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IN THE MIDDLE: Tragic loss and amazing blessings sometimes come at the same time

A small cabin built by our son-in-law, Warren Cheatham, went up in flames on Dec. 28. Thankfully, no one was in the cabin at the time. The cause of the fire is unknown. A small cabin built by our son-in-law, Warren Cheatham, went up in flames on Dec. 28. Thankfully, no one was in the cabin at the time. The cause of the fire is unknown. Photos courtesy Warren Cheatham

My daughter, Julie Cheatham, and her husband Warren lost their little cabin near Greybull when it was engulfed in flames just before noon on Wednesday, Dec. 28. But, by the grace of God, they and their five children are all safe and well.

Warren began building the cabin five or six years ago, when he and Julie were living in Greybull. He literally built it by hand — cutting down the trees, hewing and joining the logs and milling the lumber with some help from his father, grandfather and cousins. He put up the outer shell during that first spring, summer and fall, then added a wood stove and began working on the inside.

The result was a cozy cabin, small in square footage and sparse in modern conveniences, but beautifully charming. It had an appealing second-floor loft and a rustic wooden staircase leading up to it. Large windows showcased the view over the landscape between Greybull and Shell, where the cabin stood on the Cheatham family farm.

Warren and Julie moved to Idaho in 2011 so he could return to college to study construction management, and his work on the cabin was limited then to trips back to the farm. But the little log house provided their small family a place to stay while visiting Greybull and Powell, which they still consider home.

Each time they returned, Warren did more work on the cabin, adding a hardwood floor, a kitchen area, a chandelier he made out of antlers, and other rustic features and accents. He added basic plumbing, brought in an electrical line and installed small appliances.

The land Warren built the cabin on was swampy during irrigation season, so he built it on stilts made of telephone poles. The eventual plan was to move it to some other property, whenever that became feasible.

Warren was required to do a couple of internships for his construction management program, and one of those internships brought him and Julie back to Greybull when Julie was expecting their fourth child. Todd was born in Powell in February 2013, and he spent his first couple of months with his family in the little cabin.

Since the cabin was a short walking distance from Warren’s parents’ house, they shared occasional meals in the family home and took care of laundry needs there as well. But the young family spent most of their time in and around the cabin, which provided a cozy place for them to be together and live a bygone lifestyle that most people today can only imagine. Partly because of that simple lifestyle, the children have learned to play cooperatively, using their imaginations instead of electronic games and devices to fuel their energetic play.

I mentioned to Julie again that Wednesday morning how much I like the compassionate, imaginative way they interact with each other. She and the children — Troy, 9, Tallia, 7, Mason, 5, Todd, 3 and Maggie, 1 — had spent two beautiful days with us here in Powell.

Julie had some things to do before she left, so she made the hour-plus drive back to the cabin later than she expected. Meanwhile, Warren had built a fire in the wood stove to make sure it was warm when they returned. He was eating lunch with his parents in the farmhouse when a neighbor sped up to the house in his pickup, blaring his horn all the way. The cabin, Warren quickly realized, was in flames.

They don’t know where the fire started, though it appears it may have been in the roof. Wherever it began, the flames spread very quickly to the loft — where the family would have been sleeping that night — then consumed or charred the rest of the structure. The Greybull and Shell volunteer fire departments and the South Big Horn County Search and Rescue Team responded promptly, but by the time they arrived, the cabin was a complete loss. The fire also claimed most of the Christmas gifts they and their five children had received days earlier, as well as much of their clothing, Warren’s wallet with his money, credit card and IDs, and the construction tools he had stored in the cabin.

Warren, who poured his heart and soul into that cabin along with the hundreds of hours of labor it took to build it, snapped photos as he helplessly watched it burn. He is understandably disheartened at its fiery destruction, and Julie mourns the loss of the little log house that provided shelter and memories for her family, and to which she brought home a newborn son. We are heartbroken for them both.

But there are blessings as well. Warren built and refined the cabin as he and Julie were financially able, and it was debt free, for which they are thankful.

Most of all, we thank God that this precious family was protected from harm when it came so very close.

Just the difference of an hour in the time that Julie and the children got back to Greybull, or in the time that the fire started, could have meant she and the kids would have been inside when it caught fire; Warren might have been outside working on a project. If Julie and the kids all had stayed in Greybull for the two days and three nights they spent with us in Powell, it’s likely the cabin’s wood stove would have been burning for more hours each day. I tremble when I think about what could have happened if that fire had started at night when the family was asleep in their cozy, second-floor loft.

I so admire my daughter, who, while hurting, can still look at the bright side. “I have a peaceful feeling about it all,” she told me as the family drove back to Arizona on New Year’s Day. “I know the Lord has a plan for us.”

And I admire and respect Warren, who, despite his deep personal loss, can still look for the good — character-building strength, at the very least — that might come as a result of this experience.

The cabin, lit by late-afternoon summer sun (left) as it stood on the Cheatham family farm between Greybull and Shell, and its charred remains after the fire.

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