After 18 months of construction, Lisa and Steve Hollett were almost ready to move into their dream home in Dayton, Montana. It had saved him a lifetime of building a four-bedroom cabin set on a hilltop overlooking Flathead Lake.
It took a forest fire to burn to the ground in minutes.
On August 1, several people told the Hollets that the fire, as it was burning, would not reach their home. They went to run some errands.
While returning, the couple saw black smoke rising from the area of their property. Both of them ran to their home. The sheriff followed them and told them they had five minutes to leave again. With the help of the sheriff, Hollets said, they grabbed little more than their dogs, their passports, Lisa’s work computer and a handful of clothing from a shed and camper who lived during the construction of the house. Both the camper and the shed were also destroyed.
Ten minutes after they left, Lisa said, she saw their house engulfed in flames.
turn a dream into reality
Eyeing retirement, Steve and Lisa Hollett, who are in their mid-50s, bought land in Dayton in 2019.
They were living in Austin, Texas when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Lisa, who works for a semiconductor company, began working remotely, so she was able to get to her retirement destination early.
To save money, they moved to a camper on their property, where Lisa worked from the kitchen table. He said that in the winter months, when the pipes freeze, the water regularly leaks out.
Meanwhile, Steve spends 12 to 15 hours a day building his dream home. Formerly a prosecutor, he had never taken on a project like this. He said he would watch YouTube videos at night on how to do things like electrical wiring and roof installation and then do it the next day.
Hollett’s goal was not to reduce the house payment in his retirement.
“So we took all our money, bought the land – and it would be every penny we had [that went] In the house,” Steve told NPR. He paid cash for the material as often as he could.
“We saved and saved and saved for this dream,” Lisa said. “We haven’t taken a vacation in five years.”
Including the land, Holetts said he put about a million dollars in his estate. Knowing that wildfires were a risk in the area, he invested $50,000 in a fire-resistant metal roof. He finished it at the end of May.
One of the most painful parts of this experience, according to Lisa, was a construction loan she took out for over $90,000. The loan term is just one year, and they plan to refinance it into a mortgage. But since they no longer have the house, they will not be able to obtain that mortgage.
Hollets said the local bank has been incredibly good – the bank’s president offered her an RV space at his home – but the disaster meant she was faced with paying off construction loans much quicker than she could afford. Used to be. Not to mention, they’re paying for a house they’ll never even live in.
Homeowners insurance is not available until the house is built. They said they were only able to secure the builders’ risk insurance.
“It’s a weird, little policy – it covers products that have none of my 18 months of labor,” Steve said. “That’s a third of our savings, which is going to cover it.”
He had a small land loan balance, so added to his construction loan, he said, the sum insured is gone. And they still have to repurchase all the household items they use on a daily basis.
A community steps in to help with recovery efforts
Even after just 18 months of moving to the area, the Hollets are still feeling the support of their community.
Initially, he opposed crowdfunding. A former classmate of Lisa started a gofundme campaign Anyway, more donations started pouring in. As of August 9, 426 donors had contributed a total of $42,521.
Holetts was surprised to see so many names he did not recognize on the charity list.
“When I went through the names, I know maybe 30%. So it’s 70% just the community or the people who wanted to be anonymous,” Lisa said.
She said they were going to write a thank you note to everyone who made a donation.
Local businesses are also pitching in, donating equipment to help clean up the burn site. But it’s still a matter of where the Hollets will be in the long run.
“It’s so sad, because there are some things where I’m like, ‘Okay, I want this in 20 years,'” Steve said. Knowing that he would one day need a wood shop, he spent the extra time doing little things like running wires that weren’t needed yet.
“It’s just hours and hours and hours. Useless. Gone. Doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s just sad. Because, you know, I knew every hole, every screw, everything in that house.”
Hollets still isn’t sure what will happen next. Currently, while they are living in an apartment above a garage owned by a friend’s neighbor, they are looking for rentals for themselves and their two dogs for the next year. They said they don’t have the budget to rebuild their dream home, and are unsure whether they want to build something smaller on the same property and be reminded daily of what they’ve lost.
Since he spent so much time building his house, Steve is concerned about living in a smaller size, which doesn’t suit the things he initially built.
More and more, however, he is starting to realize that a new home will be a symbol of how his community has helped him, so it will come with good memories.