SISTERS, Ore. - It's something Sisters resident Don Pierce Jr. had done many times, stepson Jon Randall said Wednesday – but this time, it went horribly wrong.
A 5-gallon gas can he was using to try to kick up a faltering warming fire instead ignited and exploded in his hands, leaving him with fatal burns and critically injuring his sister and a friend last Saturday evening, Jan. 18.
"The fire was having a hard time going," Randall said. "It was something he had done hundreds of times – pour a little gas on it."
As the sun set, the first try to get the fire going in their backyard portable fire pit didn't work.
"Then he told everybody, ‘Hey, stand back,'" Randall said, relating what he'd learned in the days since rushing to his mother's side from his home in Cathlamet, Wash.
"Fortunately, a couple people did stand back, and they were spared the brunt of the fire," he said.
Also fortunately, Pierce's wife of nearly 14 years, Sue Pierce, was inside their home; someone a block away heard the explosion, but she did not.
"She didn't hear it at all," he said. "All she knew was, she saw her sister (Kathleen Pierce) on fire out on the porch, by the back door. My mom ran out there, put a blanket over her to get her extinguished. She didn't even think of where (Don) might be," or that others might be injured as well.
But they were: Four people were burned, including Don Pierce, his sister, a family friend, Steve Ballard, and a neighbor whose hands were burned when she ran over to help try to put out the flames.
The three critically burned people were flown to the Oregon Burn Center at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, where Don Pierce later passed away and the others remain in critical condition.
Randall said the neighbor who rushed over in alarm shouted for everyone to "stop, drop and roll!" – a lesson many first hear in grade school – and "a first responder vacationing here came over to help as well," Randall said.
They were the first of many to step up and help the family in the tough days since.
Randall said his mother and her husband of nearly 14 years had moved to Sisters only about a year earlier, having lost their Redmond home during the economic downturn.
Don worked at Waste Connections, pumping out septic tanks and the like; Sue works at a care facility. Their employers have helped to set up a fund at U.S. Bank in Dorothy S. Pierce's name, to help with what no doubt will be daunting medical bills.
Just hours after the three were flown to Portland, Pierce's wife got the awful word -- he only had hours to live. Sue's daughter, Billie, who lives in the Portland area, rushed to the hospital and was able to pray with and for him before he passed away.
Randall said his stepfather didn't want a funeral service, "but he had so many friends, as he touched the lives of so many with his energetic and positive personality," they're now thinking of instead having a celebration of his life.
"That kind of fits him," Randall said. "If someone said to him, ‘Let's come over, we're having fun!' and my mom is more the type that is like, ‘I don't know if I really want to.' But he was definitely that fun guy."
"He never met a person that didn't become a friend," he said, remembering how everyone would greet him by name when they'd go to the store in Sisters, for example.
"It didn't matter where we went – everyone was like, ‘Don, how's it going?'"
Randall said he hopes others can be spared similar pain by learning what happened and not doing what his stepfather believed was safe to do that fateful night.
But above all, Randall said the family wanted to thank everyone for the support in recent days that has been more than amazing."
Pierce, he said, "was a fun guy who enjoyed the outdoors, hunting, fishing, friends – and was truly devoted to his wife. He was truly one of a kind, and will be greatly missed."
A celebration of life and spaghetti feed fund-raiser in Pierce's memory is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 9 at 1 p.m. at the Redmond Moose Lodge, 3199 N. Highway 97. Friends are urged to come, share favorite memories and say goodbye to a great friend. The cost is $7.