Former state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and her husband told authorities their fireplace was the cause of the blaze that destroyed their rural Alma farmhouse early Saturday morning.
Vinehout, who just left office last month after 12 years representing a swath of west-central Wisconsin from Alma to Eau Claire, and her husband, Douglas Kane, said they were the only ones home when they were awakened at about 1 a.m. by the sound of fire alarms going off and quickly realized their house was engulfed in flames, according to a news release from the Buffalo County sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office received a report at 1:17 a.m. Saturday from a neighbor saying she woke up and noticed the home at W1490 Cesler Valley Road was on fire.
When emergency units arrived, about a third of the house was up in flames, the news release states.
Kane told authorities the couple had started a fire in the fireplace and that it was still going when they went to bed.
The Alma, Mondovi, Fountain City, Tri-Community, Nelson and Waumandee Montana Lincoln fire departments fought the fire but were unable to put it out, with weather and road conditions near the house hampering their efforts, the release indicates.
After a post on Vinehout’s Facebook page reported the news that all family members and farm animals were safe but that a fire had destroyed the house and all of its contents, the family received an outpouring of sympathy and support on social media, with many people asking how they could help.
That prompted Eau Claire City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann, state Democratic Party chairwoman Martha Laning and 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party chairwoman Lisa Hermann to launch a Facebook fundraiser Sunday to help the family start over.
“Kathleen and Doug got out with only the shoes on their feet and the clothes they were wearing,” Werthmann wrote in a Facebook post. “While their insurance will eventually help them with a new home in the coming months, they are in need of immediate help with basic necessities such as clothes, shoes, phones, winter jackets, and food.”
The fundraiser ended Monday morning after exceeding its stated goal of $20,000. The total raised was $22,045.
“Our family is eternally grateful for all the love and support everyone’s shown us these past couple days,” the family said in a statement Monday afternoon. “Between the texts, calls, food and clothes from strangers, and donations on the Facebook fundraiser, we couldn’t ask for a more resounding response in these troubled times. We’re beyond blessed to be a part of this community. Thank you.”
“People really stepped up to help,” said Werthmann, who was Vinehout’s campaign manager for her first state Senate run in 2006 and then worked on her staff and has remained a family friend. “There was so much love for Kathleen and her family after some of the things she’s done.”
While Vinehout was a proud Democrat representing the region, Werthmann said it was heartwarming to see supportive comments and donations from people on both sides of the political aisle.
“I think that speaks volumes for how people put political things aside to try to help (in a crisis),” he said, noting that he spoke to Vinehout on Saturday and she was in total shock about the fire.
One example of the bipartisan nature of the support on Facebook came in a comment regarding the fundraiser from Republican state Rep. Bob Kulp of Stratford.
“I just heard about this, and I needed to share it,” Kulp wrote. “Former Senator Kathleen Vinehout lost their family home on Saturday morning, and although Sen. Vinehout and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, I donated to her family’s rebuilding efforts, and if you feel lead to, I’d encourage you to do the same.”
Vinehout was elected to the Senate in 2006 and re-elected in 2010 and 2014. She did not seek re-election last year because she ran for governor.