WILLARD, Box Elder County — For nearly a year, Jessi Leavell has been trying to figure out why she lost her house in a fire.
But it isn't as much the cause of the fire that has her so concerned. It's trying to figure out why a fire truck with a crew and 750 gallons of water was allegedly told to stand aside while another fire truck was called, even though the other crew was 30 minutes away.
"It's ludicrous," she said. "We expect these first responders to do what’s in our best interest, to protect us. And frankly, I feel violated that my interests did not come first. The political interests motivated the way they responded."
On May 15, 2017, a fire broke out about 2 a.m. at Leavell's home, 7200 S. 600 West in Willard. The fire started on the outside balcony and quickly spread up the side of the structure into the attic. The family was awakened by a glass patio door that shattered due to the heat.
Leavell, her husband, and her children were able to get out safely, as well as a variety of pets, including dogs, cats, snakes, ferrets and other animals.
About an hour into the fire, crews believed they had it knocked down and began to "salvage and overhaul," according to a report from the volunteer Willard Fire Department. But about 40 minutes later, the fire sparked up again in the attic. About 20 minutes after that, the flames had spread so much that firefighters were forced to go into a defensive position, the report states.
Leavell said had it not been for that flare-up, she believes her house might not have been a total loss.
As she walked around the remains of her burnt house that night, Leavell said she noticed that the firefighters were avoiding eye contact with her. She assumed it was because they felt bad for her loss and didn't know what to say.
She later came to believe that it may have been for a different reason.
"It’s because everybody knew that this didn’t have to go this way,” she told the Deseret News Thursday. "It didn’t have to be as bad as it was."
Leavell believes if an experienced Brigham City fire crew that was standing idle nearby had been allowed to assist with the fire, the second fire — the flare-up — would not have ignited and burned her house down.
Now she is looking for answers over the way her house fire was handled.
Leavell has spent much of the last year collecting fire reports, dispatch documents and talking to fire chiefs about what happened that night.
According to Leavell, a Brigham City Fire Department crew was dispatched to the scene shortly after the Willard crew. The Brigham City firefighters, she said, were already on another call and didn't immediately respond.
The other call was not far from the house fire, and once Brigham City firefighters finished that call, they went to Leavell's house to see if they could provide help, she said.
"They were the second crew to arrive. They were there before Corrine (firefighters were) ever called,” she said.
According to Box Elder County Fire Marshal Corey Barton, Brigham City firefighters were cancelled before they arrived at the Willard house because the fire had already been brought under control at that time.
Yet, not long after that Brigham City crew arrived, Willard firefighters called for a water tank from the Corrine Fire Department to respond. It took 30 minutes for that crew to get to the scene, Leavell said.
A report from the Brigham City Fire Department states: "Engine 22 was arriving upon cancellation. Engine 22 remained on scene to ensure there was no need for Engine 22. Engine 22 was assured they did not need the engine or water on it. Corrine was paged for a water tender at that time."
The Brigham City fire report states its crew was on scene at 2:11 a.m. The report from the Corrine Fire Department states its tender was dispatched at 2:13 a.m. and arrived at Leavell's home at 2:53 a.m.
"(Willard firefighters) said, ‘No. We don’t need you. We’re fine.’ And then less than five minutes after that, after refusing to let Brigham help, the Willard incident commander got on the radio and called for Corrine fire,” an upset Leavell said.
Brigham City Fire Chief Joseph Bach, who was at the scene that night, declined Thursday to weigh in on the allegations, simply stating, "It's up to them what they decide to do with the resources."
A call placed to Willard's fire chief was not returned.
Leavell provided the Deseret News with a phone conversation she said she recorded with Barton. In the recording, she questions the man about why Brigham City crews weren't used.
"I'm just kind of confused why you would turn away water and call other water at the exact same time,” she said in the call.
The man who she says is Barton admits to her that he was surprised the fire took off the second time like it did, but said in the call it would be inappropriate to allege that the result would have been different if the Brigham City crews weren't canceled.
Barton said Thursday the reason the fire sparked up again is because the home had illegal PVC pipe on the gas line to the furnace and somehow the gas didn't get shut off. He also said there was a lot of flammable material inside the home, including gunpowder that fueled the blaze.9 comments on this story
"As far as I knew, Brigham was gone" when Corinne firefighters were called, he told the Deseret News.
Leavell said she wants to sue Willard for gross negligence, but has been told it would be pointless because the fire department has governmental immunity. So instead, she is speaking to the media in hopes of raising awareness. She also hopes to meet with the Utah Attorney General's Office to see if anything can be done from its end.
"I feel there is no voice for the victim. There is no protection for the victim. And that’s got to change," she said.
Contributing: Mike Anderson