By late Thursday morning, Geoff and Sandy Popham were preparing to board a flight home from Mexico, cutting short a vacation to return to their Duluth home that was now a charred, fire-damaged shell of the one they’d left behind.

Gone were their two beloved cats and a coop’s worth of chickens. Sandy said she was told that the family photographs and scrapbooks appeared salvageable.

A fire early Thursday spread from their chicken coop into their house, causing damage the Duluth Fire Department estimated in excess of $500,000.

“We’re very touched with all the support of our friends and neighbors, our families and our insurance agent,” Sandy Popham said by phone as the couple was on its way to an airport in Mexico. “It makes you grateful for the blessings of your life and community.

“Right now my heart is full. If I can say anything about living in Duluth it’s what a wonderful community it is.”

By sunlight Thursday morning, neighbor Amery Robinson and his young daughter were done surveying the damage. The girl had tears in her eyes, feeling for her neighbors. Robinson said the two families are close; his family shares a driveway with the Pophams who live at 3531 E. Fourth St.

“It’s just destroyed,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t look that bad outside but the entire interior is black and charred.”

Robinson and another neighbor each called 911 at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday, alerting the Duluth Fire Department to flames visible on the property. The first crew arrived to find the fire was growing rapidly and spreading from the coop to the adjacent home. Heavy smoke was seen coming from the eaves of the home. Firefighters vented the roof - with flames visible from the roof vent hole - and attacked the fire from inside the home.

Firefighters’ efforts to douse the fire were apparent at the scene hours later. Hose tracks snaked through the snow in the yard. The earth was trampled.

The corners of the chicken coop and the house touch on the home’s back western corner, and on Thursday it was apparent how the fire spread from one to the other. The home’s eaves were charred and falling and there were broken windows on each level of the home - from the basement to an attic room.

Meanwhile, the remains of the coop spoke to the initial stages of the fire. Hay was blackened and stank like acrid smoke. The wooden handle of a pitchfork was halved by fire. Duluth Fire Marshal Marnie Grondahl recounted her observations from the fire scene, including a heat lamp and portable radiator in the coop.

“There’s a lot of combustibility in chicken coops,” she said. “There’s a lot of dust created; it can get on these lamps and that’s another fuel source that’s combustible. I’m not completely saying it was that - it could have potentially been an electrical problem - but there wasn’t much left of the lamp. It’s very sad they have to come home to that.”

Grondahl was on scene for the fire and described “fire coming into the basement” and “fire traveling straight up into the eaves.”

“Once fire runs around in the attic it causes a lot of damage,” she said.

Urban chicken coops are common throughout the city, having been embraced by people seeking greater sustainability. But Grondahl warned of potential dangers, recommending that lamps be dusted, and that coops be at least 25 feet away from homes and garages.

Fire, smoke and water used in the fire suppression efforts made for a difficult scene. The family’s insurance agent arranged for a cleaning service to visit the home later Thursday to begin salvaging efforts.

The Pophams are professionals; Geoff’s a bank executive and Sandy’s a medical doctor.

Robinson was able to reach the Pophams by 5 a.m. to tell them the grim news. By day’s end, the couple figured to be observing the scene for themselves. They’d been in contact with their three grown children, Sandy Popham said, and she said her children expressed relief that no people were hurt in the fire. Her voice cracked at the thought of her cats as casualties.

“It sounds like quite a mess,” she said. “The one side where the fire started is supposed to be really bad. We’ll know more when we get there.”