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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Victims struggle to redefine holidays

November 19, 2012
photo - Jonni McCoy and Kerry Ann George both record the ground breaking of the first house to be rebuilt on Courtney Dr., the home if Kerry Ann and her husband, Richard George. Rebuilding work is under way on the McCoy home, but they won't be able to host Thanksgiving dinner as they have in the past. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT/The Gazette file
Jonni McCoy and Kerry Ann George both record the ground breaking of the first house to be rebuilt on Courtney Dr., the home if Kerry Ann and her husband, Richard George. Rebuilding work is under way on the McCoy home, but they won't be able to host Thanksgiving dinner as they have in the past. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT/The Gazette file 

Thanksgiving is the first big family celebration of the holiday season, the first time to, without much guilt, listen to Christmas music and pull the decorations out of the garage.

This Thanksgiving is also just short of the five-month anniversary of the Waldo Canyon fire that burned at least 346 home in Mountain Shadows. The fire destroyed countless roasting pans and cookery sets, thousands of Christmas baubles, holiday music collections and décor, leaving hundreds of homeowners adrift this holiday season without homes and without means to decorate their temporary ones.

For some former Mountain Shadows residents, this Thanksgiving will make their losses feel even more glaring. Some families have made plans to travel, visit relatives, or spend Thanksgiving far from the burn scar. Others plan to start new traditions. For those affected by the fire, the holiday season brings into sharper relief the emotional battles they have been waging since June. Some grieve for the loss of their homes as for lost loved ones. Others are paralyzed by depression or survivor’s guilt, while still others have found ways to cope and force themselves to move on. In the back of many of their minds this time of year is a question that has haunted them since summer: What am I going to do for Christmas?

Mountain Shadows neighborhoods that began their Christmas decorating this week will, for the first time, be without some holiday sparkle. Those whose homes survived are without neighbors and homes across the street. This holiday season is about learning to make do, or do without.

For Mountain Shadows, Thanksgiving is a poignant reminder that things aren’t the way they used to be.

Jennifer Riese

Since Riese lost her home in the fire, she has been dogged by insurance troubles and has yet to clear the debris from her lot. Thanksgiving provides a chance to turn over a new leaf: Unlike last year, she’s going to cook for her family and her 11-year-old daughter in their rental home.

“If I don’t celebrate it for my daughter, it’ll be like, why? It’ll be, ‘Oh, the year the fire happened we didn’t have a Thanksgiving.”

Riese has returned three times since June to her burned lot in the Parkside community. She used to love driving on Flying W Ranch Road, but now she avoids it fastidiously. After her home on Hot Springs Court burned, Riese learned that she was grossly underinsured, and an ensuing insurance battle has killed much of her enthusiasm for moving on.

Haunted by memories of a strange Halloween — “I guess it lost its zest,” said Riese, who used to dress up and decorate — she figured the best way to handle Thanksgiving would be to get away. But the week before, she changed her mind; she wondered what kind of example that would set for her daughter.

“I want her to think, ‘Hey my mom (and I), we overcame it, and she cooked Thanksgiving,” Riese said.

So Riese replaced the cooking pans she lost in the fire and prepared to take her turn in a family tradition of cooking the turkey. But even with the sudden change of heart, and new holiday spirit, Riese feels that the arrival of the holidays makes the loss of home feel raw again.

For Riese, recovery from the fire has been a roller coaster ride of emotions, and things are feeling particularly bumpy with the start of the holidays.

“I wish things were different. But maybe there’s a reason for it,” she mused. “I’m going through the whole cycle of emotions. It could have been worse — it’s just totally constant emotions. It’s probably the holidays.”

Jonni and Beau McCoy

For years, the McCoys, of Courtney Drive, were the Thanksgiving hosts for a group of neighbors. But after the Waldo Canyon fire decimated the family’s home, they have found themselves in many new, strange roles — the least of which is having to be guests on Thanksgiving.

“This will be the first time that we’ll be the guests of others,” Jonni McCoy said. “We have a couple of invitations from friends. It’s awkward to be a guest.”

No longer able to host a neighborhood gathering, they will feast with the family that took them in during the fire. But the McCoys, Jonni and Beau, and their two children, will also spend the end of November deciding yet another holiday dilemma — what they will do for Christmas.

As Jonni McCoy sees it, the McCoys are back at square one — much like they were years ago as newlyweds, trying to make ends meet.

“When my husband and I were first married, we used to always go to the neighborhood tree lot, and ask for the Charlie Brown-type tree,” she said in November. They had to pick the runt of the Christmas tree lot, settling for a $5 tree decorated with a few simple, homemade ornaments.

Now, with a foundation poured for their new home, they’re thinking about restarting some Christmas traditions.

“We’ve talking about going back to that,” she said.

In years past, the McCoys had wood carvings, stuffed animals and cinnamon apples on their little tree. This year they will mix old traditions with new ones in their rented home on the east side of town. They’ll buy a large tree and decorate it with some ornaments they received at a First Presbyterian Church giveaway for fire victims and add some new homemade ones.

Hank and Kathy Scarangella

The thought of sitting at an unfamiliar dining table depresses Hank Scarangella.

But after the loss of his family’s home at 5776 Huffman Court, he feels he’ll be able to do little else in his rented townhome. So with his wife, Kathy, and their daughter Maddie Olson, they will go away. It’s how the family, whose daughter has not been back to Huffman Court since June, will handle their loss this holiday season. Christmas will get the same treatment as Thanksgiving.

“We don’t want to be here at Christmas,” Hank said in November, as he watched the groundbreaking of his new home in Peregrine. The family has decided to not rebuild in Mountain Shadows.

Without a comfortable home, they’re using Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as vacations, and plan to head to the West Coast for the former, and visit relatives in New York for the latter.

Christmas haunts them. While shopping in November, Hank spotted new Christmas decorations displays — all of it reminded him of everything he used to have, or of things that they can’t buy for a lack of places to put them.

What they do still have, however, is a ceramic Christmas village, given to Hank Scarangella piece by piece from an aunt. Only the village’s little church was burned. But the Scarangellas won’t put up the Christmas village this year — they are waiting until they have a home to celebrate the holiday.

Jim and Carol Lyn Lucas

In the months since she lost her home on Wilson Road, Carol Lyn Lucas has tried to spend one minute in bed every night thinking of the day’s best moment. It’s an act of Thanksgiving that transcends the holiday and is something that has helped Lucas, who is vocal about her devastation after the fire, feel happy.

“It doesn’t take a disaster to really realize that we all need to be doing that,” she said. “We need to be doing that, even with the good times.”

On Tuesday, Lucas was rummaging through the family’s storage unit, containing all that they salvaged from her home, when she found a Christmas music box inherited from her grandmother. She had saved the box, but was unsure if she saved the key. But, safe inside along with a twirling tree, was the key that makes the music play.

Immediately, she knew what she’d be grateful for that night.

“That was my moment, right there,” she said.

Step by step, Lucas finds herself cherishing her old routines in her new home — she still gets up in the morning and fixes her latte, reads the paper, and works, all at a new desk. Doing simple things that remind her of the family’s lost home instills their rented townhome with a hominess that Lucas says she has come to cherish.

Hosting a big group for Thanksgiving — something she might have shied away from months ago — now feels right, Lucas said.

“Actually, when we have people over it makes me feel like we are back to normal again,” she said. “I am nesting in this townhome, believe it or not.”

As she learns to cope, Lucas’ misgivings about the holidays without her Wilson Road home have morphed into an excitement for new plans.

“About three days after the fire, I said to somebody, ‘What are we going to do for Christmas?’”

Five months later and days before Thanksgiving, Lucas had wrapped gifts for her three sons’ stockings, which they will open on a family motorhome trip to California in December. That’s a big change for Lucas — she used to put together stockings, cook a big Christmas day breakfast, had a decorated tree surrounded by gifts. But this year, she thinks she’ll just give gifts of money. Next year, once the family moves into a new home away from Mountain Shadows on Mesa Road, they’ll celebrate Christmas in a big way.

“I’m hoping to be in the new home for next September. That’s kind of what I’m thinking,” Lucas said. “I’ve tried to tell myself that I’m in a really good place. I’m not going to wait to get my new home to be happy.”

Dan and Mary Ann Collins

Santa Claus used to come to the Collins house at Ashton Park Place every Thanksgiving.
Days before Thanksgiving, Mary Ann Collins would transform her house into a holiday wonderland for her grandchildren. Then, on Thanksgiving , the kids would come over for the feast and the ultimate pleasure — turning on the 12-foot Christmas tree.

Mary Ann Collins’ home on Ashton Park Place was on the side of the street that survived theWaldo Canyon fire. But, Collins’ Christmas spirit did not.

This year, the family will still come over for a low-key Thanksgiving dinner, but there won’t be much decorating, if any, she said.

“It’s the first year that the grandkids won’t flip the switch on the Christmas tree,” Collins said. “I’m just going to tell them that Santa had so many other things to do.”

Every day, Collins and her husband, Dan, look out on the barren lots that remain of her neighbors’ homes; some will return, some won’t. The Collinses are grappling with troubles of their own — their home was damaged, and the couple is wrestling with insurance settlements. And her conscience is wracked by guilt and confusion — why did her home survive when others didn’t? The emotions have crippled her.

“I can’t even decorate the house for Christmas this year,” she said in mid-November. “We do a whole big thing, but I can’t do it. I feel guilty that we still have everything.”
They still have a beautiful 12-foot tree and a collection of ornaments. Collins still has a Disney-character Christmas village.

“I’ve always loved the holidays,” she said. “I just don’t have the energy. I can’t get my life back together because I can’t get closure in anything. I can’t get anything done.”

They have been tempted, like many others, to get away. But, she can’t. “Our grandkids are here,” she said.

She took the kids to the North Pole, off the Pikes Peak Highway, to visit with Santa Claus. Collins marveled at the Ferris wheel-view of the burn scar while the kids were anxious that Santa know that their grandparents’ house, where they spend Christmas, survived the fire.
What will Christmas this year look like? Mary Ann Collins isn’t sure.

Craig and Judy Anderson

In years past, 6050 Ashton Park Place was the gathering point for the Anderson clan on Thanksgiving. But this year, without a home, the Andersons are doing something they’ve never done before. They’ll eat Thanksgiving dinner at the Denver hospital where Craig Anderson works.

Judy Anderson will also be deviating from the norm when she sends the family Christmas card on Thanksgiving, letting her network of friends and family around the country know that the Andersons will not return to 6050 Ashton Park Place and will instead build a new home in the Peregrine neighborhood.

This year, Anderson and her husband Craig posed for a holiday photo in front of all that remained of their home — the steps leading to their door — holding a Christmas wreath and an American flag.

The photo will accompany a bittersweet farewell poem to the home. Instead of recapping the family’s year in a traditional Christmas missive, Anderson will mail an ode to her home that she wrote for the occasion:

“Thank you 6050
Ashton Park Place
We love you and miss you
But we must find a new space.

We didn’t just lose our belongings
And our precious style of life
We lost our neighbors who were family
During good times and in strife.

Life moves on
And so must we too.
We ask for your prayers and love
That will get us through. Amen.”

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