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County plow driver jumps fence, saves woman from fire

The entire east side of this home was left charred after it was destroyed by fire Saturday, Nov. 11, in the town of River Falls. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Rhett is Barbara Johnson's lone surviving dog after a house fire killed 13 other dogs Saturday, Nov. 11. Gretta Stark / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
River Falls firefighters were assisted by other area firefighters in putting out a house fire on Highway 65 Saturday morning, Nov. 11. Assistant Fire Chief Mike Moody said flames could be seen coming from windows when firefighters arrived on scene. Photo courtesy River Falls Fire Department.3 / 4
Firefighters and emergency personnel line Highway 65 after responding to a house fire Saturday, Nov. 11. Gretta Stark / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

Barbara Johnson and several others spent Saturday morning, Nov. 18 outdoors, moving fences, cleaning up after a devastating house fire with one volunteer operating a skid steer. Though the day was chilly, they kept themselves busy. Meanwhile, Johnson's dog, Rhett, ran back and forth in a pen, watching the humans work, keeping an eye on Johnson.

Johnson said Rhett has been keeping an eye on her ever since a fire destroyed her house at N7521 Highway 65 Saturday, Nov. 11.

Johnson and Rhett, and two cats, survived the fire.

Johnson said she woke up to find smoke in her house on the 11th. She was in the front bedroom of the house at the time.

"As I walked toward the front doors, somebody was pounding on the door," she said.

It was Tony Olson.

A Pierce County plow driver, he'd been called out to plow and salt roads at about 4:30 a.m. He had run his beat to River Falls, and was on his way back to Ellsworth when he saw the smoke and flames coming from the east end of Johnson's house..

He called the sheriff's department on his two-way radio, told them the fire number, and asked them to call the fire department.

Then, he parked his truck and ran up to the house, jumping over the gate as it was too hard to figure out how to open it in the dark.

"Barb was standing inside the door," Olson said, "I asked her if there was anybody inside the house, and she said no, it was just her and her animals, her dogs."

Johnson had wanted to go back for her dogs

"I told her she can't go back in the house and tried to coax her out of the house," Olson said. They were able to open one kennel and get one dog out—Rhett. Around that time, Olson said, they saw one of Johnson's cats run from the house as well.

Johnson put Rhett in a kennel far enough away from the fire to keep him safe, while Olson opened the gate for the fire department.

Then he turned around.

"She was gone again," Olson said. "The last time I saw her she was walking straight west so I ran down that way and she was down around behind the house and she was getting too close to the house again, so I had to keep her corralled from the house because the windows and things were exploding."

Johnson lost 13 border collies in the fire. She had a special bond with the dogs.

"I just wish I could have convinced him to go back in and save more of my family members," Johnson said. "But he was a blessing. He was definitely an angel. He talked me out of going back in, and I suppose it was for the best, but it's one of those routines where my heart was in that fire. I really feel very sorry for him...he was trying to save me."

Olson said he's grateful he happened to drive by that morning.

"You're darn right I am," he said. "I more than likely saved the woman's life, and it's part of me."

He said he always stops to help people. He carries a set of tools in his car and is always prepared to stop and help someone having car trouble on the side of the road, for example.

Olson has been working for the highway department for around 30 years.

Johnson said as the only human living with 14 dogs, they made her part of their pack, which contributed to the unique bond she felt with the dogs.

Though she said it's a devastating loss to have lost the other 13 dogs, Rhett is a great comfort to her.

"I wouldn't still be standing if it weren't for him," she said.

She's been put up at one of the local hotels, and she said the staff have been kind and let him stay with her.

"I just can't tell you how much I appreciate it, and I've told them several times. It's just a blessing to have him with me," Johnson said.

Two of Johnson's four cats have survived the fire for sure, and she's hopeful she might find the other two at some point.

Johnson's family has been breeding border collies since at least 1734, in Scotland, and then in the United States, she said.

"I had dogs whose pedigrees go back to the dogs that my grandfather and my great-grandfather and my great-uncle brought over when they emigrated from Scotland," Johnson said. "So this was definitely a part of my soul that we lost."

Johnson will be able to continue the line through Rhett, and two other dogs. Someone who recently bred two dogs purchased from her plans to give Johnson a female dog from that litter. A friend she's purchased dogs from in the UK before is also looking for a fully trained female for her to import and breed.

So, though it will be to a reduced capacity, Johnson said she will go on.

"The family will go on through Rhett and through the puppy," She said. "These dogs are my life. They truly are my soul."

Johnson said these friends are just two examples of the great generosity she's been shown by the community.

"Being surrounded by this deep kindness and deep generosity," she said, "When something like this happens, you just hit the wall and you don't want to go on until you see how many people care for you and how deeply they care for you, and how they want you to come out of it.

"It's the deepest kind of love and it means that there's almost an obligation to survive."

Her neighbors have helped her care for the herd of goats that she still has in a barn on her property. The credit union stayed open late Saturday to help her get a new debit card, Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services was helpful, and town of River Falls board chairperson Diana Smith has "gone out of her way" to make sure things will go smoothly as Johnson starts the process of taking down the remains of her house and rebuilding, Johnson said.

The board was set to vote Monday on allowing Johnson to keep a trailer at the site of her home for the winter, while deconstruction and reconstruction go on.

She also has a group of friends who are going to take her female goats, all set to have kids, and create a "maternity ward" for them on their property, as Johnson doesn't have heat or electricity or running water at her property right now.

Johnson's friend Kerry Hjelmgren set up a GoFundMe page to help Johnson with any necessary expenses as she deals with the aftermath of the fire. It can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/support-for-barbara-johnson.

A fund for Johnson has also been set up at WestConsin Credit Union.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048
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