ARLINGTON — Life at Dutch Mills Farm is divided into before and after.
Before the fire, owner Helga Roberts, 34, and her family were living the dream they’d worked for. Her business of horse boarding, training and riding lessons was bustling.
The family’s five-year-old barn sat amid 25 peaceful acres in the Bryant area, bordering the Pilchuck Tree Farm. There were 10 horses inside.
On Aug. 9, Roberts and her husband, Jason, woke up in the middle of the night. The barn was on fire.
They battled the flames, trying to pull the horses loose, saving some. Helga Roberts and her father, Henry van Doorn, both suffered burns.
The fire took the lives of six horses and injured several more. Two are still recovering.
The hurt and the grief remain, but the family is ready for the future. A handful of loyal clients stood by them, and the community rallied in support.
The Roberts started rebuilding the barn in January. A grand reopening is set for Saturday.
“There’s not a black hole anymore,” Helga Roberts said.
She still has a hard time talking about that night and the months that followed. It’s hard to sleep with the memories of the fire’s smells and sounds, she said.
“I’ll be driving and all of a sudden it hits you that it’s gone, it’s still gone, even though it’s been replaced,” she said. “What we all worked hard for, it’s gone.”
The loss included not just clients, but family mementoes stored in the barn, including their daughter’s baby clothes, pictures and hand-made antiques.
Nothing is worse than the horses.
Their deaths will “always be an open wound,” Jason Roberts said.
Sue Putnam, 40, of Arlington, lost her horse, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood named Harley.
She also lost her hang-out spot. She was proud to show people the farm, the sanctuary she shared with her horse and her friends.
After the fire, Putnam kept showing up at the farm because it was the only place where everyone understood how she felt, she said. They all could be sad and mad together.
“The barn is not just a place where you keep your horse,” she said. “It’s a place where you have camaraderie with a bunch of people who enjoy the same passions. What I felt the most was this oddness about wanting to go back to the barn, even though it was still smoldering.”
Putnam drew strength from Helga Roberts, as did others, she said. It was Helga Roberts who spent weeks visiting the clinic, tending to injured horses and helping her clients move on.
Within days of the fire, Helga Roberts’ father, Henry van Doorn, set up lights and a portable toilet outside so people could come and ride, Putnam said.
The sight made her cry. It was all she needed.
The farm is a place where people can sit in the sun and feel good, said van Doorn, 63.
He started planning it when he began considering retirement about a decade ago.
The property includes his 20 acres and the Roberts’ five. He does the maintenance and finances.
Van Doorn wanted to give his daughter a future, a way to provide for herself and her family doing what she loved most, he said. The farm will be there for his granddaughter Anna-Lynn, 2, as she grows up.
Van Doorn said he feels confident that his daughter will rebuild her business.
The roughly 6,500- square-foot barn includes 22 stalls, almost double the old barn’s capacity. There also is an indoor arena with a heated viewing room and coffee machine. It’s all outfitted with concrete walkways, so the doors won’t stick in the mud, like they did the night of the fire. The outdoor arena still stands.
“It is a beautiful barn. It looks great,” he said. “I think there is a good future again.”
Cheryl Potampa, 50, of Snohomish, and her husband, Mark, remained clients.
Their 16-year-old Appaloosa, Monty, survived serious burns to his back.
The farm is a family-oriented, positive place, Cheryl Potampa said. Her family was grateful for the Roberts’ support after the fire.
Going to their first horse show together again in March and taking home ribbons felt right.
“I just can’t tell you how strong that family is,” Potampa said. “They never complain. They always look to the future.”
Saturday’s grand reopening is, in part, a way for the family to thank everyone who helped them survive, Helga Roberts said.
People brought food for humans and horses, blankets, saddles. The donations kept coming for months, many from strangers.
“The generosity of people around us has been amazing,” she said. “The kindness of people we didn’t even know. We were baffled, which was really nice.”
They expect to have six horses in the barn by Friday, including two client horses and a rescue horse. Helga Roberts is training and caring for the rescue horse to give back, she said.
She looks forward to new clients, new horses, happiness, fun and horse shows, she said.
“To just get back to normal life, I guess,” she said. “Having a barn again, at least I can start again on having normalcy.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; email@example.com.
Farm grand reopening
Dutch Mills Farm in the Bryant area is planning a grand reopening Saturday after a fire destroyed their barn and killed six horses in August. The public is invited.
Time: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: 28410 Kunde Road, Arlington
More info: www.dutchmillsfarm.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-403-0350