June 17, 2013 Updated: June 17, 2013 at 7:50 am
Russell and Deana Allen were at work, about 45 minutes from their home in Black Forest, when the fire exploded Tuesday afternoon. Deana was the first to get the call from Bob Bender, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Black Forest: Smoke and flames were bearing down.
Knowing the Allens wouldn't have time to make it home, Bender and a crew from the church rushed to help. Student pastor Matt Crowe kicked in the back door and the team salvaged what they could - including a computer full of photos, the family's Winnebago and their dog, Shiloh.
When the Allens got the 2 a.m. call from authorities Wednesday, they expected the worst.
"They said, 'I just wanted to pass on some bad news. It looks like your house has been looted. Someone kicked in the door,'" Russell Allen said. "I was so relieved."
On Sunday, Allen told his story - followed by Crowe, who quipped, "Sorry about your door, Allen family" - earning welcome laughs during an emotional service at the church, just south of the mandatory evacuation zone.
At worship services in and around Black Forest, the faithful gathered to share stories, gain strength from community and start healing.
After the past week's events, members of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument filled the sanctuary from front to back. Nearly half of the members present had been evacuated. Despite a trying few days and the likelihood of many more, the overall tone of the service was that of optimism and of finding strength in a God that Bob Kaylor, the lead pastor, said will be with them no matter what.
Among those in attendance were two families whose homes were destroyed in the wildfire, including Michelle and Larry Fariss. Their testimony reflected the devastation many Black Forest families have endured.
"The reality is, this is really hard. Really hard," Michelle said. "I frequently wake up at night thinking of things that got left behind."
But she remained upbeat and thankful, for her family, a safe place to stay, friends across the country and the church. "Our other blessing is our faith, and a deep-down sense that everything is going to be OK," she said.
At First Baptist Church of Black Forest, about 20 church members and regular attendees lost their homes to the fire, while up to 50 are displaced, living with friends, relatives or in hotels..
"There's a common theme here today, whether you lost everything or not. It's hope," choir member Deb Hoffpauir said. On Tuesday, amid calls for evacuation, as the fire quickly spread toward neighbors' homes, Hoffpauir's husband, David, set out in his 80,000-pound front-end loader to help - digging fire lines, felling trees, moving brush, anything.
Five of the six houses that Hoffpauir worked to save managed to escape the blaze. The Hoffpauirs' home, on the north end of Holmes and Vessey roads, as well as David's home-based automotive business, did not.
"He's my hero. When he came home, it looked like someone had rubbed black shoe polish in his hair," Deb Hoffpauir said of her husband. "We know the house is gone. But it's just stuff. Everybody's OK."
The Stern family - Samuel, Lara and their four children - lost the home they were in the process of remodeling.
"That was our dream, to live in the Black Forest," said Samuel, giving in to a brief, wistful moment as he sat with his son, Nicolas, 10, after the service. "We were so lucky no one was hurt. My father was supposed to be there working, but he wasn't. There are a lot of things that could have happened that didn't happen. It's still something to process, though."
Ben Carlton lost the Black Forest house that had been an emotional touchstone for all of his young life.
In an update Friday to the blog he writes on teen life, the 18-year-old wrote this: "After a long drive back from school going down the driveway and seeing my dogs run up to me never failed to put a smile on my face. This is how I feel when I think about my home. Home. There is nothing like it. As of 2:00 a.m. this morning my home has officially burnt to the ground."
Yet, he concluded: "Though my home may be gone my Hope is not. God is my shelter!"
Carlton took the mic Sunday to share his message with the congregation.
"For those who lost their house like I did, look around you," he said. "This is our home. That's what the church is. It's a community."
For Dave Hiester, pastor of Wilson United Methodist Church, the Black Forest fire is a reminder of what his church went through nearly a year ago. In Mountain Shadows, Wilson UMC escaped the wrath of the Waldo Canyon fire ,though several members lost their homes.
"Our whole church just kind of rallied around them in every way we could," he said. "We discovered that most of their Bibles had perished in the fire so we went out and bought them all Bibles and stamped on them and presented them to them in a church service."
Through the rebuilding process, the church helped others sift through ashes, donated clothing, became a Care and Share dropoff point and offered members a place to talk and enjoy free meals.
"What they have discovered in the midst of all of this is a God who is forever faithful and able to meet them in their difficult hours," Hiester said. "He is present in the midst of the hard stuff. He's compassionate and slow to anger and quick to love and be merciful."
In the coming days, the First Baptist Church of Black Forest will serve as a command center and base of operations for about 150 volunteers with the Southern Baptist Convention's disaster relief program. Volunteers will help provide food, clothing and other support to displaced residents and those working to get back into the homes they evacuated.
"The forest will be alive again," Bender said. "Green will trump black. As always with God, life overcomes death."