Barnum's kittens Mellow, left, and Pepper escaped the fire that destroyed his home. He has been staying at a motel since Monday, and has received $370 from the Red Cross and $80 from his mother. - Bob Pennell

Fire slows teen's rise from ashes

Chris Barnum was starting to make his own way in the world when his little trailer burned last week.

The 17-year-old said he was getting ready to cook beef stew when he tried to light his stove and the space over the burners ignited in a flash.

"I kept on cooking ... I didn't know what happened, and I didn't know my stove was on fire in the back until I saw the flames," Barnum said Friday.

He said he started pouring water and throwing dirt on the flames until he could no longer tolerate the smoke.

"Then I jumped out and yelled for help," he said.

Barnum's neighbors at Shirleen Trailer Park, 602 N. Riverside Ave., rushed to the burning trailer with buckets of water and garden hoses to try to douse the flames, to no avail.

Barnum lost everything except the clothes on his back, his pool cue, a skateboard, and his two kittens, Mellow and Pepper.

Fire investigators have not been able to determine why the flames ignited.

"When I investigated, and traced the line back I could not find a leak," said Karl Giepel, an investigator with the Medford Fire Department.

"It was a very old trailer and (the gas line) might have been over-pressurized or something, but I don't know about that," Giepel said.

The fire came barely a month after Barnum moved into the old fifth-wheel trailer with financial help from his mother, Randi David of White City. She gave the trailer's owner a down payment as a birthday present for her son.

"I was really happy and glad to have my own place finally," he said. "It just sucks, because I worked my ass off to get it."

Barnum said he and his mother had a falling out earlier this year. He said part of the tension was related to his expulsion from Eagle Point High School in May 2009. He acknowledged that he had used drugs and had been involved in frequent fights at school.

"But, I quit it all," Barnum said. "I saw that it was breaking down our family."

"It got me into a lot of trouble, so I stopped what I was doing, and learned my lesson," he said.

Since his expulsion, Barnum has been finding work around the Rogue Valley with the help of the Job Council. He said he has earned his GED through RCC, and he hopes to attend college one day.

Mostly, he has worked construction, but his youth and a troubled economy have made jobs hard to find, he said.

"I've been laid off for a while now," he said.

"I'm just turning in applications like crazy around Medford."

After the fire, Barnum took the money he earned through the Job Council and moved just over the fence from his gutted trailer to the Cedar Lodge Motel.

He has been staying at the motel since Monday, and has received $370 from the Red Cross and $80 from his mother. He has an uncashed paycheck, but he has been unable to cash it because he lacks identification. Barnum said he lost all his identification in the fire except for a Rogue Community College ID card.

He said he will be able to stay in the motel only until Thursday, when his funds dry up. After that, Barnum doesn't know where he will go, but he is optimistic.

"I don't want to go back to White City," he said. "That's where everything went wrong."

Samuel C. Wheeler is a Mail Tribune intern. E-mail him at

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