February 05, 2014 - Brandon Twp.- Wendy Scharf and her husband Ken were struggling to stay afloat on limited Social Security income when things began spinning out of control.
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The washing machine broke. A vehicle needed repairs. The temperatures dropped and their Consumers Energy bill soared to more than $300. The gas was shut off Feb. 1 and the space heaters were turned on. The electrical circuit breakers kept tripping. And then disaster struck.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Feb. 3, as Wendy was on the phone with her 26-year-old daughter, Lauren, she heard banging on the front door. She opened it to a stranger who had been driving by when he saw smoke coming from the roof of Scharf's bungalow home in the 100 block of E. Glass Road.
The man grabbed Wendy by the arm and pulling her outside, told her the house was on fire.
"I couldn't believe it," said Wendy on Tuesday, crying. "Just before that, I'd said to my husband, I smell smoke."
Their eldest daughter, Tera, 30, lives with them, but was babysitting next door, for which Wendy is grateful, otherwise she would have been upstairs where the blaze began.
Ken had been in the bedroom and also exited the home safely.
Firefighters responded to the home minutes later, even before Lauren, who had been only a mile away herself, arrived.
"Everyone was out of the house," said Brandon Fire Chief Dave Kwapis. "The house was not fully engulfed, but heavy smoke was coming out of the attic area and vents on the roof. We made an interior attack, fire was in the attic space."
While in the house battling the blaze, firefighters suddenly heard the meows of a cat. The animal was rushed outside and given oxygen from a mask, but had to be euthanized at a local veterinary clinic. Another cat perished in the fire.
The home, on which the mortgage was paid off, is a complete loss and was not insured.
"It was a small house, but it was home and I want to go back," Wendy says, dissolving into tears once more.
Even as she faces devastating loss, Wendy is filled with gratitude— for the neighbors who took her family in and went shopping to purchase needed items for the homeless family; for church members who tried to help them salvage things from the burned out home; for people whom in her distressed state of mind she can't even remember who have offered to help; for being able to stay with her mother in Oxford; and for the Brandon firefighters.
"They brought me pictures off my walls and found three photo albums for me," said Wendy. "How many other fire departments do you know that would do that? It was amazing. All the pictures are memories of my daughters, and I have pictures that can't be replaced... I went in the house and I know I am just lucky we were fine."
She is thankful, too, that because her washer was broken, she had some laundry in the backseat of her vehicle. The American Red Cross has also given her a recipe for getting the smoke odor out of clothing.
Ken is on disability due to a spinal injury he sustained many years ago. Wendy suffers from Parkinson's Disease and lupus and had to stop working a year ago after 30 years of cleaning houses. They had never had their gas shut off before and Wendy planned to call Consumers Energy after the expected arrival of Ken's check on Monday.
She was not aware of "The Heat and Warmth Fund," a program offered by the utility to help families struggling to pay their bills keep the heat on, but believes the electrical problem may have been present before they began using the space heaters.
Chief Kwapis said if homeowners are repeatedly tripping breakers, there is an electrical problem, with one of three possible causes: one, too much current is attempting to be drawn through the breaker; two, the breaker is bad; or three, the wiring has failed.
"If you have a breaker that continually trips, get a licensed electrician to find out where the problem lies," said Kwapis. "Space heaters have to be used very carefully, and are for temporary usage, as opposed to running for several hours."
Donations for the Scharf family are being accepted by the Ortonville Community Emergency Fund. Checks can be made payable to OCEF (put 'Scharf family' in the memo line) and sent to P.O. Box 282, Ortonville, MI 48462.
For information on The Heat and Warmth Fund, call 800-866-THAW or visit www.consumersenergy.com. Infomation on more energy assistance programs for low-income families can be obtained through the Department of Human Services, at michigan.gov/dhs.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville