When Jerry Eberhardt returned to his Montecito, California, home on Dec. 21 after the Thomas Fire evacuation order was lifted, he was just glad to see it was still standing. When he got into the kitchen, he found the door handle and latch from a back door laid neatly on the counter. Next to it, a note on a page torn from a Rite in the Rain waterproof notebook: “Sorry about the door hardware. Fire got into the trellace [sic] on the front and we had to check inside for fire—FF Pickhardt.”
“I thought, ‘He’s apologizing for saving my house,’” Eberhardt says.
Eberhardt texted a photo of the hardware and note to his oldest daughter, Elizabeth Thorp. Thorp, editor-in-chief of the women’s comedy platform PYPO.com, tweeted the photo, writing in a subsequent tweet that she wanted to find and thank the firefighter who had written the note. Some gentle web sleuthing led her to him on Facebook. His name is Jack Pickhardt, firefighter with the Missoula Fire Department.
Pickhardt and other firefighters had responded to California’s mutual-aid request for assistance from other states. He was one of eight Missoula firefighters to fight the Thomas Fire as part of a five-engine task force, according to Jeff Brandt, assistant chief of operations for the Missoula Fire Department. Joining a task force like that is a voluntary gig, Brandt says. Pickhardt saw that a trellis in front of the Eberhardt house was on fire. After putting that fire out, he had to make sure sparks hadn’t gotten into the house and set anything inside on fire. “I went around to all the doors just to see if anything was open before we kicked in a door,” Pickhardt says. “The latch on the door just gave way when I gave it a good shake and it broke off.”
Thorp sent a Facebook message to Pickhardt, who says he was caught a little off guard. “I didn’t think they’d be able to track me down, and I didn’t really want that kind of attention,” he says now. But he talked to Eberhardt on the phone shortly afterward.
“It was really nice to talk to him. We’re just happy to go down there and do some work that’s meaningful to someone else.”
It was more meaningful than he could have known at the time. Just weeks earlier, the entire family had been gathered at the home as Eberhardt’s wife, Margy, died.
“It was very important to our family that our home was saved, because my mother was ill for a long time, and we were all there together when she passed away in that house not even five weeks before,” Thorp says. “It’s basically all we have left of her, her things and that house, and I was worried for my father, thinking, ‘Are we going to get through this if he loses his house and his wife within six weeks? What are we going to do?’”
Pickhardt had wanted to reassure the homeowners that the hardware hadn’t come off because of a break-in. “I just wanted to give them a little peace of mind that it was firefighters in the course of our work, and not somebody else with nefarious purposes,” Pickhardt says.
The local terrain and vegetation made the Thomas fire a learning experience for the Montana firefighters. “Their local winds were a lot different. We had juniper and manzanita bushes, which are really oily and volatile fuel, and their big trees were different than what we’re used to up here,” he says. The population density was of another magnitude as well. “It’s kind of like up the Rattlesnake where we have that urban-wildland interface, so we have a lot of residences in timber, and down there we had a lot more of that.” A lot more of everything, in fact: The median home price in Montecito is approximately 10 times the Rattlesnake median, and the population of the counties the Thomas fire swept through outpaces that of all of Montana.
Eberhardt is not unfamiliar with Missoula. He spent years working for the investment firm Smith Barney, and occasionally came here to work out of the “very nice office in Missoula.” He’s been in touch with the fire department about doing something to thank Pickhardt.
“Jack deserves credit, and his team. And I’m sure they did it other places that people don’t know because they weren’t inside the house,” Eberhardt says. “It’s just that he was inside, and such a nice young man that he wrote a note, and literally apologized for breaking into my house.”
Eberhardt recently had to evacuate his house again because of mudslides. He’s currently staying at a hotel in Santa Barbara, hoping to return home soon.