A bark in the dark of the night may have saved a Mesa del Caballo man's life after his house caught fire Saturday morning.
Just after 3:15 a.m. Saturday, the barking of "Rebel" was the only alarm to awaken his owner, Steve Gehring, giving the man just minutes to escape from his burning house trailer.
"If I had been in there another five minutes I would have been trapped," Gehring said Monday, petting his best friend in front of his burned-out home near the Houston Mesa General Store, which Gehring owns. Gehring ran out of the house with nothing but a T-shirt on. He grabbed for a jacket, but it too was on fire, he said.
On Monday, investigators sifted through the charred remains of the trailer, trying to determine the cause of the blaze. Acting Mesa del Caballo Fire Chief Frank Hansen turned the investigation over to Gila County Sheriff's Det. George Ratliff, who called in the state fire marshal to assist.
Gehring, waving his arms in anger, claimed Monday that arson was the cause. He said he believes his testimony in the Freeman trials in Montana and a national feature article about the incident led to recent death threats against him.
"I received a phone call this morning that said, 'See what happens,' and (they) started laughing and hung up," Gehring said.
The scene will be under the guard of the Gila County Sheriff's Volunteer Posse until the investigation is complete.
The fire alarm call went out at 3:38 a.m., dispatching both Mesa Del Caballo and Payson fire departments, said Capt. Martin de Masi of the Payson Fire Department. Mesa del's Department was the first to arrive.
"We could see the flames from the fire house. We knew we had our work cut out for us," said Hansen. His crew included six fire fighters, an engine and a water tender.
Payson firefighters arrived at the fire at 3:47 a.m. and brought with them an engine, a water tender, a utility truck and a rehab unit to support the firefighters.
"It took about 15 to 20 minutes to bring (the fire) under control," Hansen said.
Only two feet separated Gehring's trailer and his wood-framed store, which survived virtually unscathed. Hansen credits the actions taken within the first few minutes by his firefighters and those from Payson for saving the store. The well-known landmark will remain open during the clean up efforts.
A former member of the Mesa del Fire Department himself, Gehring was desperate to help fight the fire and save his home. "I wasn't scared of the fire -- I wanted to kill it," Gehring said.
But he was unable to help and has lost his home and, he said, his primary income as a paralegal. He estimated his losses at $50,000 to $60,000. Gone are his extensive law library, desk, files, and all of his computer equipment. He said his house and belongings were not insured.
The fire started in or under the front room and hall of the trailer, about the center/front of the building, Gehring said. He claims there was nothing there that could have ignited the fire.
While suspicions surround the early morning blaze, Gehring found his neighbors and friends coming to his aid. Gehring had tears in his eyes as he stood in borrowed clothes remembering the kindness of his neighbors.
Neighbor and long-time friend Bryan Boulet reached into his pocket the morning of the fire and handed Gehring $200 to deal with the immediate losses. Friends have taken him out for dinner, others have assisted with the clean up and still more are already talking about a benefit.