The Topeka Fire Department blamed unspecified fireworks for the Independence Day blaze three years ago that destroyed Nialson and Karen Lee’s home in southwest Topeka.
Neighbors who were outside saw sky lanterns floating around shortly before the fire ignited around 10:30 p.m. on July 4, 2018, in the back deck area of their home at 3136 SW Arrowhead Road , Nialson Lee recalled last week.
“I guess a lantern landed on our bridge or on some big bushes near the bridge,” he said.
At the time, Nialson Lee was inside preparing to go to sleep next to his wife, who he said was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 53 in 2010 and was unable to walk since 2017.
Nialson Lee is retired after a career that included administering health services for the state of Kansas.
He said he smelled smoke, then heard someone knocking on his front door and ringing the bell “like crazy”.
“They said, ‘Your house is on fire,'” he recalls.
Lee said he took his wife to their front door, helped her arrange for her to lie on a sofa at a neighbor’s house, then spent two hours looking at his house burn.
Items destroyed by the fire included a 75-inch widescreen TV, which Lee had just purchased.
“I lost all my clothes,” he said. “All the furniture I had was gone, except for an item or two.”
The house was insured, but Lee said he had trouble remembering what possessions he and his wife owned so they could share this information with his insurance company and have those items replaced.
He suggested that anyone else with a house fire start compiling this list soon after, while the items are still fresh in their minds.
It’s also a good idea for residents to shoot a video showing everything in their home, just in case they get caught in a fire later, Lee said.
3 years, 3 large fireworks
The Lee’s home is one of three in Shawnee County to have been ravaged by fires caused by fireworks in the past three years.
Investigators concluded that re-ignited fireworks in a garbage can started a fire reported shortly after 2:30 a.m. on July 5, 2018, which destroyed a house at 3017 SW Gisbourne Lane, just north of Sherwood Lake in the Township of Mission, outside the city limits of Topeka.
The improper disposal of fireworks has also been blamed for a fire about 11:30 p.m. on July 2, 2020, which ravaged a house at 301 SW Yorkshire Road.
Lee said State Farm, the insurance company that has been covering the house he and his wife have lived in since 1990, initially concluded that it had not been destroyed.
But that changed about a month later when the building was declared a total loss, he said.
“Like a phoenix, they rebuilt it”
Workers at Topeka-based Joe Little General Contractor “came in and took it all out,” leaving only the home’s chimney, foundation and pool, Lee said.
They then built the new house to be “pretty much the same house,” Lee said.
“Like a phoenix, they rebuilt it,” he said.
Lee said he made some changes to the new home, including making it “a little more modern” while adding a walk-in shower and a second bathroom.
He also made sure that the entire rear deck was covered with a roof, which was not the case before.
Meanwhile, Nialson Lee stayed around a month after the Residence Inn by Marriott in Topeka burned down, while Karen Lee remained in a Midland hospice.
They then lived together in Sherwood Apartments in southwest Topeka until they moved into the new home in February 2019.
“One thing you can’t control”
Although both vehicles sustained water and smoke damage, firefighters rescued a red 2019 Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Corvette that were in the couple’s garage. Nialson Lee said he bought the Corvette the month before, in June 2018.
He said he felt lucky and blessed that although he had to replace some of the frames, many precious family photos came out of the fire intact.
“I was very happy,” Lee said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Still, with fireworks that have been unfolding regularly over the past few days in Topeka, Lee admitted feeling a little anxious.
He used a hose on Friday to water this patio, which contains the house’s only exposed wood.
“I don’t know if that helps,” Lee said. “But I’m a little nervous. It’s something you can’t control.”