TRAVERSE CITY — Two boxes, a VHS tape and a pair of rubber boots. All blackened, all reeking.
This was the “keep” pile. A melted glove was fused to a blackened box, its plastic rolled back like a sneer to expose bright white medicine box teeth. William James Berkshire III broke off the glove, tossed it into the dumpster, adding the remains of his First Aid kit to the salvage pile.
Berkshire tried to put out the fire himself, as a raw spot on his nose and his Teamster-button ball cap with a singed American Legion poppy testifies. But the fire tore through his camper quickly Sunday night and he couldn’t stop it, Berkshire said. The Growler camper, parked at Roy’s General Store on Hammond Road, was gutted.
“The door to the wood stove blew open and flames shot out three feet,” Berkshire said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Fires move fast in campers, which are typically constructed of combustible materials like paneling and press board, said Pat Parker, chief at Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department. The Fire Department took the call at 6:15 p.m. Sunday, but once the flames got into the mattress, the fire “took off,” Parker said.
Propane costs make burning wood more attractive in a camper, Parker said. Heavy snows in the state parks also make it difficult for someone like Berkshire to camp on the public land this winter, he said.
“His whole life possessions were in the trailer,” Parker said of Berkshire. “I’m glad he got out. You can replace a trailer but you can’t replace a life.”
An outpouring of support to help Berkshire after the blaze moved as quickly as the flames. The decision to replace Berkshire’s camper took about 30 seconds to make, said Rob Hentschel, former county commissioner and Roy’s chief executive officer.
“You don’t have to look around very far to find someone who has it worse off than you,” Hentschel said.
His family purchased a used hunting camper this past fall and hadn’t even used it yet, Hentschel said. American Waste donated a dumpster to Berkshire for clean up, and the Red Cross is helping him with clothes, food and a place to stay, Hentschel said. People have been dropping by and asking Berkshire what they can do to help, he said.
Berkshire is a known-quantity at Roy’s - a colorful, grizzled codger who goes by “Mountain Man.” Generous with his time and stories, he parks in the lot from time to time. He has family in Kalkaska and is a long-haul trucker by trade. Hentschel took him out to lunch a few days before the fire.
“I’m the property manager so I wanted to make sure he was alright,” Hentschel said. “He has had a pretty rough life.”
Even while Berkshire picked through the gunked-up pile of his possessions, his concern was for others. He dispensed advice as he pondered his traps and snares, now reduced to twisted metal. His deer hides, the “early American garments” that kept him warm on minus-50 degree nights, were charred.
“Don’t discard your pelts,” he advised. “You can tan them and sell them for $20 or $30. Or keep them. They’ll keep you warm when you need it.”
He talked about his friends in the trucking business — plenty who’ve got it worse than he does, he said. He unfolded a creased-to-softness photograph from the Jan. 28 Record-Eagle with a picture of a fatal pileup on I-94 involving semi trucks.
“Drive slow,” he said. “Those truckers keep the country moving.”
Berkshire hadn’t been able to bring himself to move anything into the new green trailer as of Monday afternoon. He shook his head at the old one.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said.