Harper retirees lose home to fire, find community compassion

By John L. Braese

The Enterprise

HARPER – The holiday wreath still hangs beside what was once the front door of the home of Tom Mooney and his wife JoAnne.

Not much is left after fire destroyed their remote home on a Sunday evening more than a week ago.

And now the community has rallied to help the couple recover as Christmas fast approaches.

The generosity of people in Harper, Little Valley and Vale started just hours after the fire and hasn’t let up.

“By Monday morning, the phone was ringing every 10 minutes,” said Karen Shira, the couple’s daughter. “People finally gave up calling and just stopped by our house because the phone was always busy.”

Moving in with the Shiras just down the hill from their destroyed home, the Mooneys have been inundated with offers.

“People were bringing clothes over and just stopping and handing over a check,” Shira said. “Two families offered homes for mom and dad and quite a few people have offered their travel trailers to them to live in. It has just been amazing.”

An account for the couple has been set up at the Vale branch of Umpqua Bank. The Mooneys’ grandson, Dillon Kaschmitter, started a gofundme page that has already raised $1,950 (gofundme.com/kem3at-house-burnt-down-lost-everything). Both the Harper Charter School and Vale High School raised money with a Hat Day.

Mooney plans to rebuild, but that will take time.

Last Friday morning, he was on the hunt at the fire scene.

The 81-year old sifted through the ashes, searching for the gun barrel of an antique shotgun that had long been in the family.

“I know the stocks are burned, but I am still hoping to find the barrel of the shotgun and maybe have a new stock built for it,” Mooney said, pointing to a corner at where the shotgun sat. “I know it is somewhere over there under all that stuff.”

He also looked for his mother-in-law’s wedding rings and a fireproof safe containing family heirlooms.

Mooney, clad in a flannel shirt and cap, had returned to also to feed the one cat out of four that made it through the house fire.

Mooney was home that Sunday evening, watching television while his wife attended a Harper Ladies Club Christmas dinner in town.

“The smoke alarms never went off,” Mooney said. “It did not even get hot in the house. I got up and saw this huge glow from the bathroom area. I ran outside and saw the whole side of the house was in flames. I grabbed a water hose, but there was nothing I could do.”

Standing in the cold, Mooney watched the home burn to nothing but a chimney and entryway. No fire agency serves the area. Relatives retrieved a family hutch and a few other items before flames prevented any further salvage.

The house was moved to the site on Mill Valley Road in 1941 and the Mooneys bought it in 1979 after a lifetime of ranching in the Harper area. The house was originally “down in town” occupied by David Shira’s grandparents, according to Shira.

JoAnne Mooney worked for the Harper School District as the school cook, librarian and recess aide. She retired in 2008, but returned numerous times since then to help out when needed.

As the family grew, the house did too.

“We remodeled the home, taking it down to the studs and putting in new sheet rock, carpet, everything,” Shira said.

The Mooneys were self-sufficient, Shira said.

“We never requested the free lunches,” Shira said. “My parents were always the ones giving, never taking. The hardest part of this whole thing has been for them to accept help. I don’t think they ever realized how many people truly care about them and all they have done for this community until now. It has been overwhelming.”

As with most house fires, insurance will pay for of a new house on the hill. But insurance can’t pay for some of the items lost to the Mooney family.

While walking around the remnants of the home, Mooney pointed out to a corner where an Irish shillelagh, a wooden cane with a large knob on the top, stood for years.

“My father was given it by a Catholic priest in California years ago,” Mooney said. “I have had it my whole life.”

Although the hutch was saved, gone is the seven-foot dining room set, a product of the Montgomery Ward catalogue delivered to California in 1941.

“Those chairs were my mom’s pride and joy,” Shira said.

As the kitten ran through the ashes last week, Mooney sought the family safe that housed a crucifix from generations past. The lone kitten survived the fire while three others perished. The Mooneys believe a heat lamp set up to keep the kittens warm may have caused of the fire.

Mooney wants to build as soon as possible, but the pain of the loss has been cushioned by support from the community.

“I never really knew how many people cared about us,” Mooney said. “It has been truly amazing the people that have reached out to us.”