Home, apartments damaged in fires, one man hospitalized after explosion
A week after a fire destroyed a house on J Highway in Howards Ridge, two more structures burned in Ozark County, and the owner of one of the structures, John Evans, was seriously injured. But the two buildings damaged in the most recent fires are still standing, and one of them, the Tecumseh-area home of Kenneth and Liz Kuk, is still occupied. It’s thought that the other structure, the apartment building owned by Evans on Highway 160 near J Highway, can be repaired and made livable again.
Saving a basement full of puppies
Kenneth Kuk told the Times Saturday, “It was a miracle of God that everything happened as it did” so that their house on County Road 542 was saved when fire broke out early Friday morning.
Kenneth said he had emptied ashes from their wood-burning stove into his usual ash pile on the edge of the yard on Thursday night. “I had this pile out there, and I dumped the ashes there and wasn’t thinking anything about it,” Kenneth said.
He went to his job in West Plains early Friday morning, leaving Liz still asleep. About 7:15 a.m., he said, “she heard something that woke her up.”
What she heard was their dog Ghost, whining and rattling the gate at the top of the basement stairs. The Kuks own three female Huskies, and all three had puppies last week. In fact, Ghost had a C-section the day before. With temperatures plummeting into the single digits, they had brought the dogs, including 18 puppies, into the basement to stay warm.
Then, during the night, the ash pile had caught fire. “It came down a fence row and took a hard left to get to the house. I would say it came 60 to 70 feet,” Kenneth said. “I always burn my leaves off, but I hadn’t done any burning this year, it’s been so dry. So the fire got into the leaves and got up to the house and went into the basement.”
When Liz was awakened by the noise Ghost was making, her throat was burning, and when she looked at the clock, she thought her eyes were fuzzy. But her eyes weren’t fuzzy. The house was filled with smoke.
“She tried to call 911, but the cell phone wouldn’t let it go through. So she called me, and I dialed 911, but the reaction wasn’t as quick as I wanted. So I called my neighbor, J. B. Duke. He was an angel,” Kenneth said.
Duke, assistant chief of the Tecumseh Volunteer Fire Department, was stiff, sore and swollen from a 15-foot fall he’d had at the Howards Ridge fire four days earlier when he had slipped off an icy ladder. But he quickly pulled on his clothes and raced to the firehouse to get a firetruck and was on scene at the Kuk residence eight to 10 minutes after Kenneth’s call.
“J.B. did all the work. By the time the rest of us got there, he had it whipped,” said Tecumseh VFD chief Nathanael Winrod. “The fire did get inside one wall and we had to chop through that wall to finish it. And a couple of windows got hot and popped out.”
But the house is still standing and by Saturday morning, the insurance adjustor had come and Servicemaster was scheduled, and the Kuks were very grateful.
“After Liz woke up, she couldn’t get down the stairs because of all the smoke,” Kenneth said. “She went out the front door and ran around to the back door. It was locked, and she had to break in, but that’s how she got to the basement.”
Liz carried the puppies – all 18 of them– to her Jeep to stay warm.
Meanwhile, Kenneth said, “I just keep thanking J. B. If it had been any longer, if he hadn’t gotten there when he did and did what he did, then our house fire would be like everyone else’s.”
It helps that he and Duke have been friends most of their lives, he said.
Kenneth had plenty of thanks for “the other fire department guys” too. “Those volunteers, anytime they have a function – a dinner or a fundraiser – people need to support these guys who don’t get paid nothing for what they do for all of us.”
Explosion at Evans Apartments
Saturday afternoon, one day after the Kuks’ fire, John Evans was working on the propane furnace in the attic of one of the six apartments in the building he owns on Highway 160 at J Highway, when an explosion set the building on fire.
Mike O’Connell, communications director for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said the fire marshal who investigated the fire said Evans had turned the gas off while he was working on the furnace. “But when he turned the gas back on, the explosion occurred,” O’Connell said.
Lick Creek VFD chief Jerry Rowlett said it’s unclear what sparked the explosion, which was reported at 2:36 p.m. “Someone could have turned on a light switch. It could have been a lot of things. We just don’t know,” he said.
The explosion blew the sheet rock out of the wall in an upstairs bedroom, and the startled resident there told firefighters he called out to Evans, asking if he was OK, but he got no answer. He called again, and Evans answered, “I’m hurt bad. Get me to a hospital.”
Evans managed to get outside, and the resident got his family out then ran back upstairs with a bucket of water. He threw it on the fire and ran to get another bucketful. “But by the time he got back to it, the fire had traveled through the attic so far it had set the other apartments on fire,” Rowlett said.
Ozark County Ambulance arrived along with fire departments from Lick Creek, Gainesville, Tecumseh, Caney Mountain and Timber Knob. Evans was taken by Air Evac to Mercy Hospital in Springfield. His brother, Mike Evans, said John had burns on his face and hands and he’s very hoarse. He underwent surgery on his face Sunday afternoon and will have skin grafts on his hands later, Mike said.
At least three of the apartments were occupied. The Red Cross was called in to help arrange temporary housing for those who needed it. One of the residents told the Times Monday she and her three children are staying with family but looking for another place to rent.
The building sustained heavy damage; two of the apartments are “completely destroyed,” Rowlett said, and others have water damage. But, like the Kuks’ home, it’s still standing, and it’s thought that the building can be repaired and reoccupied.
Rowlett said he and the fire marshal “crawled all through the whole area,” and the fire was completely out when he left the scene after the fire marshal finished his investigation about 8 p.m. But then the fire unexpectedly rekindled, and firefighters were called back at 10:22 p.m. and spent another 90 minutes or so putting out the flames.
The firefighters’ efforts impressed the fire marshal. “He told me, ‘Jerry, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a building fire like this and you guys actually saved the building. I doubt most big city fire departments could have done with you guys did here,’” Rowlett said.