While enjoying a weeklong vacation in Canada, Don and Annemie Baker had no idea they would be homeless when they returned home.
With no cell phone service in Canada, the Bakers could not be informed about the Sept. 14 fire that destroyed their Tucson home. The seven voicemails left by Golder Ranch Fire District didn’t display on their cell phone until the couple landed at Sky Harbor Airport, in Phoenix, on Sept. 21.
“We talked to them on the way back,” Annemie said. “They said there was a fire, and we thought of maybe the stove or something small in the kitchen. You just don’t think the whole house is actually gone.”
The outside of their house didn’t look so bad, thought the couple upon arriving home. The structure was there, and from a distance there were no obvious signs that a fire had occurred at their home, which is located off Oracle Road, north of Oro Valley.
However, on closer examination, the couple found that windows had been blown out by the release of pressure built up by smoke, and the inside of the house had been gutted by flames, smoke and water damage.
The only rooms left were the sunroom and the master bedroom.
Currently, the couple is renting a home in SaddleBrooke, but find themselves at their home everyday trying to sort through the damage.
While the couple didn’t care about replaceable material items, such as furniture and clothes, Don hung his head sadly as he talked about his artwork that was destroyed.
With an estimated 25 pieces lost in the flames, Don said it represented between 12 and 15 years of his life.
“You can’t just replace them,” he said. “Every time you do some kind of art, it’s different every time.”
Sad for her husband, Annemie said, “It’s like a baby for him. In this fire he lost all those years, all that art.”
Don specializes in an art form where he uses rustic steel on canvas. Taking old license plates, a chain, keys, typewriter parts, or a worn tricycle, he sands down the metal and then places it strategically on a canvas. He then applies water to the canvas.
The metal sits for weeks and months, depending on how dark he would like the rust to look on the white canvas. The cycle continues as he places new pieces inside the art, or rearranges others to get the design he wants.
Not all of his work is gone. The pieces sitting inside the garage, otherwise known as Don’s studio, survived the fire.
As sad as Don is over the art he lost, Annemie said she doesn’t believe her husband would have been as optimistic as he is, had he lost his beloved studio.
Now, while crews work to gut the main house, examine pieces of furniture and investigate a cause, Annemie said her husband is sitting inside his studio from sun up to sundown, working on new concepts, and mourning the work lost.
The couple also lost priceless family heirlooms, such as authentic kachina dolls and pots made by various Indian tribes.
Annemie, a former math teacher in New York, said she lost all of her teaching materials, which meant a lot to her.
While dealing with the emotional aspect of losing a home they had been living in for nine years, the couple is also experiencing how tough it is to move forward after a disaster.
The fire was deemed an accident, after investigators found the ignition point to be in the wall between the guest bedroom and bathroom. While the exact cause remains “undetermined,” according to the fire report, investigators said they cannot rule neither propane or electrical as the main cause.
What is known is that the fire started inside the walls. Fire officials said by the time a neighbor saw the smoke and phoned in the call, it was too late to save the home.
Over the last month, Annemie said they have searched through what’s left, and been asked whether they want to keep or throw out anything that didn’t burn.
Agents representing the insurance company inventoried everything, Annemie said, and they weren’t allowed to throw away even a bucket of half-used nail polish bottles without it being documented.
Some of these decisions were made in the first days after the Bakers returned, which both of them say was a mistake.
“You are asked to make so many decisions in the first day,” Annemie said. “But, you aren’t thinking. You are just trying to get these difficult moments over with.”
Since the master bedroom wasn’t destroyed, Annemie said the couple was given a choice to have their clothes fumigated to remove any smoke. The total cost ended up being $7,000.
Had they been able to think about it, Annemie said they would have just purchased a new wardrobe at a lesser cost.
Don described moments over the last month, “where I have been completely overwhelmed.”
“You find out you need a permit to even do a cleanup. You need a permit to consider restoration, you need a permit for construction,” he said.
It took a month, but the cleanup crews are on hand, and progress is being made. But, the Bakers said they are not optimistic on a timeline after first being told it would take three months, then six months, and now estimates are well over a year.
No matter what, the couple remain committed to restoring their home to its original design.
See more of Don Baker’s art at http://bakerrust.com/