Burning down the house, on purpose

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Erika Mellmann felt a brief moment of sadness last Thursday as firefighters burned her favorite room in the house, the office.

Mellmann had stopped by her property on River Cove Road to check the mail. Smoke poured out of the garage. Firefighters wearing oxygen masks rushed about.

Mellmann took a few pictures, but the real impact of her family’s decision to donate their house to the Williston Fire Department for training, she said, was on the first day of training three days earlier.

“There was a lot of excitement; we’d been talking about it for months,” the Williston resident said. But “the first time I see flames in the window of my daughter’s room – my daughter’s two-and-a-half – there was a fleeting moment of ‘oh, there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

Every two or three years the Williston Fire Department acquires a structure to use for training exercises, according to Fire Chief Ken Morton. This year, the Mellmanns – Erika, her husband, Joerg, and their two children ages six and two – donated their 1,800-square-foot raised ranch home. Over the last two weeks, Williston firefighters have conducted training exercises there on search and rescue, ladder use, and equipment use.

“There’s definitely way more benefit to being able to do a live fire than when you just smoke up a building somewhere,” firefighter Keith Baker said. Unlike with smoke machine-simulated fires, Baker said, in a real fire staff can see thermal layers, how a fire grows and how smoke changes as the fire gets hotter “so it’s not a surprise necessarily when they go into fire on a real call.”

Having a house with carpet and curtains on which to train is rare, Morton said. (The law requires some pieces of the house to be removed before burning, such as propane and oil tanks and petroleum products like roof shingles.)

The Mellmann donation came because of space needs. With a home-based business and occasional foster children, Mellmann said family members often felt like they were “on top of each other.”

They looked at renovating the house or buying other property in Williston, but both options were expensive. (Currently they are surrounded by 400 acres of relatively undeveloped land, Mellmann said, and they love the location.) In talking with friends and neighbors, someone suggested they burn the house down and start over.

“It was kind of a joke at first,” Mellmann said, “but it started to make more and more sense.”

They did consider deconstructing the house through Recycle North’s Deconstruction Program; the program sets aside reusable materials for later sale. That was going to cost the family, Mellmann recalls, over $16,000. Burning down the house was free. And there’s a tax break.

Under federal law, a house donation to a nonprofit entity like a town fire department is tax deductible, according to the Mellman’s accountant, John Scheer.

“This is not a typical situation,” Scheer acknowledged. “I was a little nervous when they told me about this.”

In his 25 years as a CPA, Scheer said he’s never seen this before. But after doing the research, he said, it seemed straightforward: An appraiser must certify the value of the house on IRS Form 8283, for non-cash charitable contributions, and the fire department also must sign to acknowledge the “donation.” After that, the tax filer may claim the appraised value of the house as a deduction, up to 30 percent of adjusted gross income each year (up to five years) until the full house value is reached.

“As times goes on, more and more of this is going to happen,” Scheer said.

For the Mellmanns, rebuilding will give them more house, dollar for dollar, than if they had renovated, Mellmann said. The modular home they have ordered has a delivery date of early August. Until then, the family is combining several living arrangements: renting a condominium, house sitting, going on vacation and living in a camper on the property.

Mellmann said her six-year-old son was apprehensive about having his house burn down; he was especially concerned about the fate of his fish. Once he understood he could keep his fish and all of his things, however, he wanted to watch the fire. Mellmann said her son was excited for the bulldozers to arrive for excavation.