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Song speaks to dilemma facing many who lost homes in Black Forest fire

August 11, 2013

Standing in the ashes of your life.

Should I stay or should I take flight? Staring at your ceiling, only seeing stars.

Once it gave you shelter, now only scars

Walk away

- From a song by Black Forest survivor Shawn Galvin

A couple of times a week, Shawn Galvin visits the remains of the Black Forest house he briefly called home.

Sometimes, he eases his angular frame onto a hammock, a resting place where he makes gentle music on his guitar, serenading the wounded trees.

Other times, he climbs into the ash-filled remains of the house, sitting like a monk amid the rubble of charred instruments - a toasted keyboard, burnt out drum set, speakers, guitars and amps - inside what was his studio.

It's here that the 44-year-old musician, his long hair draping the back of his neck, a yin yang tattoo on his right wrist, wrote a song about surviving the Black Forest fire.

Behind him, on one of the walls that remain, he spray painted musical notes in red. A full note, half note and quarter notes, telltale signs that this part of the house was a place of music.

He's also painted a peace sign, a flower, smiley face and a heart with the word "Love."

Those bits of heartfelt spray-can doodling enable him to look at the house without anger.

"It's not the house's fault," he said.

So he writes, a ghost in this house.

And he strums his guitar.

As he plays, hummingbirds fly through the burnt out windows and up through where his red tin roof once protected the home against the elements.

And sometimes, he cries.

"It was a magical place, it really was," he said, his voice choking with emotion.

Shawn and his wife, Rachel, moved into the house 40 days before the Black Forest fire.

On the fire's third day, it roared up to the edge of their home on Shoup Road, devouring the garage and then hopping to the house.

While Shawn was working in Boulder, Rachel had a little more than 30 minutes to evacuate. She took Shawn's more valuable guitars and whatever else she could grab, mostly his stuff.

The horses were rescued.

Standing in the middle of her living room that day, Rachel faced the heart-breaking realization that this might be the last time she would see the house, Shawn said.

The Galvins don't fit the profile of most residents of the Black Forest who lost homes to the most destructive fire in Colorado history. They were on a lease, with an option to buy. Their plan was to buy the home in a couple of years - but they already considered it their's.

The home, said Shawn, was a gift to themselves for their 10th anniversary.

While they didn't suffer the monetary damages that come from losing a home, they lost most of their belongings. And without renter's insurance, they get nothing back.

Shawn placed the value of their goods, which included the studio, tools and equipment that he used for work as a handyman and painter, at between $120,000 and $140,000.

The house, he said, was their fresh start.

It was to be the basis of a new life for this pair of free spirits, gentle as wood sprites, grounded at last in the Black Forest among the trees and people they had grown to love.

"Life was just starting, we were getting ready to move on with that second part of our lives," Shawn said. "We are in our 40s. That's when you make all your money and we were ready to move forward."

If a house ever represented a lifestyle, for the Galvins this was it.

The stucco home had space for his studio and a high-ceilinged atrium filled with plants, trees and a water feature for Rachel, who works with plants.

"It was comfortable, it was big enough, it was perfect," Shawn said. "We couldn't believe that we found it. Literally it was a dream house, you know? Every time I pulled up, it was like, we live here!"

All this on five acres for $2,100 a month, plus $1,000 a month towards the option to buy.

"The loss is the dream," Shawn said. "That was the hardest thing. We did it. I was finally at the top."

The fire killed everything.

"It was like, this is such a cruel joke," Shawn said.

The Galvins would like to remain in Black Forest, but with so much of their lives gone, the notion of starting again from scratch is daunting.

Europe, where they have friends, beckons.

They plan a visit to Boston to see family before they make a final decision of whether to stay or to leave.

Their dilemma lives in the lyrics of the song.

"Should I say or should I take flight?" asks the song.

He's not the only Black Forest resident facing such a dire decision.

Meantime, Shawn goes to meetings about the fire, tries to find ways to get insurance and replace the things he lost, and volunteers to help other Black Forest residents.

He organized a recent musical benefit for fire survivors.

He also has volunteered to be the spokesman for Black Forest Together, a residents' group formed to help those who have survived the fire.

Part of his task is to find others who were uninsured, like himself, because the organization is looking for ways to help those without insurance.

Black Forest, he said, is about the people.

"They are really just down-home and they stick together," he said. "No one else is helping us, so it's like we're going to help ourselves."

The residents, he said, make him want to stay in Black Forest.

County government, he adds, makes him want to leave.

"It just seems like the county doesn't know what to do," he said. "They just say, 'It's all your deal.' They don't want to help the individuals. We're Americans. and it isn't like I burned my house down with a candle. I never even had a chance."

Those who have helped, he said, include the residents' group, the churches, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Crosses for Losses.

In all, he figures has received about $5,000 in clothing, kitchen utensils, food and cash to help pay rent in their new home, a basement apartment.

Black Forest Together, he added, wants to help him replace his tools so he can work again.

"It's the first time since I've been 18 that I don't have anything," he says.

Some of what they lost will never be replaced.

His poetry and music are gone.

He lost his first guitar, a Fender Telecaster on which he learned to play "Stairway to Heaven."

But he was able to replace his mother's piano, an old Yamaha Clavinova.

Darlene Candini died two years ago of lung cancer. She was an artist and craftsperson, painting, playing piano and making pottery.

"She tried so hard to leave a mark and I lost all of it," Shawn said.

On a recent sleepless night, Shawn went online to search for pianos like his mother's. He found one in Denver and bought it.

The piano has a place for a floppy disk and it will play recorded music.

By chance, Rachel had grabbed a box that has a floppy disks of Shawn's mother playing the piano.

He plugged one in and heard her playing the first song he had ever written.

"I did that and I was like, I never would have heard her again. It was a gift," he said. "You get things like that. It's up and down and you will be doing something and suddenly it hits you, you don't have anything.

"You can't believe it happened to you," he said. "It happened to 500 other people."

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