Black Forest residents labor in ashes

By: Carol McGraw and Garrison Wells, The Gazette
June 22, 2013 Updated: June 23, 2013 at 7:43 am
photo - Saturday was the first day for the roads to be open in the areas of the Black Forest Fire burn. At the home of the Mark and Lisa Ruth Church, friends and members of their church, Faith Presbyterian Church, came to help them dig through the rubble of their home on Saturday, June 22, 2013. Molly Ryan and Cara Maddy (left to right) look for pennies that Mark Ruth had collected in a 5 gallon jar.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
Saturday was the first day for the roads to be open in the areas of the Black Forest Fire burn. At the home of the Mark and Lisa Ruth Church, friends and members of their church, Faith Presbyterian Church, came to help them dig through the rubble of their home on Saturday, June 22, 2013. Molly Ryan and Cara Maddy (left to right) look for pennies that Mark Ruth had collected in a 5 gallon jar. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

David and Lorraine Johnson were surveying the damage to their home of 25 years, amazed that a curved trellis at the gate was still there. The clematis that climbed it was gone, as was their house. Nearby, the arbor where they had been married was untouched. It was the place her father liked to sit to feel close to God.

"I've been crying a lot over everything until my mother set me straight," Lorraine said, explaining the older woman had survived the horrific bombing blitiz in England during World War II.

"She told me to suck it up and get on with it. Don't live in the past. And so I am."

Many families in Black Forest Saturday were trying to do that, too with varying degrees of success, as they grieved over the ruins of their past and made plans for the future.

A lot of property owners worried that looters would show up, even though there was nothing to loot.

"Don't trespass, don't trespass," one harried woman kept yelling.

Some homeowners came by themselves just look, still too numb to start any property recovery.

Others were busy sifting ashes through their gloved hands like sand through an hour glass and finding shards of pottery, a button, and lots of nails.

Up and down the tree-charred lanes, friends and family played similar guessing games: isn't that grandma's hope chest? Wasn't the bookcase there? Isn't that where the bedroom was?

"People get disoriented after a fire because the landmarks aren't there. Sometimes they don't even recognize if it's their address," explained Jim Curran, one of dozens of local volunteers for Samaritan's Purse, a church organization, which provides free disaster help. They could be seen everywhere in their orange t-shirts, amidst the burned meadows and below house foundations helping homeowners recover items from the rubble. Sometimes they simply said prayers with them.

"It helps for them to know they are not alone."

-Over on Tia Lane, Mark Ruth had lots of help from Faith Presbyterian Church members who had learned the ins and outs of repair on mission trips called Genesis Electric.

A friend, Bill Layton, had brought his Bite Me Sausage gourmet food truck to feed everyone, and there were portable restrooms on site.

"It's been surreal," Ruth said, looking at the ash pit that was once his house. A wrought iron railing and concrete steps leading up to what had the crackerbox style two-story home, was all that remained. He plans to rebuild, but a ranch-style house this time.

Heavy equipment was coming in and they didn't want to risk flat tires. So gloved and masked volunteers were looking for nails.

MollyRyan, 18, and Kara Maddy, 22, had found a broken glass jar bank, and were picking pennies out of the soot and placing them in a bucket. Molly said she was doing this backbreaking work in the hot sun on ground still warm from the fire, because Ruth had been her construction teacher on the mission trips. "It's so hard to see this, but he and his family are up to the challenge."

Ten-year-old Bella Wilson was picking up a bucketful of nails. "It makes me sad. I'm helping to be nice and help them build another house."

Ruth had returned from vacation when the fire was in full force. He was wearing one of five or six shirts he had in his suitcase, which now make up his entire wardrobe. It is emblazoned ironically with the phrase "Let me stand next to your fire."

-MarseaWynne was sitting in the shade watching Samaritan's Purse volunteers searching for anything left of the hundreds of paintings and pottery that her mother Lou Wynne and late father Al Wynne had created or collected over the years. Al Wynne's paintings hang in many galleries nationally. Lou taught art in Colorado Springs School District 11, and Academy D-20. Her ceramics have been in major exhibitions.

Lou Wynne, 82, had been living in the house when she had to evacuate with a son. The house and studio were burned, but the garden of tomatoes and pattypan squash were still thriving.

The volunteers weren't finding much intact. There were tiles covered with melted glass, temperature cones from a kiln, lots of jagged pottery pieces.

Volunteer Phyllis Kumbera, 16, said, "Even in these pieces I can still see the lives these pots had before."

Marsea Wynne said, "Even the small pieces we want. I know people say material things are replaceable. But when they are made by people dedicated to art that put themselves into it, they are not replaceable."

- Daniel Barnett mourned his beloved Honda Valkyrie motorcycle.

He pointed to a frame and gas tank expanded to four times its normal size at a house he rents in the Brentwood area of Black Forest.

"That's what is left of my beautiful Valkyrie," he said.

Then he trudged off to go through a work shed where he hoped to recover $40,000 worth of tools.

Beverly Garner,who also lives in the house, sifted through the ash.

There was the pile of burned silverware.

She'd found an important piece of jewelry, a necklace made with a $5 gold piece. Damaged but recoverable, it will be repaired, she said.

She was not so lucky with the dishes.

"Need any broken Christmas dishes?" she asked. "They're fused or breaking. Everything you see, when you touch it, it breaks."

In possession of a check for a little more than $200,000, Robert and Susan Koocker Saturday were cleaning up the remains of their once historic home.

It was built out of Colorado sandstone by Susan's father in 1966.

The chimney that jutted from the center of the ash and scraps of metal some 30 feet high stood like an ancient sentinel. It was built piece by piece from a chimney in a Broadmoor home several years ago.

The Koockers were helped by friends Scott and Michelle Apodaca-Eacker, all wearing facemasks to breath through the ash.

They may replace the home with a log home, Robert said.

But, said Susan: "We will never have what we had."

-It's not Sommer Shearer's house anymore.

The place where the 18-year-old grew up on Darr Road. in Black Forest is now in piles of knee-deep gray rubble. It smells like a bonfire here where memories melted with glass and charred wood.

At the Shearers' home, just above where the fire started near Shoup Road and Falcon Drive, there is nothing left. Hope came in the form of a photograph of Sommer as a child, which her parents gratefully pulled from the dusty rubble.

By the time Sommer's mother, Sandy, realized the Black Forest fire was coming for her, the living room was on fire. The family dog, Maize, woke her up from a nap before it was too late. But by then, there was no time to grab anything.

"All I had time to do was call 911," Sandy said. "I was so overwhelmed I just hung up."

The Shearers were joined by extended family members as they looked for anything salvageable. They're not sure if they will rebuild.

"After watching the Waldo Canyon fire and seeing people come back to find things that they thought were gone, that gave us a lot of hope," said Don Shearer, 54, the family's patriarch. "But compared to what this looked like two weeks ago, this is just so different."

-Bill Bailey, dressed in brand new Carhartt overalls he had to purchase because most of his clothes are ashes, was busy fixing the gate of the 18-acre property he and his wife lived on for 37 years. He was taking down his sign which indicates the name of his place: Whispering Pines.

"They certainly are silent today," the retired insurance salesman said, looking over the blackened trees. Up at the house site, all that was left of the home was chimney and some adobe walls that had strangely turned from white to pink in the fire.

"It's sad," said his son Sean, who used to walk to nearby Edith Wolford School when he was a kid. "They put so much work into this place, 40 years and gone in a minute."

"It's just stuff," Bill Bailey said. 'We've still got family and friends."

The barn which had taken a year and a half for Bailey to face with stone, was not harmed. An outdoor beverage bar that he had made from dead fall trees was mostly ok. His American flag that had hung on a high pole had evidently melted away - except strangely all the embroidered stars had survived and were sprinkled across the ground.

His planters had cracked and fallen away, but the dirt was still perfectly formed and holding the flowers. Greenback swallows were still using the bird houses that he had fashioned. He had brought along water and bird seed so he could feed them as usual.

Bailey said he is too old to start over. But then he looked out across the meadow which seemed mostly intact.

"I liked everything about this place, the quiet and privacy. When the rain comes and grass comes up I might say it's not so bad again."

Jesse Paul contributed to this article.

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