Upfront: Fire and sword

Upfront: Fire and sword

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Olympic fencing manager loses everything in Clayton fire

The U.S. Women’s Saber Team poses with medals alongside armorer Matthew Porter, who recently lost his home in a Lake County fire. Photo courtesy of Matthew Porter.

By David Templeton

Champions, as the old cliché goes, are tested in fire. For one unassuming local champion, Matthew Porter, official armorer of the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team, that adage came true in a tragic way.

While in Rio de Janeiro, as the United States won four medals in fencing, Porter’s new home in Lake County was burned to the ground in the devastating Clayton fire. “They say you win some, you lose some—but this is ridiculous,” Porter jokes, admitting that it hasn’t been easy maintaining his usual sense of humor.

The month began in high spirits, as Porter and his wife, Karen, took ownership of their new property, spending what amounted to their life savings, in cash, on the home and adjoining warehouse. In Rio, the United States had its best results in decades, with silver medals in men’s foil and men’s saber, and bronze medals for the four-member women’s saber team and the four-member men’s foil team, the first medal the United States has won in that event since 1932. Sadly, as the team was celebrating its wins, Porter was literally losing everything he owned.

“Karen made it out just in time, and she was able to save our dogs,” Porter says. “But anything that didn’t happen to be in her car, or that she wasn’t wearing or that I didn’t have with me in Rio, is completely gone. We had only just finished getting everything into the new place when I had to pack up and head out with the team.”

The owner and operator of American Fencers Supply, Porter is also known in the North Bay for his many years as an actor at the Heart of the Forest Renaissance Faire in Novato, where he played a colorfully crude pig farmer. He also provided fencing equipment for the fair’s popular fencing academy attraction. Porter had been operating the fencing-supply business from his former home in Pacifica until just weeks before the Clayton fire.

The arson-suspected wildfire, which started on August 13, burned 4,000 acres and destroyed most of the town of Lower Lake. Fire officials estimate that at least 300 homes and businesses were lost to the fire, which was finally reported as completely contained on Aug. 25. A Lake County man, Damin Anthony Pashilk, has been arrested and charged on 17 counts of arson for starting the blaze.

According to Porter, the fire was at one point projected to miss his neighborhood. “Karen was calling me in Rio, giving me updates, and the last time I heard from her, it sounded like the danger was over,” he recalls. Fire conditions change rapidly, however, and his wife was taking a nap when the blaze suddenly turned toward the Porters’ street. “She woke up and saw a red glow,” says Porter. “She barely had time to pack up the dogs and get out before the whole street was hit.”

All but one house on their cul-de-sac was destroyed. In addition to losing the house and a lifetime of belongings, Porter’s workshop and warehouse—containing his entire stock of fencing equipment—was also lost. The website for the business now bears a tiny statement: “Closed until further notice due to Clayton fire.”

Porter has served the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team as its chief armorer for more than 18 years, with the Brazilian games marking his third Olympics. The armorer is the one in charge of maintaining the team’s equipment, which is a bit more complicated than just polishing swords.

“Fencing is electronic nowadays,” Porter explains. “When one opponent scores a touch, an electronic sound goes off. Being the armorer means that if that sound doesn’t happen, I did something wrong.”

A team of friends, fencing enthusiasts and folks from the Renaissance and Dickens fairs have launched a fundraising campaign to help the Porters with the goal of raising $100,000 to rebuild their home and business. They had no insurance. The U.S. Olympic Fencing Team has already contributed $2,000.

Porter admits to being overwhelmed at the generosity offered by friends and strangers, while recognizing that he and Karen were hardly the fire’s only victims.

“Because of my connection with the Olympics, my particular plight has gotten a great deal of attention,” he says, “but it’s important to remember that 300 other families lost their homes as well. I hope that people’s generosity spreads to everyone else in need, too.”

To help the Porters rebuild, visit gofund.me/armorer.

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