A fire on Woolworth Street in Tuolumne consumed the home of a family well-known to the Tuolumne education community on Saturday, prompting a groundswell of public support for the couple.
Marlin and Erline Heldstab, both 82, have been recovering from devastation to their home and livelihoods since they fled their the 18500 block Woolworth Street residence just before 8 p.m. on Saturday, said their son, Summerville Elementary School Principal Mitch Heldstab.
Marlin, a 42-year veteran of Summerville High School athletics, and Erline, a 30-year secretary from Summerville High School, were high school sweethearts and have lived in Tuolumne for decades.
Mitch Heldstab said his dad was out coaching the Summerville High School freshman boy’s basketball team Monday night.
“I don’t know that he’s ever missed a game,” Heldstab said.
Since the fire, the Heldstab family has poured through the mounds of wreckage in the blackened driveway and along the home’s charred wooden porch, seeking to salvage whatever family photos and records they could.
His parents were still in shock, Heldstab said, but were coming to terms with the loss.
“It’s hard to watch your family go through your stuff, your memories,” he said. “But my parents are handling it very well. They’ve got a strong support system.”
On Monday, Woolworth Street was quiet but for the soft jangle of chimes still hanging from the charred roof. The husk of a vehicle remained in the carport, belongings were strewn into piles and the plastic white picket fence had contorted from the heat of the fire.
It was a miracle the couple escaped the blaze, said Bob Laughton, 74, of Tuolumne.
He and his wife were driving home on Saturday night, he said, when he felt led by a strange and sudden inclination to look at Christmas lights throughout Tuolumne.
Passing by the holiday ornamentation on the mill, the schools and homes, he was drawn toward a bright beacon on Woolworth Street and discovered not the Christmas decorations he anticipated, but a carport “totally engulfed in flames.”
“It was a God thing,” he said. “We hadn't planned to go there in the first place.”
Laughton, who retired from Los Angeles Police Department after 25 years, saw the flames spread toward the carport roof, the attic and the front door, and heard four to five explosions from within the garage.
Running toward the house, the door swung open, and a woman in her nightgown appeared at the door.
“I said, ‘you gotta get out of there, your house is on fire!’”
They appeared to be hard of hearing, he said, but after frantically motioning toward them, they were soon safe in the street.
“If we had not come up this street at this particular time this fire could have gotten to the point where the roof caved in on these people. Once they were outside it was like they were in shock,” he said.
Emergency dispatch received more than a dozen reports within 10 minutes of the start of the blaze, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office logs noted.
Tuolumne Fire Protection District Fire Captain Jeff Santi said the cause of the fire was still under investigation and undetermined, but investigators believed a flare began on the exterior of the building before traveling into the home.
His department was the first to arrive at 7:56 p.m., he said, with total resources at the fire including two battalion chiefs from Cal Fire, a breathing support team from Columbia College, a truck from Rancheria Fire, a training officer from the Tuolumne County Fire Department, a fire investigation officer, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office and more than a half dozen engines from Cal Fire - Tuolumne Calaveras Unit, the Twain Harte Fire Department, the Mi-Wuk Sugar Pine Fire Protection District, and the Tuolumne Fire Protection District.
The home, an exterior pool house, and the family's vehicle had been destroyed, he said.
“The exposures on both sides were threatened as well, so that was one of our main properties was to protect those exposures before they ignited,” Santi said.
The firefighting effort was assisted by the calming of wind gusts that had blown through the town earlier in the day, he added.
“Weather was definitely a factor.”
There were no injuries to any residents or firefighters, he said, and emergency services left the area just after midnight the next morning.
Santi said lots of family and friends came to their aid.
Marlin Helstab was a starter in four sports in high school and was Tuolumne County’s first Pop Warner football coach, according to a profile about him in The Union Democrat. He worked at the Westside lumber mill, then at Kelley Motors. He taught a body and fender class at Summerville.
The story said Helstab “bleeds black and orange.”
Mitch Helstab characterized the emergency personnel as “fantastic” and “extremely professional,” while also noting that his family and community had been with the elderly couple “to clean up and offer any moral support and physical support they might need,” he said.
Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne had offered the couple a room for a few days, he said.
Helstab said his parents had a “good outlook” and are determined to rebuild.
“My parents have been part of this community for a long time,” he said. “This is just one more reason why living in Tuolumne is a fantastic place to live.”