Coffey Park Tubbs fire hero now battling aggressive cancer
Michael Mirante is a husband and father with a passion for music, baseball, barbecue competitions and home-brewed beer. For the last two weeks, however, the 49-year-old mortgage marketer has been on a ventilator in a hospital bed in Sacramento.
Sitting a few feet away from her husband on a recent afternoon, Mahrya Mirante wasn’t worried about waking him up. “He’s pretty much sedated and unconscious,” she said.
The couple lives with their 15-year-old son, Evan, on Sweetgum Court in Coffey Park. Their 18th wedding anniversary is May 24, but Mahrya isn’t sure her husband, who is 49, will make it to that day. The B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma doctors found in him in November has been ravaging his body ever since, unchecked by repeated rounds of chemotherapy.
In 2017, Mirante used a garden hose to douse flames to help his family and neighbors prevent the historic Tubbs fire from leveling their homes. Now he’s battling an aggressive cancer in a fight for his life.
“Every time we’d do something, the cancer would come back with a vengeance,” said Mahrya, sounding battle weary during a phone interview. In the background, her husband’s ventilator emitted rhythmic, pneumatic sighs.
Three weeks ago, Michael returned to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento after experiencing delirium caused by high levels of calcium in his blood. Doctors found more cancer, on and around his spleen. He came down with pneumonia, and has been on the ventilator since April 28.
Of the eight houses on Sweetgum Court, just west of the Piner Creek Trail, four burned in the Tubbs fire in October 2017, which destroyed 1,422 residences in Coffey Park alone. The Mirante house was one of those spared, which made them feel lucky, at the time. After talking his way past a police sentry at dawn on October 9, Michael spent hours preserving his own house and others on Sweetgum, dousing spot fires and embers with water drawn from a neighbor’s swimming pool.
“That’s just who Mike is,” said Melanie Campbell, a close friend of the Mirantes. “A rock for his family, a guy you could count on.”
Campbell recalled how, during her 2014 fight with breast cancer, Michael and Mahrya sat with her during chemotherapy and made food for her. “I didn’t have to ask them. They just did it.”
Fearful of looters in the immediate aftermath of the fire, then determined to clean his severely smoke-damaged house, Mirante spent many hours in the burn zone in the days and weeks that followed. Possibly, too many. It was his exposure to chemicals and contaminants released by the flames, Mahrya suspects, that caused her husband’s cancer.
That connection, however, “is really hard to prove,” Mahrya said. “I’ve asked the question, and doctors won’t give me an answer.”
Dr. Mehrdad Abedi, the Sacramento oncologist caring for Michael, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Among the emotions Mahrya is feeling, as a machine forces air into her husband’s lungs: sadness, fear and a powerful anger at her home insurance company, Farmers. Standing in the midst of the Tubbs inferno four years ago, the Mirante residence incurred severe damage from smoke, ash and soot, she said. Despite that damage, Farmers paid the Mirantes just a small fraction of what it would cost to clean and decontaminate the house.
Farmers did send them money for food that spoiled, and to repair some flooring that was damaged when the contents of the freezer melted. The company also paid the bill for lodging while their house was uninhabitable. But it shortchanged them, Mahrya thinks, on funds to clean up the smoke, ash and soot.
“Everyone we talked to said it was was a minimum of $10,000 to get the smoke damage out,” Mahrya said. But the Mirantes got a tiny fraction of that amount because, unbeknownst to them, Farmers had attached an amendment to their existing insurance contract. That language imposed a cap of $5,000 for damage caused by wildfire smoke, soot and ash.
Adding insult to injury was Farmers’ refusal to give the Mirantes anything close to that $5,000 cap.
It’s true that they didn’t carefully re-read their policy each time it was annually renewed. That’s how they missed the amendment, said Mahrya, who also believes it was the duty of the insurance agent to alert them to any changes in the contract.
“It was sneaky, the way they did it,” she said of the policy adjustment.
Farmers spokesman Luis Sahagun replied in an email: “After a thorough investigation of this claim, including several subsequent reviews requested by the customer, we provided payment for covered losses, per the terms of their policy.”