Leon Nepper escaped his home at 1045 Tagish Estates Rd. with little more than the clothes on his back: an old, green work jacket, a black long-sleeved shirt, jeans and a felt hat. Apart from some clothes friends have given him and a pair of long johns he’s bought, it’s his entire wardrobe.
On the afternoon of Jan. 4, Nepper, 67, was resting on his couch watching TV when he heard wood crackling. His chimney had caught fire. He used fire extinguishers and water to control the flames, but there wasn’t much water pressure “and the fire just kept on burning,” he said.
He phoned a friend who called the fire department. Volunteer firefighters from Tagish, Carcross and Marsh Lake and emergency medical personnel arrived about half an hour later.
The fire is being ruled as accidental and the fire marshal’s office is still investigating, said Kevin Taylor, the deputy fire marshal, on Wednesday. The entire roof system needs to be replaced, he said. But the structural parts of the walls are still good, he said. The department estimates the house suffered about $100,000 in damages, said Taylor.
Property assessments pegged his home’s value at about $150,000, said Nepper. The basement is fine, but the main floor is gone, he said. “The house is totalled,” he said. He salvaged some food from the refrigerator. “Everything else is, from the water, is frozen right into the main floor. You can’t get nothing out of it,” said Nepper.
He doesn’t plan on rebuilding his home of nearly 16 years, he said. Even if he wanted to, he can’t afford it. A former sheet metal worker, he retired about 10 years ago. Pensions provide him with about $1,300 a month, he said. He didn’t have house insurance, he said.
And he needs more than a new house.
This week, Nepper left Whitehorse to stay with his brother and sister-in-law on Vancouver Island. They’re offering him more than shelter after a fire. At the end of this month, he’ll be having surgery in Vancouver on his jawbone.
Over eight years ago, Nepper had throat cancer. Radiation broke his jaw. He still feels the effects. If he laughs too hard or talks too much, “it just kills me,” he said.
He wears a patch, similar to a Nicotine patch, which delivers heavy-duty pain medication. He purees all his food.
“Even when I cook a chicken or whatever, I’ve got to put it in a blender,” he said. His last meal in Tagish was a bowl of chicken soup with a cracked egg he’d stirred into it.
He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return to Whitehorse, or where he’ll be living when he does, he said.
That’s made it hard to accept gifts from friends.
“All of them are offering me clothes and all this kind of stuff, but I can’t take any of it,” Nepper said, hands outspread. “What am I going to do, pack it around with me? I have nowhere to put all of the stuff that people are offering to give me. I appreciate it big time, but I don’t want to be like a gypsy, packing it around all over the place.”
His old house was “like a museum inside,” he said. He’d built the pine structure himself. Knick-knacks filled the two-bedroom, single-storey residence: a picture of golden-laced flamingoes a Chinese friend gave him, hides, caribou horns and a grizzly bear skull from other friends’ hunting trips.
Nepper hasn’t hunted for years as cancer treatments have robbed him of the energy for it, he said. He gets cold quickly, so he doesn’t go ice-fishing, although he sometimes fishes in the summer. He maintained a vegetable garden.
He was a “happy camper,” he said. On the morning of the fire, he’d worked around his house, filling his wood box and moving the snow.
“I’m a fairly individual person,” Nepper said when asked what he’ll miss the most about his home. “Just me, I lived at home. I just, I miss my house, and my own place.”
Nepper moved to Tagish from Marsh Lake for the quiet and space. He and a friend purchased the five-acre property and began building separate houses there. But his friend died of cancer before finishing his.
It sits about 150 feet away from his old house, Nepper said. He plans to rebuild it, and friends have said they’ll help. They’re even offering windows and insulation, but he can’t take supplies now, he said.
“I can’t put it outside or it will all get wrecked, because we are in for more snow and more winter.”
The house is really just a skeleton, “but there’s something there to start,” said Nepper.
Nepper’s brother and sister-in-law have set up a fund for him at Scotiabank. The fund is called Benefit of Leon Nepper and is number 709 200 152 919. People can donate at any Scotiabank branch.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at