A car horn awakened Downriver Church Pastor Pete Kopplin and his wife, Becky, at 1 a.m. Monday, Jan. 16. Kopplin realized the noise was coming from their home’s garage, which he then entered to figure out what was happening.
“The horn was honking, and the lights were flashing, so I went back in and got my key fob,” Kopplin said during a Jan. 20 phone interview. “I went to turn off the alarm, and it wouldn’t turn off.”
He flipped on the garage lights, approached the car and saw something unexpected.
“There was smoke pouring in from the dash into the cab. It hadn’t yet escaped into the garage,” Kopplin said. “I ran in and alerted my wife, and she called 911.”
He decided he needed to raise the hood and shut off the battery, which meant he needed to open a car door to get the hood raised. He said he opened the door, but he “couldn’t get to the hood. There was just so much smoke. Of course, opening the car door brought oxygen into the car.”
He exited the car and opened the garage door.
“About then, the fire started to just erupt,” he said. “Our garage lit up in flames. Both of our cars were engulfed.”
The 911 dispatcher advised Becky to have the couple and their two sons evacuate the house.
“All of our exits exit on one side or other of the garage, so we had to go into our backyard, which is just basically field,” Pastor Kopplin said. “We were barefoot and in our pajamas and had our dog. My youngest son, Ethan, is a senior in high school, and he broke his foot about five weeks ago, so he’s in a boot.”
The Kopplins live in Spokane, Washington, where Downriver launched Sept. 11, 2016, as a Free Methodist church plant. At the time of the fire, Spokane was covered in snow, and the family huddled and watched their house in flames as their bare feet touched the freezing snow. The Fire Department arrived 10 to 15 minutes later, and they put the family in an ambulance for an hour before extended family members arrived.
The pastor said the family commented as they sat in the ambulance, “We just lost a lot, but we didn’t really lose anything of importance. We just felt the grace of God in the whole thing. We felt like he was there with us.”
“Basically, we lost our garage and the two cars that were in the garage, and then it burned into the house some right where our master bedroom and master bathroom are,” Kopplin said. “If we hadn’t heard the horn, my wife and I likely would have died.”
The pressure from the fire broke every window in the house, and all of the drywall, flooring and ductwork need replacement. Construction will take eight months to a year before the family can return to their home, according to initial estimates. Thankfully, insurance should cover construction costs.
The fire didn’t just affect the Kopplin family’s personal possessions. It also caused significant loss for Downriver Church.
“Our church trailer gets parked at our house because we’re a mobile church, so the back of it was backed up against my garage on the side that took the most damage,” Kopplin said. “The trailer was a loss.”
The trailer contained the dividers for the children’s classes, toys, tablecloths and other supplies for the church plant. While the trailer’s contents weren’t burned badly, they were covered in smoke and need to be cleaned or replaced. Because many are inexpensive items, replacement is cheaper than cleaning.
Kopplin said River Conference Superintendent Dennis Jeffery and Bishop Matthew Thomas have been in close communication with him. Twenty minutes before our interview, Kopplin received word from Thomas that Downriver would receive support from the Bishops’ Crisis Response Fund. When contacted by this reporter, Thomas confirmed that the fund’s contribution will cover more than half of the church’s loss from the fire.
The church also is having to move events following the fire. Although Downriver rents a school on Sunday mornings, some church activities — including youth group, college group, Bible studies and board meetings — were held at the Kopplins’ home.
The Red Cross put the family in a low-budget motel that was the only lodging available in the middle of the night. After a couple of nights, the family moved to a nicer hotel where their room flooded.
“We heard some water, but we weren’t sure from what. About 15 minutes later, my son Timothy came in the other room and said, ‘Dad, there’s water coming down the ceiling.’ We’ve had just unbelievable, torrential freezing rains in Spokane,” Pastor Kopplin said. “It dropped gallons of water into the floor of the hotel, so we obviously couldn’t stay there.”
The family moved to an extended stay hotel 10 miles away in suburb of Spokane, and they hoped their trials were over.
“The first day after being there, I had to take my son to a follow-up doctor’s appointment, and as we were sitting in a drive-through of the coffee shop, the entire roof of the coffee shop dumped ice down on my brand-new truck,” he said.
The ice left 15 dents in the hood. A friend of the pastor teased him that he was going through trials like Job in the Bible.
Another friend reminded him of a Bible verse that seemed fitting for the family’s experiences: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:2).
Kopplin expressed gratitude for the “overwhelming amount of support we’ve gotten from Christians and non-Christians alike.” That support includes the teachers and families of Northwest Christian High School where he coaches wrestling and track. Kopplin has strong ties to the local arts community because he has worked professionally doing web and graphic design, and local artists have rallied to help the pastor’s family even though many of them are not Christians.
The family’s ordeal has been covered by local television news, and many more community members are connecting to the church’s Facebook page following the fire.
Timberview Church Pastor Michael Hockett was already scheduled to speak Sunday (Jan. 22) at Downriver on the topic of “restoration” for a pulpit swap. Kopplin said the previously selected topic was fitting because the church is going through its own restoration after the fire. The fire will lead to the church having a new trailer with new ministry materials, and, more importantly, the church has connected with more people in the community.
“We’re going to be able to do ministry to such a greater degree, because the restoration that’s happening is making it better than it was to start,” Kopplin said. “I couldn’t have ever imagined that it would take a fire to our home to really be able to catalyze our church and to catalyze the community.”
Jeff Finley has served as the managing editor of Light + Life since 2011. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for Sun-Times Media. He serves as a volunteer youth leader at John Wesley Free Methodist Church.1