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Scappoose Historical Society's president, Karen Holmberg, says chihuahua alerted her to fire, perished in blaze

PMG FILE PHOTO - Scappoose Historical Society President Karen Holmberg with her chihuahua, Safara, at the Watts House in Scappoose in November. Holmberg said Safaras barking alerted her to the fire in her Rainier house last week, though the dog was unable to escape with her and died in the blaze.

Just after 3 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 22, local firefighters responded to the home of Scappoose Historical Society president and curator, Karen Holmberg, located in the 400 block of East C Street in Rainier. 

When firefighters arrived, Holmberg was already outside, having crawled through a bathroom window to escape the blaze.

Holmberg, 78, who has undergone surgery to have both knees and her hip replaced, said she woke up to the fire thanks to the alarmed bark of her loyal chihuahua, Safara. 

"She slept in my lap, and I thought it was another trip to her wee-wee pad, but I woke up and saw the fire," Holmberg said. "If she hadn't barked, I don't know what would have happened. She literally saved my life." 

The power was out and Holmberg said the bedroom door handle wasn't working properly. She navigated in the dark to the bathroom and shut the door. 

"I just knew I had to get out that window, but I didn't know how I was going to do it. I still don't know how I really did it," she said. "Do or die, think of something or be gone." 

Holmberg's phone was still inside, so she "went hollering and screaming" outside and honked her car horn, but no one woke up. She drove to the fire station and banged on the doors. Nothing. She drove to the police station and pounded on the doors there. Again, nothing. 

"Finally, I went to the Chevron and, well, I was a sight," Holmberg said. "They knew right away I wasn't in too good of shape and they called 911." 

CRFR PHOTO - A fire broke out at Scappoose Historical Society President Karen Holmbergs home in Rainier on Wednesday, Feb. 22. Holmberg escaped through a window. Firefighters were able to contain the blaze to one room.According to Jennifer Motherway, Columbia River Fire & Rescue's public information officer, Holmberg was transported to the hospital by Clatskanie Fire District medics with serious injuries. Holmberg said she suffered burns down her back, smoke inhalation, and cuts and bruises from her climb through the window. 

Motherway said by the time the battalion chief arrived, an estimated 15 minutes after the call, the fire had been extinguished. It had been contained to a single room, Holmberg's office. In addition to CRFR and Clatskanie Fire, a Longview Fire Department engine also responded. In total, 15 firefighters and two battalion chiefs responded to the house fire. 

Safara, the dog who saved Holmberg's life, did not survive.

Holmberg left the hospital on Sunday, Jan. 26, and is staying with a friend. Scappoose Historical Society vice president, Elaine Thompson, stops by every day to change bandages. 

"She wanted to go to the Watts House today, so I took her. I went down the stairs ahead of her so she'd hit me if she fell and not go all the way down the stairs. She wanted to check email and didn't want anyone to think she'd abandoned it," Thompson said. "She's a stubborn Scandinavian." 

In a fateful turn of events, on Jan. 22, 1976, Holmberg lost her home and everything she owned to a house fire in Alaska. Two fires on the same day, 44 years apart, and both on the day before her birthday. 

"I think a lot of the shock was reliving that one, too," Holmberg said. "I kept remembering it and reliving things from that fire." 

Holmberg's hair is almost all gone, singed away by the fire. The itching from healing burns is frustrating her and she's struggling to get over the smoke inhalation. Although she misses her dog, Thompson said she was in good spirits — and that spirit can be heard in Holmberg's voice as she spoke of her trip to the Watt's House. 

Via phone, Holmberg insisted she didn't think she'd be returning to work for a little while, as her friend yelled in the background, "She will

not go to work!" But, Holm-

berg said, she had email to return.

"One is a pen pal for about ten years. When you write to them every day and all of the sudden they're not hearing from you, they have to be wondering why," Holmberg said. "You feel bad for not being able to stay in touch."


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