‘I was already grieving him. I thought he was dead,’ Chuckanut fire survivor says of husband

In less than 24 hours, a Gofundme account has raised more than its $20,000 goal to help benefit the couple that narrowly escaped the home they were renting along Chuckanut Drive as it was destroyed by a two-alarm fire early Wednesday.

The Gofundme page started by Bellingham’s Laura Elizabeth Roberts had raised nearly $28,000 as of noon Thursday, April 11.

“It’s so emotional to see that kind of support,” said Denise Miller, who along with her husband, Tom Miller, were the renters who escaped. “I feel like I’m living on ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ It’s so touching.”

Denise told The Bellingham Herald the overwhelming support has come from everywhere — from their son’s freshman roommate at Washington State, to Denise’s and Tom’s old sorority and fraternity friends, to past teachers, to other community members they’ve never even met.

And the help hasn’t just come from the Gofundme page. Denise said her husband was ecstatic to receive a pair of sunglasses from a local business that just wanted to help out.

For a couple is now feverishly working to replace everyday necessities lost in the blaze, such as glasses and prescriptions, even little things like that are amazing graces.

“We never imagined we’d just lose everything,” Denise told The Herald. “But the help we’ve received has been overwhelming. We have been weeping because people have been so generous.”

The couple is staying with family, as Denise’s sister lives about a mile away from the site of Wednesday’s fire.

“Tom and Denise along with their son, Henry, have lost everything,” Roberts wrote on the Gofundme page. “Their home, pets, family photos, heirlooms, cars and Tom’s paintings were all lost in this horrible tragedy. We are asking for donations to help them rebuild their lives.”

Familiar faces

If the Millers look or sound familiar, that’s because they are. In fact, they should be pretty well known not only in Whatcom County, but to a nationwide audience.

The Miller’s son, Henry, appeared in 2015 on ABC television’s “Shark Tank” to pitch his company Henry’s Humdingers, which sold raw honey combined with a variety of spices in jars with fun names like “Grumpy Grampa” and “Diabolical Dad,” to the show’s celebrity investors.

Earlier this year, Henry announced on Facebook that he closed Henry’s Humdingers after five years.

“We seem to continue to get kicked while we are down, as the house (fire) on Chuckanut late last night claimed what little we had left,” Henry told The Bellingham Herald in an email.

Henry, who was 18 when he went on “Shark Tank,” is now attending Washington State University, and his parents are still hoping to travel to Pullman for Mom’s Weekend this weekend, Denise said.

“I’m devastated at the loss of our pets and just grateful my parents made it out,” Henry told The Herald.

Emotional reunion

One can only imagine what the Miller’s hugs will be like when they arrive this weekend for that reunion, after the family came so close to never having that opportunity again early Wednesday.

Denise said Tom arrived at the house they had called home since October at around 10 p.m. and said it smelled “a little smokey.”

But they dismissed the smell as likely coming from some peanut butter cookies Denise had baked earlier in the evening or a fire they had in the fireplace the night before producing a smokey smell that had stuck around. The couple made sure the stove was off and went to bed about a half hour later, Denise said.

At approximately 1 a.m., Denise said she was awoken by a large crash in the kitchen.

“I thought it was our basset hound, Annabelle, pulling something off the counter,” Denise said. “She’s kind of a food-driven dog.”

She got up to see what it was and immediately saw flames in the kitchen.

“I thought maybe it’s just started and that I needed to put it out before it got any bigger,” Denise told The Herald, “but no, it was already big. The sound I’d heard was a plate-glass window shattering.”

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Fire crews continue Wednesday morning to work the scene of a two-alarm structure fire in the 900 block of Chuckanut Drive south of Bellingham. Julia Stark Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

‘I thought I was in the movie ‘Backdraft’ ‘

Denise said she yelled for Tom to call 911, while she grabbed the couple’s large dog, Irish, and headed outside. She put Irish in a car and tried to pull it away from the flames, but the flames caught the car on fire.

“I immediately thought it was going to be like ‘Die Hard’ and the car was going to explode,” Denise said. “So I got our big dog out of the car, got the dog into our other car and got it as far away from the flames as I could.”

But that’s when she realized Tom hadn’t joined her outside.

After she’d told him to call 911, he found that the fire had already consumed the phone lines and he couldn’t call out. He then scooped up Annabelle and exited the other side of the house to the deck.

“I called him, but it was just so loud,” Denis said. “I didn’t hear any sounds, so I went back into the house because I was worried he had smoke inhalation and I wanted to save him.”

Denise said she got to the bedroom door, which was closed, and burned her hand on the doorknob.

“I had to crawl back, and I got lost,” Denise said. “The smoke was so thick, and I thought I was going to die. I finally saw the door, and I got out, and seconds later the fire had tripled in size. ... I thought I was in the movie ‘Backdraft.’ ”

But that’s when the fact that she hadn’t found Tom began to set in. Fortunately, it was just about then that he climbed over a fence with Annabelle, and they were reunited.

“It was such a relief when I saw him,” Denise told The Herald. “I was already grieving him. I thought he was dead. I was like, ‘Why hadn’t he got out?’ Then I remembered I’d asked him to call 911.”

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A two-alarm structure fire burns early Wednesday along the 900 block of Chuckanut Drive south of Bellingham. Julia Stark Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

‘I just wish we’d had five minutes more’

As previously reported in The Bellingham Herald, crews from South Whatcom Fire and the Bellingham Fire Department were dispatched at 1:12 a.m. Wednesday to the 900 block of Chuckanut Drive.

Bellingham’s Engine 2 was the first to arrive on scene at 1:21 a.m. and found the house fully engulfed in flames, prompting them to call the second alarm to get more fire personnel and equipment on scene.

South Whatcom Fire Authority Chief Dave Ralston said it is believed that the fire started in the back of the house and spread to the kitchen before destroying the house.

“We went defensive on it right away,” Ralston told The Herald. “It was an older-design home with split, multiple levels, and it became unstable, so we basically had to stay outside putting water on it and let it burn itself out.”

Unfortunately, that meant the Millers lost everything from family photos, to projects Henry had made when he was young and even their clothes. Though they were able to rescue Irish and Annabelle, the couple’s 12-year-old rat terrier, Bruno, and their cats, Lionel and Tabitha, are believed to have been lost in the fire.

Denise said the couple has some renter’s insurance, but she believes it probably won’t cover everything and certainly can’t replace the irreplaceable.

Tom suffered some smoke inhalation, while Denise had burns on her hands, feet, back and face from when she went back into the house. Both were taken to St. Joseph’s hospital for treatment and evaluation and released Wednesday.

Whatcom County fire investigator Will Anderson told The Herald Thursday that the cause of the fire is still undetermined and is being investigated.

“I just wish we’d had five minutes more,” Denise said. “I think the whole thing, from the time I woke up until the time the whole house was engulfed in flames was maybe four minutes.”

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A fire that destroyed the house along Chuckanut Drive early Wednesday just south of Bellingham. The parents of Henry Miller, who started Henry’s Humdingers and appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” were renting the house, but escaped with minor injuries. Julia Stark Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

House full of fire history

According to Herald archives, a house on the same property as Wednesday’s fire was destroyed more than 35 years earlier by a fire on Sunday, Oct. 2, 1983.

A Herald story on Oct. 4, 1983, said the home was owned by Wayne Miller at the time and that then-Whatcom County Fire Marshall Dave Langford suspected arson as the cause.

Bill D. Huchkins, 28, was suspected of starting his roommate’s house on fire following an argument, then-Whatcom County Undersheriff Doug Gill told The Herald, causing an estimated $100,000 damage. Langford said the 1983 fire started in the living room, where “accelerants” were found.

According to records supplied to The Herald by the Whatcom County Superior Court clerk’s office, Huchkins pleaded guilty in late 1983 and received a deferred sentence and had to make restitution. The records showed that an order to remove restitution was filed in 2003 after Huchkins died.

But the house hasn’t been the only thing to burn on the property.

Neighbor Julia Stark told The Herald that her stepfather remembered a row of 20 to 30 evergreen trees approximately 25 feet tall caught fire approximately 10 or 11 years ago after a burn pile was left unattended.

It was Stark, who was winding down from work early Wednesday, who called 911 to report Wednesday’s fire after she said she was alerted to it by “some pops and an explosion.”

The time Denise Miller was awakened was corrected on April 12, 2019.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.