Monica Odenwald, cuddling one of her cats that survived a house fire, has a lot to be thankful for despite losing almost everything in 2020 to the fire. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Monica Odenwald, cuddling one of her cats that survived a house fire, has a lot to be thankful for despite losing almost everything in 2020 to the fire. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

QUINN’S QUIPS: Woman finds silver lining to 2020

She lost almost everything in a house fire, except perspective

When you’re someone accustomed to helping others get through a crisis, finding yourself on the receiving end is still a shock. That’s the position Monica Odenwald found herself in a year ago.

Odenwald had gone to pick up her daughter Samantha from a dance class she was taking in early January 2020, and returned home to find her house on fire. As they stood on the boulevard watching their house burn, neighbours, friends and family started rallying—bringing them warm blankets at the scene and making sure they were being taken care of.

Within days, Odenwald’s sister-in-law had started a gofundme account to help the now single mother and teenage daughter get back on their feet.

I caught up with Odenwald a few months later, in a rented home with donated furniture, and Odenwald talked about how grateful she and her daughter both felt.

“I’m so grateful for so much,” she said. “There were a lot of little lessons in this experience.”

One of those lessons was what “community” means, and how community—especially in Port Alberni—becomes an extension of one’s family. “I had a lot of donations (on the gofundme page) from people I didn’t even know,” she said.

READ: Friends, family in Port Alberni rally around single mom who lost home to fire

Odenwald spent a few years working with Kuu-us Crisis Line Society, helping with crisis intervention and people living in poverty. Dealing with the Red Cross and victim services at the scene of her fire was “seamless,” she said: people were helping her fill out paperwork at midnight on the hood of her car to make sure she and her daughter had a place to stay. They spent 10 days in a hotel until they found a temporary place to live, then their rental home.

They lost everything, except three “bug-out” bags she had packed with important papers like birth certificates and photos. When she went back to the wreckage of her house she pulled the bug-out bags from behind a door. “The bag was ruined and everything stunk like smoke, but everything was OK,” she said.

When people in the dance community learned that her daughter lost her dance competition mementos, event photographers went through their files and sent digital replacements of every year she danced.

Everything in her new home was donated, Odenwald said, right down to the artwork on the walls. One of the most precious gifts she received was a small piano. “For me, having grown up in a musical family…to have a wooden upright…it’s so big.”

In the end, possessions were replaced, and the bigger picture was realized. “We did survive, and that’s the big thing. As far as getting the big things back, we’re landing on our feet.”

Odenwald called the firefighters who knocked down the furious blaze at her house “unsung heroes”—both for what they did for her and for helping to save her neighbours’ homes on either side.

“They work so hard and there’s so much loss. They see that first hand.” She spoke about the compassionate way fire Chief Mike Owens walked her through what was happening, reassuring her that her three cats likely escaped through the cat door (they did).

“That made me appreciate what they do. If there’s ever a natural disaster and a tsunami…they will never run out of town like everyone else and run to safety. They are the unsung heroes that give their lives to helping others in the biggest possible way.

“That’s what I mean by unsung heroes.”

Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor.

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Firefighters in Port Alberni spent more than six hours fighting a stubborn house fire on Third Avenue on Jan. 8, 2020. Monica Odenwald’s home was destroyed in the blaze. (BARRY PLEWES/ Special to the News)

Firefighters in Port Alberni spent more than six hours fighting a stubborn house fire on Third Avenue on Jan. 8, 2020. Monica Odenwald’s home was destroyed in the blaze. (BARRY PLEWES/ Special to the News)

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