The fire was already burning out of control by the time Lauren McIver-O’Hara and her children pulled into the driveway of their Big Lake home Friday evening.
They couldn’t save anything inside — all their possessions, Christmas presents and 17 pets.
Now McIver-O’Hara and her 10-, 15- and 17-year-old children are staying with a friend as a supportive community gathers donations, including a trailer they can live in soon.
Her 48-year-old husband, Robert McIver, can’t be there to help.
He’s been hospitalized with COVID-19 for nearly two weeks.
“He doesn’t think that he’ll make it home for Christmas and we’re all really bummed about that,” McIver-O’Hara said Wednesday morning before heading to work at the Alaska Club in Wasilla. “But it is what it is. We want him home but we also want him healthy.”
She had COVID-19 too.
For McIver-O’Hara, who is 39, the symptoms weren’t clear. She’d been working double shifts as other employees stayed home due to their own COVID-19 quarantines. She didn’t have a cough and just figured she was tired. But the up-and-down fever and kidney pain finally prompted her to get tested at the emergency room.
The test came back positive.
“Thanksgiving I did not get out of bed at all,” she said. “I was drained.”
McIver-O’Hara isolated in a bedroom at home. Her children supplied drinks and whatever food she could get down. Her husband slept on the couch. Then he tested positive a few days later.
By Dec. 11, he was sick enough with what was diagnosed as COVID-19 and pneumonia to go back to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center and stay there. He’s been on oxygen since, some days needing more than others. A few days ago, he coughed up blood, according to an update his wife has been posting to a Gofundme site for the family. One of his lungs collapsed Tuesday.
By Wednesday morning, Lauren McIver-O’Hara said, Robert was breathing better with a chest tube.
Returning the favor
Nobody was home when the fire started. The family’s 15-year-old son usually spends Friday nights with a friend who takes him to youth bowling the next day. He was getting dropped off there.
McIver-O’Hara and her daughters, 10 and 17, dropped him off. They came home to find flames consuming the house. Their pets — seven Chihuahua mixes, three cats and seven rabbits — did not survive.
“It definitely was not an easy sight for any of us,” she said.
The family pulled in not long before the first officer arrived from the West Lakes Fire Department, according to Chief Tawnya Hightower. The home was fully involved by then. An investigation continues into the cause, Hightower said.
After work Wednesday, McIver-O’Hara planned to spend the afternoon picking up donations in Wasilla at Triple J Roadhouse, which is collecting clothing and gift cards, and from O’Reilly Auto Parts, where Robert works.
“Their hardship has really set them back a lot,” said Ken Tolson, general manager at O’Reilly, who’s known McIver for years. They talk by phone every couple days.
The store started a fundraiser that brought in $1,500 in the first 24 hours, Tolson said. Customers are dropping off clothes and blankets. One donated a food basket including a ham for Christmas dinner.
Big Lake Family Restaurant and Alaska Mike’s Crazy Good Subs are also helping the family.
One couple donated a trailer the family can live in. A friend with trucking industry connections is helping move it, and others are offering to do what’s needed to get it ready.
“It’s amazingly humbling,” McIver-O’Hara said. Once word got out about the fire, she got message after message from people offering to help — the man who Robert pulled out of a ditch on his way to work, the woman who needed help paying for groceries so Laurel slid over a few bucks.
“We were getting so many messages of ‘You helped us, so we’re helping you,’” she said. “It’s amazing. It really, really is.”
She planned to sort out donations and give some to two other families who lost their homes to fires recently: a couple in the Big Lake area and a mother who was reportedly burned rescuing her children in Willow.
McIver-O’Hara said her family is planning to move into the trailer next week.
“Hopefully we can start 2021 in a new house and look forward to a better year than 2020,” McIver-O’Hara said.