A 50-year-old Albany County man died last week after running back into his burning house.
That’s one of the findings of Richard Embrey, a veteran investigator for the Wyoming State Fire Marshal’s Office, who also determined that Garth Churches’ death was accidental.
The fire on Brubaker Lane about 16 miles southwest of Laramie was reported at 12:46 a.m. Thursday, and by the time the first firefighters arrived at 1:12 they found the home fully involved and burning very hot, Embrey said.
The fire started in the stovepipe of a woodstove in a bedroom in the back of the house, he said. There was apparently something wrong with the junction where the pipe enters into the ceiling, “and between there and the roof there were some issues with the pipe, which had rusted. The fire breached and started to burn in the attic and burned in the attic until discovered.”
Mr. Churches’ wife and three children also were in the house at the time the fire broke out, but they all escaped without serious injury, Embrey said.
“According to Mrs. Churches, she was awakened by smoke in the house,” he said. “Apparently, it was getting bad. She told her husband she was going to gather the children and exit the structure.
“He said he was going to get a garden hose and attempt to extinguish the fire. I’m not sure he was aware how bad it was.”
Embrey said the wife recounted that Mr. Churches got out through a sliding glass door in the bedroom on the west side of the house.
“But then for some unknown reason, he reentered the structure from the main entrance on the east side of the house,” he said. “When he did that, he walked right into some thick smoke and superheated air, and he asphyxiated.”
Embrey said that when the Laramie Fire Department arrived on scene, firefighters tried to enter the house, “but backed out immediately.” Using a thermal detection device, they found the temperature inside was 1,500 degrees.
“Nobody could survive that,” he said.
While the outcome ultimately was tragic, Embrey said the tragedy could have been much worse had Mrs. Chruches not been awakened by the thick smoke in the house because there were no smoke detectors.
“It could’ve been the whole family. She was lucky to wake up,” he said. “This just ended in a tragic incident. We’ll never know why he went back in … but once you’re out, stay out.”
The fire spread quickly through the attic of the house and into the garage, where it also burned a Chevy Suburban. The home has been designated a total loss, Embrey said.
Efforts to help
In the days since the fire, the local community has rallied in support of Mrs. Churches and her three children. A GoFundMe account started the next day with a goal of $10,000 has so far generated more than $40,500, including an anonymous donation of $10,000.
Albany County 4-H also is supporting the family and has organized a fundraising potato bar dinner and silent auction Sunday at the Albany County Fairgrounds Activity Building.
The Churches are a 4-H family and their loss is felt across the county, said Mary Louise Wood, the local University of Wyoming Extension educator for 4-H.
“They’re a 4-H family and are always so generous to help with everybody else who needs it,” she said. “I have never been through anything similar (to this tragedy). Every one of our families, they’re their own family units, but they also become part of our bigger 4-H family.”
Wood has known the Churches for about seven years and said the impact of the fire is felt throughout the community.
“I was with (Mrs. Churches) when she told her kids, so I feel real close,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody to some extent, so it’s touched so many in different ways.”
She also has been surprised and grateful to see how quickly the GoFundMe effort has grown to more than four times its original goal in less than a week.
“Our community is just amazing, it truly is,” she said, adding the lessons about fire safety should be taken to heart. “This doesn’t just happen to somebody else.”
Admission to the potato bar and auction is $10 a person and capped at $40 for a family. Proceeds from the dinner and silent auction will go directly to the family. Anyone interested in donating items for the auction are asked to drop them off at the Albany County Extension Office by Friday.
Those who can’t attend are encouraged to donate to the GoFundMe effort at https://tinyurl.com/3a4pr4aw or to the Churches Fire Relief Fund at First Interstate Bank.
For more information about the event, contact Wood at 307-721-2571 or email@example.com.