Mount Clemens couple’s lives, home saved from fire

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published February 28, 2013

 Mount Clemens resident Robert Winkler believes Renee White saved his home and his and his wife’s lives. White alerted the couple to a fire inside their garage on Feb. 12.

Mount Clemens resident Robert Winkler believes Renee White saved his home and his and his wife’s lives. White alerted the couple to a fire inside their garage on Feb. 12.

Photo by Julie Snyder

MOUNT CLEMENS — If it hadn’t been for a visit to urgent care for a breathing issue the night of Feb. 12, Mount Clemens resident Renee White may have never detected the odor of smoke outside her home on Smith Street.

“It was so strong, I thought my garage was on fire,” said White.

It wasn’t, but White was no less concerned.

She leashed up her dog and decided to take the pooch for a walk, mainly to see if she could find where the smoke was coming from.

White walked only a short distance because the smoke smell began to lessen. She knew she was getting “colder” — further away from the source.

“I got in my car and drove around with my window down,” said White, who first went down Lois Lane, a street that runs off of and curves west of Smith. “I didn’t see anything there, but the smell was getting stronger.”

White drove another street to the west, Beuland. That’s where she found what she was looking for.

“When I found out where it was coming from, all I saw was a wall of smoke,” she said.

White quickly jumped out of her car and started knocking on the breezeway door of the home she was already familiar with.

Inside, homeowner Robert Winkler was intently watching the Michigan State University men’s basketball game against University of Michigan, while his wife, Elaine, was in another room watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. It was just after 9 p.m.

There was no immediate answer at the door, so White ran to the front door just as the homeowner, Robert Winkler, was opening the breezeway door.

“I heard the doorbell and I went to the front door. She was standing there with her eyes wide open,” said Winkler. “She said, ‘Your house is on fire!’ And all I said was, ‘No.’ Like, no way.”

Winkler said he went back to the breezeway that connects his home and garage and opened the door leading to the garage.

“Flames just shot inside so I quickly shut the door,” he said. All the while, Elaine Winkler was calling 911.

Winkler said the Mount Clemens Fire Department arrived within minutes and he and his wife sought shelter at a neighbor’s home across the street. That neighbor was none other than Ross Champion, more widely known as Roscoe the Clown.

Mount Clemens Fire Capt. Joseph Stark said the fire was accidental and was started by an electrical short in a lamp. Winkler had been working on a project in the garage earlier that day.

The fire department was able to save the garage, though it will need extensive work to repair the fire and smoke damage. And the Winklers lost a good amount of belongings that were inside, including the two kayaks Robert Winkler had built himself.

“We don’t know the extent of the damage, monetarily-wise,” he said. “That’s all being evaluated, at this point.”

The loss of material items is almost meaningless compared to what could have been lost, Winkler said.

“We’re very fortunate — we really are,” said Winkler, a retired teacher of 36 years at Mount Clemens High School. “In 20 more minutes, the whole house would have been on fire. We might not have made it out.”

White is still intrigued by all the coincidences leading her to the Winkler home that night.

“The wind was blowing exactly west to east that night; that’s why no one else noticed the smell,” she said. “It’s a good thing I went to see the doctor that night.”

And White already knew of Robert Winkler, as Winkler and her father taught together at Mount Clemens High School, and she is a former student. She also sees Winkler frequently as she walks her dog almost every day around the neighborhood.

“We’re a very close neighborhood,” Winkler said. “But Renee went above and beyond to let us know what was going on. That’s an important thing.”