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Benefit planned Sept. 27 for family who lost home, contents in blaze

JACKSON -- Drew Wedebrand comes from a family quick to offer help to friends and neighbors in need, but when a fire destroyed his rural Jackson farmhouse six weeks ago, the tables were turned. People came to his aid and his family organized a ben...

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The Drew Wedebrand home was destroyed by fire in the early morning hours of July 31 in southern Jackson County. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

JACKSON -- Drew Wedebrand comes from a family quick to offer help to friends and neighbors in need, but when a fire destroyed his rural Jackson farmhouse six weeks ago, the tables were turned. People came to his aid and his family organized a benefit, and while all that makes him feel a bit uncomfortable, he’s also incredibly thankful.

He’s thankful for the stand his four kids took when they pleaded to stay at Grandma’s house that Saturday night, July 30, to have s’mores with their cousins. He’s also thankful for the decision he made to sleep in his air-conditioned camper on the farmyard that night -- it was easier to cool it down for the night than to cool off the family’s large, old farmhouse.

He’s thankful because, while his family may have lost everything in the house fire, they still have each other -- and they still have their pets, from pot-bellied pigs and dogs to goats, chickens, llamas, a goose and a couple head of feeder cattle.

The house is still standing, though the inside is a total loss, Wedebrand explained as he stood outside the two-story, white-painted farmhouse early Thursday evening. The original portion of the house dates back to the 1890s.

A glimpse through the second story window reveals the charred wood of the kids’ bunk beds. On the opposite side of the house, blackened siding show the path the fire took as it spread from the home’s basement.

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Wedebrand said firefighters have determined the blaze originated in the ballast of a 4-foot fluorescent light that had hung in the basement for more than a decade and hadn’t been used for more than two years.

“Thirteen years ago, when we bought the house, we had our washer and dryer in the basement,” Wedebrand said. Because there were no lights, he hung a couple of fluorescent light fixtures from the basement ceiling.

Two years ago, he moved the appliances upstairs, but the lights were left in place -- and remained plugged in. Wedebrand was told the switch on the fluorescent lights likely shorted out, sending stray voltage to the ballast and igniting a fire.

Wedebrand discovered the blaze at approximately 4:30 that Sunday morning. He’d awoken early with plans to pick up his oldest son from his mom’s house and go to the Jackson County Fairgrounds to start loading their livestock from the fair that ended Saturday night.

“I thought it was kind of bright in the camper,” Wedebrand recalled of waking to the alarm that morning. He donned his jeans and boots and opened the camper door to the sounds of crackling fire and flames shooting up the side of the house.

In the roughly 15 minutes it took for the Jackson Fire Department to reach the farmstead east of Loon Lake, Wedebrand moved two vehicles away from the house, shut off the electricity and the LP tank and waited.

“It just takes forever, this far out,” he said of the wait. “Finally, I could see the red lights coming.”

Two pumpers and two water trucks pulled into his driveway, along with the rescue truck and ambulance. By the time they arrived, there was little to be salvaged.

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The fire had burned a hole through the living room floor, then followed the stairwell to the second floor.

“The fire department said it burned for three or four hours before I found it,” Wedebrand said. “It started real small and started working bigger and bigger.”

After the fire was extinguished and a survey of the damage began, Wedebrand quickly realized little would be salvageable. What wasn’t destroyed by the fire was heavily damaged by smoke or water.

“Pretty much all of the kids’ baby pictures are lost,” he said. The divorced father of three boys and a girl said he had all of the baby books and pictures tucked away in closets, as well as a large share of the kids’ toys and clothing.

“The Sunday after the fire, we went through and pulled out everything we thought was salvageable and it fit in about half of my dad’s Ford Ranger pickup,” Wedebrand shared. Among the belongings were eight towels that were still in the clothes dryer. The towels didn’t even smell of smoke, he said.
Wedebrand, along with his stepmom and an aunt, each spent about 30 hours documenting the home’s contents. Because he carried replacement insurance, he will eventually get money to replace the house. Replacing the contents, though, won’t be as easy.

“A lot of the stuff that I’d gotten from my grandparents when they died is gone -- pictures and (antique) furniture,” he said. The pieces have a sentimental value that can never be replaced.

As for the kids, Wedebrand said his oldest, 14-year-old Mason, lost the first place rate-of-gain and showmanship trophies he’d earned just days before the blaze during the Jackson County Fair. He also lost all of his 4-H fair ribbons from this and previous years.

“He was bummed about that,” Wedebrand said. “The other kids hadn’t gotten their stuff to their room yet -- that was still in my vehicle, so they still had their medals and ribbons from this year’s fair.”

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Since the start of the school year, the Wedebrand children have stayed with their mother, returning to the farm and their temporary home inside their dad’s camper every Wednesday night and every other weekend. Meanwhile, Wedebrand, head custodian and groundskeeper for Jackson County Central school, is living in the camper and making do. Staying at the farm just makes sense for doing chores.

“I wanted to be right here so I could work on stuff,” he said, adding that he’ll find a place to rent once it gets colder.

Just this week, the family chose a new, modular home that Wedebrand hopes can be moved in soon. They can’t tear the house down until all of the insurance matters are dealt with. Once that’s done, he said a new basement will need to be dug and a new septic system installed.

Meanwhile, he’s trying to make life with the kids as normal as it can be. Mason, who had earned a trip to the Minnesota State Fair with a breeding pen of chickens, went at his father’s encouragement.

“After the fire, he said, ‘We’re not going to go to state fair -- we’re not going to spend the money,’” Wedebrand shared. “I said, ‘You won the trip fair and square -- we’re going no matter what.’”

Mason earned a blue ribbon on his chickens and fourth overall in his showmanship division, and Wedebrand spent time at the fair with him. The younger kids, Hannah, 12, and Connor, 7, were already in school, and Bennett, 4, was in preschool.

Wedebrand said he appreciates all of the help offered to him and his family since the fire.

“The first week, I don’t know if there was ever a time that there wasn’t someone sitting in the driveway,” he said. “It’s hard. I’m not one that really likes accepting handouts.”

Wedebrand’s cousin started a GoFundMe page to help raise money for the family ( http://bit.ly/2cwN4yw ), and an account has been set up for the family at Bank Midwest in Jackson.

Also, a benefit, silent auction and bake sale are planned from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Jackson American Legion, 411 First St., Jackson.

Sara Treybal, Wedebrand’s mom, said the silent auction includes a wide variety of items, including paintings and prints -- some from local and Minnesota artists -- numerous gift cards, gift baskets, tickets to the Omaha Zoo, a fire pit ring and many other items. Anyone wishing to donate items for the silent auction may drop them off at Dan Pike Auction Co., 401 Springfield Parkway, Jackson.

Related Topics: FIRES
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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