It can happen to anyone. This is what Amy and Spence Wagner learned on April 15, 2020, as they watched their home go up in flames.
For two hours they stood outside in the cold with nothing but the clothes on their back, watching as 27 years of memories were destroyed.
The evening of the fire, Amy and Spence were enjoying the company of their son Jake, daughter-in-law Kirby, and Mac, their 3-week-old grandson. Jake and his family were living with them short-term while he awaited the beginning of his medical residency.
“We had just finished dinner. The kids were putting Mac to bed. Spence and I had settled in to watch TV. It was a cold April night, so Spence lit a fire in our fireplace. I recall talking about how fortunate we were that even though the pandemic had closed us in at home, we had Jake and his family with us,” says Amy.
Not far into their TV program, Amy noticed light reflecting in their stained-glass front door, but thought it was from the fire. At that very moment, she said, the smoke detectors started blaring.
“I realized then the flames were in the window of our attached garage. Spence ran to the door that leads to the garage to find smoke billowing from the top of the door and began shouting, “Everyone out! Everyone out!’”
Watching it burn
They left with only the clothes on their backs and their cell phones. “We didn’t even have shoes on. Kirby had Mac wrapped in a blanket and Jake leashed the dog. Thankfully, everyone got out safely,” Amy recounts.
It was 8:11 p.m. when the call was made to the fire department. The Wagners stood across the street in their neighbors’ front yard as a window exploded and flames rose into the air.
“Spence was going to try to move the cars away from the house, but by the time he got to the edge of our driveway, the garage doors collapsed and engulfed our cars. It happened so fast.”
In a few moments, deputy sheriffs and numerous fire departments arrived, and several hours later the fire was out and the investigative team entered the house to search for the cause. The conclusion was that faulty wiring in the inner wall of the garage likely started the fire.
Feeling the love
With no home to go back to, neighbors took in Spence and Amy. Jake and his family stayed with his brother Luke. Although they had someplace to stay, they didn’t have any essentials like shoes, coats, toothbrushes, combs, etc. “There is nothing in my experience more humbling than to have everything you need one moment and then gone the next,” Amy recalls.
The Wagners were fortunate to have an outpouring of support from their neighbors and community, making the next few weeks easier. Their generosity gave them shelter, transportation, meals, clothing, and other basic necessities.
“We recognized how lucky we were. When you are devastated in this way, it is difficult to even know what you need. You’re a little numb from the experience, but people rallied to help us get on our feet.”
The aftermath: Picking up the pieces
The Wagners have their home insurance with Member Benefits. Bob Manor, Senior Claims Specialist, handled their claim. (Bob retired in August 2022 after 25 years with Member Benefits.) “Bob met with us within a day or two of the fire. He was always just a phone call away to answer any of our questions. He worked with us and the claims adjuster to put our home and lives back together. When there were bumps in the road, Bob was on it to get things resolved as quickly as possible. He was great to work with,” says Amy.
“All fire claims are so hard. People don’t realize the emotional toll an event like this takes,” Bob said. “It’s really not just about putting your house back together, it’s dealing with the grief of all that’s lost, the lack of normalcy, and the stress of working through it all. As a claims adjuster, my job is not just paperwork. It’s also about understanding the trauma the member has experienced and providing emotional support while trying to restore their lives as quickly as possible.”
The home was considered a total loss and the Wagners had to rebuild. They were officially with no fixed abode. They stayed with their neighbors for a week but needed more permanent housing while their home was demolished and then rebuilt. This proved difficult because of the pandemic shutdown.
Amy adds, “We finally found an Airbnb in the community adjacent to our hometown. We were in this location from Memorial Day 2020 until we moved into our new home in March of 2021.”
Out of the ashes comes something good
The Wagners knew their lives would never be the same and felt they couldn’t just move back into their home and let things end there. Amy explains, “We both really believe in paying it forward. We learned so much from our experience that we really believed we were in a good position to help others who go through the same thing. “
The idea of paying it forward materialized into the creation of the Wagner Family Fire Fund (The Fund). Its sole purpose is to provide immediate assistance to families in Kenosha County who lose their home to a fire.
“There’s no guide book telling you what to expect when you lose your home to fire,” Amy states. “Through The Fund, we can offer relief the day of the disaster, assistance throughout the rebuilding process, and that sense of community that we were so lucky to have.”
With the help of fire departments in their area, they distribute “go bags” to individuals or families who are displaced by a house fire. The go bags contain all the things the Wagners needed immediately after the fire: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, comb, brush, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste, gift cards to area restaurants for meals, a two night stay at Country Inn & Suites, gift cards for clothing and other essentials, socks, a mental health kit, coloring books and crayons, and a guidebook they created, which is set up like a step-by-step workbook.
“When our fire fund kicked off on August 28th of 2021, we raised enough money to provide go bags to the fire houses in western Kenosha County. Within a week of our kick off, we had a bag go out to a family,” Amy says. “We recently held our first anniversary fundraiser in Bristol featuring food, beer and wine, a silent auction, kids’ games, and more.”
Other fundraising efforts came from a Safe Quarters campaign in area schools where students collected quarters for their fund, and from Antioch Pizza in Paddock Lake where they received 10% of proceeds from a day’s sales. Texas Roadhouse in Kenosha is hosting another fundraiser on October 20th.
Amy and her family are looking to do more good in the future. “The Wagner Family Fire Fund now covers all of Kenosha County. Eventually, we hope to get to a point where we can provide help to renters who are displaced by fire. We are working our way there.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in a short time with The Fund, and with such a supportive community, we are confident we will be able to help more people through the trauma of a fire.”
Members Amy and Spence Wagner have been married for 36 years. They have five grown children and five grandchildren. “We are a very close-knit family,” Amy says. A recently retired teacher, she taught reading and language arts at Bristol school for 18 years. Amy also taught speech communications, was involved with the gifted and talented program, coached the speech team, directed the school play, headed up the English Festival, and served as a union rep. Spence works in wholesale produce sales.