After 18 months of building, Lisa and Steve Holett were nearly ready to move into their dream home in Dayton, Montana. It had taken their life savings to build the four-bedroom cabin, set on a hill above Flathead Lake.
It took one wildfire to burn it to the ground in minutes.
The Elmo 2 Fire has overtaken 21,349 acres since July 29, leaving behind a path of devastation. Last week, 150 residences were evacuated, and four primary residences are confirmed to have burned down.
On Aug. 1, multiple people told the Holetts that the way the fire was burning, it wouldn't reach their house. They left to run some errands.
On their way back, the couple saw black smoke rising from the area of their property. The two raced to their house. The sheriff followed them and told them they had five minutes before they needed to leave again. With the help of the sheriff, the Holetts said, they grabbed little more than their dogs, their passports, Lisa's work computer and a handful of clothing from a shed and the camper they were living in while the house was being built. Both the camper and shed were also destroyed.
Ten minutes after they left, Lisa said, they watched as their house went up in flames.
Turning a dream into reality
Eyeing retirement, Steve and Lisa Holett, who are in their mid-50s, bought land in Dayton in 2019.
They were living in Austin, Texas, at the time when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Lisa, who works for a semiconductor company, began working remotely, so they were able to move to their retirement destination early.
To save money, they moved into a camper on their property, where Lisa worked from the kitchen table. In the winter months, the water would regularly go out when the pipes froze, she said.
Meanwhile, Steve spent 12 to 15 hours a day building their dream home. Formerly a prosecutor, he had never taken on a project like this. He said he would watch YouTube videos at night about how to do things like electrical wiring and roof installation and then do it the next day.
The Holetts' goal was to not have looming house payments in their retirement.
"So we took all of our money, bought the land — and it'd be every dime we had [that went] into the house," Steve told NPR. They paid cash for materials as often as they could.
"We've saved and saved and saved for this dream," Lisa said. "We haven't taken a vacation in five years."
Including the land, the Holetts said they put nearly a million dollars into their property. Knowing wildfires were a risk in the area, they invested $50,000 in a fire-resistant metal roof. They finished it at the end of May.
One of the most painful parts of this experience, according to Lisa, was a construction loan they took out for more than $90,000. The term of the loan is just a year, and they'd planned on refinancing it into a mortgage. But since they no longer have a home, they won't be able to get that mortgage.
The Holetts said the local bank has been incredibly nice — the bank president even offered them an RV space at his house — but this disaster means they're faced with repaying the construction loan much sooner than they had planned. Not to mention, they're paying for a house they'll never even live in.
Homeowners insurance isn't available until a home is built. They said they were able to secure only builders risk insurance.
"It's a weird, small policy — it covers products, with none of my 18 months of labor," Steve said. "It's a third, at most, of our savings that it's going to cover."
They had a small land loan remaining, so paired with their construction loan, he said, the insurance money is gone. And they still have to repurchase all the household items they use on a daily basis.
A community steps in to help with recovery efforts
Even just 18 months after moving to the area, the Holetts are feeling the support of their community.
Initially, they resisted crowdfunding. A former classmate of Lisa's started a GoFundMe campaign anyway, and the donations started rolling in. By Aug. 9, 426 donors had contributed a total of $42,521.
The Holetts were surprised to see so many names they didn't recognize on the donation list.
"When I went through the names, I know maybe 30%. So this 70% is just the community or people that wanted to be anonymous," Lisa said.
She said they're going to write a thank-you to every person who donated.
Local businesses are pitching in as well, donating equipment to help clean up the burn site. But there's still the matter of where the Holetts will live long term.
"It's so sad, because there are certain things where I'm like, 'Well, I'm gonna want this in 20 years,'" Steve said. Knowing he'd one day want a wood shop, he spent extra time doing little things like running wires where they weren't yet needed.
"It's just hours and hours and hours. Worthless. Gone. Doesn't matter," he said. "It's just sad. Because, you know, I knew every hole, every screw, everything in that house."
The Holetts still aren't certain what will come next. Currently, while they're staying in an above-garage apartment owned by a friend's neighbor, they're looking for a rental for themselves and their two dogs for the next year. They said they don't have the budget to rebuild their dream house, and they're unsure they want to build something smaller on the same property and be reminded daily of what they lost.
Since he spent so much time building their house, Steve is worried about living in a downsized version that doesn't live up to what he initially created.
More and more, though, he's starting to feel like a new home would be a symbol of how their community helped them, so it would come with good memories.