HUXLEY — Sycamore Boulevard is like any other street you would drive down in the heart of Iowa and the heart of one of its towns … tree-lined, with nice homes, filled with families … that is what the landscape looked like before a tragic fire consumed one family’s home here last week.
That fire claimed the lives of two Huxley residents.
And, with the efforts of local emergency responders, including firefighters, paramedics and police, three lives were saved.
Now on Sycamore Boulevard, the landscape has changed. Even though the house where that fire happened looks pretty much the same, a few windows that had been broken out are now boarded up. Yellow caution tape surrounds the house and a Story County Sheriff’s vehicle sits on the street in front of the house on this particular day, not even a full week after the fire happened.
It was Sunday morning, Oct. 7, at 5:40 a.m., that the Huxley Volunteer Fire Department responded to an emergency call for this house fire. It is believed that the fire started in the kitchen.
According to Huxley Fire Chief Chad Anthony, the incident — for which Huxley Fire received help from the Slater, Cambridge, Nevada and Ankeny departments — is still under investigation by the State Fire Marshal.
Two family members have died as a result of the fire. Brett VanErsvelde, 47, was transported to Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, where he later died that day. His son, Dan VanErsvelde, 17, was taken to Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames and then transported to the University of Iowa Hospitals, where he died on Oct. 10.
Services for Brett were held in Brooklyn, Iowa, on Friday, Oct. 12, and local services for Dan were held this week, Oct. 17, at Ballard High School, where he was a student. The family requested that the news media not cover the local service for Dan, so out of respect for their request, the Tri-County Times did not cover the services.
Three family members, Jill McLain, and Jill and Alison VanErsvelde, are survivors of the fire.
According to Fire Chief Anthony, this fire has been particularly difficult for him.
“This is hard as the chief of this department,” said Anthony. “We have several young firefighters who recently joined our department. Those of us who have been a firefighter longer tend to become somewhat (familiar with) what we were up against in this fire. We had a debriefing team from Story County work with our [firefighters], as well as our internal group.”
Anthony added that the conditions of the fire weren’t safe, and they were not able to get to those still in the house. He explained that there is so much infrastructure, that the extreme heat, like what they saw in this fire, would produce fire flames from the smoke once oxygen is added in.
“We were faced with fighting smoke that would combust when oxygen was added,” he said. “When there are plastics added, and the oxygen provides what the smoke needs to produce a fire that is six times faster to burn…the gases and smoke just ignite. It limits our access to enter a house (on) fire such as this one. We lost our ability to get this fire under control.”
Anthony noted that it had been over 25 years since Huxley had fatalities due to a fire.
This was also the second major house fire in Huxley in the last couple of months. A first, several weeks back, saw the total loss of a home, but thankfully without fatalities.
Fires happen, therefore, especially during October, which is fire safety awareness month, the focus on safety plans are definitely important.
Smoke detectors, according to Anthony, when they are installed and working correctly, can help save lives.
“There are many things that you can do to protect yourself and your family,” he explained. “Closing bedroom doors to keep the added oxygen away from a fire is something that everyone can do. Education is the key to keeping safe. Checking the batteries in smoke detectors and changing those batteries several times a year needs to happen. Be sure to test your units. Many of the smoke detectors in newer homes are wired into the house with a battery backup, but with the older homes they are not, and the detectors used will expire.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the American Red Cross and Huxley Fire Department will soon be visiting the neighborhood on Sycamore, offering free smoke detectors and installation.
They ask that parents educate their children and have a plan.
“Every household should have an escape plan and they need to practice the plan once a month,” said Anthony. “If you live in a two-story home and you have an escape ladder stored under the bed, get it out and practice putting it out the window and climbing down it.”
Ballard High School Director of Student Services, Chris Deason, talked about how the VanErsvelde fire and deaths have affected the students and school.
“This week has been really rough,” commented Deason at the end of last week. “Our students have come together to support the VanErsvelde family, as well as signing personal notes to Dan in a scrapbook that Mrs. Peterson designed. We had multiple counselors available on Monday to meet the needs of our students. Our student body has really come together. You can see it and feel it in our building. Our hearts go out to the family, and they are certainly in our thoughts and prayers.”
Huxley Fire and Rescue organized a moment of silence to honor the family at the home football game last Friday night.
The Slater and Sheldahl United Methodist Churches and the American Legion Post 260 of Slater, are joining forces in a fundraiser to help the family. The chili dinner will be held at the Nite Hawk in Slater this Sunday, Oct. 21, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The American Legion has selected the VanErsvelde family as the recipients of this year’s community support from the free-will donation meal and raffle. Proceeds from the annual event will be given to the VanErsvelde family to help them through this difficult time.
Members of the Slater United Methodist Church, where the VanErsvelde family are active members, are helping to grow the Legion event in support of the VanErsvelde family as the Ballard community finds ways to surround this family with love and support.
In addition to the free-will donation chili meal, the Oct. 21 event will also include a raffle drawing and donation jars for direct contributions to the family.
Raffle tickets are $1 each or $5 for six tickets. The Slater UMC youth group will be helping by selling the raffle tickets in advance. The raffle drawing will be held at 5 p.m., and you do not need to be present to win. If you would like to purchase raffle tickets in advance of the event, or if you would like to add an item to be raffled off, please contact Amber Shill, Slater UMC youth group leader, or Marvin Harryman, American Legion Post 260 Commander.
A partial list of raffle prizes, provided by generous donors, is below. The list of raffle prizes continues to grow!
(4) $25 gift cards - Ballard, LLC
(2) Free oil changes with $60 each - Bud’s Auto
$40 gift card - Chicken Shed
$100 cash - Hedrick Construction
(3) $50 gift cards - Hedrick Construction
Golf bag assortment - Huxley Communications
Sweatshirt and tee shirt - Iowa Earth Works
DIY project kit - Kreg Tool
Gift Basket - South Story Bank and Trust
Oil change and gift bag - Ames Ford Lincoln
Pumpkin-themed gift basket ($50 value) - Charlie’s Angels Cystic Fibrosis Team
(2) Sam’s Club Plus Memberships, valued at $100 each - Ames Sam’s Club
South Story Bank & Trust, with locations in Huxley and Slater, is also collecting donations to help the family. Those wanting to make a contribution may drop off cash donations at either bank location, or checks should be written to the Brett VanErsvelde Memorial.
When a tragedy of this proportion happens here, in the heart of small-town Iowa, the community comes together and makes things happen. In this case, as in many, they do what needs to be done to try to help.