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A freak accident, a home lost: Bay City family rebuilds after fire

On the back porch, Jess Runyon looks into her home of 11 years with her family. The home was struck by a lightning bolt on June 16 making the home a total loss. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 5
A shot from within tlhe garage of the Runyon home in Bay City. The family lost everything, minus some furniture and a safe. Thankfully, the family was on vacation and the dogs were being tended to. No person or animal was in the home at the time of the fire. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 5
A fire inspector from State Farm, the Runyon family insurance company, said a lighting bolt hit the home early June 16. After checking other areas of the home for the possible reason for the fire, it was found that three lightining strikes occurred at 6:25 a.m. on June 16, with one hitting the home. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Mike Runyon stands on the front porch of his home in Bay City. Runyon has to be careful not to wander too far forward, as some parts of the porch are broken and weak. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
A fire inspector from State Farm, the Runyon family insurance company, said a lighting bolt hit the home early June 16. After checking other areas of the home for the possible reason for the fire, it was found that three lightining strikes occurred at 6:25 a.m. on June 16, with one hitting the home. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

BAY CITY — While on vacation in Utah, Mike Runyon received a phone call from the Pierce County Sheriff's Jail.

It was around 6:30 a.m. on June 16 and he was wondering who was calling to be bailed out.

But it wasn't that. It was the sheriff's office. They were calling to tell him his home was burning down.

With the Runyon family, including Mike, Jess, and two of their three children in Utah, they were safe from harm's way. They were lucky enough to have a dog sitter who had let the dogs out while she milked cattle off the property.

The Runyon's neighbor reported the fire, telling the family they smelled rubber burning, then saw the house on fire.

Mike said got on the phone with the dog sitter, who returned to the property. Mike knew the home was in trouble when she looked through the big French door windows of the late 1800's farmhouse, watching as flames came down the staircase.

With the Runyons 30 hours away, there was nothing they could do. Their home was lost.

"It's super frustrating," Jess said of her mindset after hearing about the fire. "Like, I don't even know how to explain it. It was like, we need to get home, but we were literally 30 hours away."

The Runyons had 10 days left in their trip, but obviously knew they had to come back to the charred remains of their home of 11 years.

Mike said it was better that he wasn't on the property when the fire occurred. He would've tried to save items and knick-knacks.

"It's kind of like, ok, you're really thinking about all of those things you probably won't see," Jess said. "You hope that maybe you'll see some of it when you get back, but you're thinking like none of it's going to be there."

The Runyons were able to take out some tables and chairs, along with their safe, which they had to go into the wreckage to find the key to.

So what was the cause of the fire? Electrical issues? Maybe a burner left on? Or what about a lit cigarette not properly put out?

It was none of those things. It was a lighting bolt.

The Runyons are in the midst of figuring out their insurance from the fire, but State Farm sent out a fire investigator to look into the cause.

They looked around for a variety of things, but the Runyons had an email from Pierce Pepin Cooperative saying their power had gone out at 6:25 a.m., with the fire investigator looking into the weather on June 16.

Around the same time the power went out, the area where the home is located saw three cloud to ground lighting strikes in a few seconds. It was determined that was the cause, likely hitting the upstairs bathroom of the home.

Upon hearing the conclusion the Runyons felt relief. Relief knowing there was nothing they could've done and the house wasn't an unsafe place to live.

After years of projects and fixing up the home in which the family mainly grew up, the Runyons now have the chance to start over. It wasn't their choice, but that's their reality now.

Oddly enough, three years ago, the Runyons had their house on the market. They wanted to downsize, Jess finding the tiny house lifestyle attractive, wanting to cut down on materialistic items.

They had an offer on their house, and accepted it, contingent on the buyers closing on their own home. But that didn't go through and they stayed put.

Now, with the tiny house living idea behind them, they look at the 7-acre property as place to continue to grow their family.

Since the fire, the Runyons have been staying at Mike's brothers house. Soon, a single-wide trailer will be dropped off on the property for the family to stay in, until their new home is built.

A Go Fund Me page started by church friends and co-workers of Mike (https://www.gofundme.com/runyon-family-house-fire-fund) is seeking a goal of $20,000.

Mike and Jess say they don't look at the page; it's difficult to process the thought of people, whether they know them or not, donating money to them.

They feel guilt.

"Like I feel like there's so many people who need things more than we do in the world," Jess said. "I know at the same time, the only reason we agreed to do it because I know there are other people who feel like they have to do something to help us. There's nothing we can tell them to do right now. We can't even accept their basket of stuff, we don't have any place to put that. I think it's the only thing that people feel like they want to help."

The Runyons say they appreciate what everyone has done for their family, with the support coming from people they don't know, including neighbors they've lived near for years.

It's the determination of the human spirit, even when the worst is happening, the best of people come in support.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

(651) 301-7873
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