoke around my chimney — at the top. And of course, my picture window is right underneath and I could look inside my living room” where the woodstove had caught fire.
Howard explained what he thinks might have caused the fire. “My stove has what you call these ‘breather holes’ in the door. And they are open all the time.” He added, “I feel that we had a downdraft and it blew out sparks out of those breathers. That’s the only thing I can think of. It was a brand-new chimney. I had just replaced it.”
Howard said he ran inside when he noticed the smoke above the chimney. “It’s true what they say [about] don’t open a door [during a fire] — there was such a burst.”
There were no other people or pets in the house, but that didn’t stop Howard from trying to save what precious mementos he could. “I tried to get into the house, believe it or not, to get my car keys. And I have implant dentures. And I wanted to get those and my car keys to move my cars because that’s all I could do — I knew I couldn’t save anything. No way. But those keys were so close,” he said, frustration palpable in his voice.
“I singed my face and eyebrows. I had to back out really quick,” he explained. “So I went to the side door. And man — that was an intense inferno. So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to try the bedroom. I’m going to see if I can get in there and get my mother’s jewelry box.’ It was a beautiful tray box. And I smashed the window. And I gotta tell you this, that black smoke was like a Marvel cartoon — it came out like a chemical. It was just curling. And it was like, ‘Woah.’ It was scary. I just knew — that was it. And my nephew ran over and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And I hollered to him, ‘I need help.’ And he said, ‘I called the fire department.’ And then he came up and we watched it burn.”
The house, located where Mace Hill Road meets Advent Hill Road and intersects with Center of Town Road, has been in the family for over 50 years. “My house was a hand-me-down house. There was a trailer bought by my grandmother in 1972, it was a 1956 trailer. We had a sawmill here and my father and I cut out a bunch of timber and lumber and I added around the trailer — people didn’t even know it was a trailer. It was actually on stick rooms. And, of course, it was kindle-dried material. I had opened up part of the trailer so there was a huge living room and dining room area. It was really spacious. Because I had two kids and had to have a big house. I didn’t want to pack my kids into a little tiny trailer.”
Howard was born and raised in Hartland but left briefly for Colorado in 1968. “It was such a beautiful state and I went to school in Sturgis, South Dakota,” he said. “So I just wanted to go a little bit further west. And I was on my way to Utah, and I got to Colorado and went, ‘Ah, this is it!’
But eventually, Howard was called home. “I went to the one-room school down the road. I wanted my kid — I had kids now at that time — and I wanted them to know my family. So we moved back here. And my wife at the time, she was thrilled because she was originally from Chicago. She now lives across the way with her new husband and we’re all the best of friends. It was great. I shared the property with her so she could be near her boys.”
Howard says the biggest loss from the fire has been his photo collection. “I was such a photographer and that’s what bothers me the most. I did genealogy. I had such a collection. I mean, I just loved my photos and I was sharing them like crazy on Facebook. And I’m glad I did because now I can catch them back, I hope.” He added, “When I’d say to somebody, ‘I’ve got a picture of that,’ most of them used to doubt me. And I’d come up with it! Because I’m one of those people. And it’s all gone.”
Howard expressed his shock that the woodshed, which sits about 200 feet from the house, remained intact. Though like many Vermonters, he has old license plates displayed on the side of the shed and he said that the plastic casing around several of the plates had melted from the residual heat.
Hartland Assistant Fire Chief Scott Bowers said that the alert for the Mace Hill Road fire came in at around 10:30 a.m. that morning and that the fire had been cleared five hours later. Bowers said he was not aware of any investigation into the cause of the fire, but that they were presuming it to be a chimney fire. “It could have been a fluke,” he said. The Hartland Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department was assisted by Windsor, Hartford, West Windsor, and Norwich fire departments.
“It seemed like forever, but I’m sure [the fire department] came as fast as they could… I think it was completely down in probably an hour and a half.” Howard said he could see the metal roof of his house rippling. “It was like it was waving to me, but it was wrinkling. It was that hot.” One car escaped the damage relatively unscathed. “I have one car hopefully that made it,” he said. “It’s a Volvo. I had to have a towing truck come get it and bring it over to Volvo to see if they can make a [key mechanism]. But it got so hot, it melted the lights on the side.”
Howard says that he is overwhelmed by the attention the fire has brought him. “It’s like a death to me. I’m dead. It’s like a funeral here. But I’m here. Because when you’re dead and you have a funeral, you never know how many people thought about you and all the very nice things they said.”
Those people include his son Levi Howard and niece Julie Morse, who have both set up GoFundMe campaigns for Steve. “These circumstances are taking an enormous toll on everyone — we are very tired,” said Levi Howard on the GoFundMe page. “So now we are looking for assistance from anywhere that may help, and figured starting a GoFundMe might be a decent place to begin recovering financially to get him close to being back on his feet.” He continued, “Steve Howard has been living in Hartland for basically his entire life. He is well-known around the area as a kind and selfless member of the community. As his son, I have seen countless instances where he has helped others in their time of need — always trying his best. During this time of great hardship, any help is immensely appreciated.” Morse’s GoFundMe message was similarly heartfelt, stating in part: “This is a man who would help or give his last dollar for someone he doesn’t know.”
According to Steve Howard, he is currently “couch surfing” with friends and family, but adds, “I want to be quite honest — I feel like I’ve been imposing. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it.”
Howard is grateful for his life, but admits that he is struggling in the aftermath. “I feel fortunate that I’m alive,” he said. “Because this is my funeral. My life was in there.”
You can contribute to Howard’s GoFundMe drives at tinyurl.com/4v749wtw and tinyurl.com/y2yvnmyt.