Sifting Through Wildfire Ashes For Memories, Hope

Jul 2, 2013
Originally published on July 3, 2013 6:22 am

Even though the Black Forest Fire in Colorado burned homes down to their foundations, it didn’t destroy everything.

For homeowners who have the strength to sift through the ashes of their burned homes, relics from their lives remain.

The Samaritan’s Purse helps homeowners in their search.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio reports.

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And as firefighters in Arizona try to contain the wildfires there, volunteers in Colorado are sifting through the ruble of a fire that swept through the Colorado Springs suburb of Black Forest last month. And in the ashes of destroyed homes are relics just waiting to be found if a homeowner has the physical and emotional strength to look for them. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports on one volunteer group that is trying to help.


MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: From a distance what's left of Dwayne(ph) and Lee Reynolds' home is just a few scorched concrete walls and the blackened finger of a chimney. But down in the ruins of what used to be their basement, the hunt is on for whatever else may have survived.

DWAYNE REYNOLDS: Can you reach that?


LEE REYNOLDS: It might be a piece of a gold.

REYNOLDS: I don't know. Keep it.

REYNOLDS: It's in our little bucket.

VERLEE: Wearing gasmasks and bright-orange T-shirts, more than a dozen volunteers with the disaster assistance group Samaritan's Purse are shoveling debris onto big wire sieves, then shaking them over garbage cans. They pick out and set aside little bits of metal and fragments of china. It's like some ash-covered archeology dig where the artifacts they're trying to recover are mementos of the Reynolds' life.

REYNOLDS: We had a lot of stuff in that house.


REYNOLDS: After 45 years of marriage and living all over the world, we had a lot of stuff.

VERLEE: Dwayne Reynolds sits a little ways away from the remains of his house in the shade of a pine groove untouched by fire. The volunteers are a few days into their work, and they've already managed to recover treasures, one of them, a gold coin given to his wife by the emperor of Ethiopia when Dwayne was serving in the military there.

REYNOLDS: And it's been in our - her jewelry case since the 1970s. I haven't seen it probably in 30 years but it was one of the things that was really, really, really important to us. And two gals kneeled in that pile of ashes for about three hours and eventually, that little gold coin is still shining.

VERLEE: Reynolds doesn't look like the kind of guy who gets emotional easily. But it's obviously hard to think about what he's lost. And without the Samaritan's Purse volunteers, the couple might have had to give up the place as a total loss.

REYNOLDS: I'm 70 years old. I can't sit down there and sift the ashes of the house. My wife is half a cripple. We couldn't do it. We have a lot of friends. They all work.

VERLEE: Samaritan's Purse is based in North Carolina. It has its roots in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and does this kind of work at natural disasters around the country. Close to a hundred people a day, mostly locals, are volunteering here in Black Forest. April Stilfer(ph) discovered Samaritan's Purse after the nearby Waldo Canyon fire last year. She sees a divine hand in the work she's doing.

APRIL STILFER: You know last year was so cool. Last year, I think, we found like eight or 10 nativity sets that were perfect. You're like, OK, this has to be God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That might be special right there, April.



STILFER: We got two of them.

WAYNE SHOEMAKER: Our people are here to - we encourage them to put down the shovel and take time to talk to these homeowners. Let them tell them their story. It's good therapy. It brings on healing when they tell their story about what they have experienced and what they're going through.

VERLEE: Wayne Shoemaker is program manager for the Samaritan's Purse operations in Black Forest. He stands next to a patch of gravel that looks like a post-apocalyptic garage sale. Volunteers have laid out half melted cutlery, old lanterns, the remains of a Singer sewing machine. For homeowner Dwayne Reynolds, everything here calls up a fond story about his life or his family. Well, almost everything.

REYNOLDS: You see that turtle? An old boyfriend gave that to my wife for a wedding present. And if there was anything that I wanted to get rid of, it would have been that turtle.


VERLEE: Of course the ceramic turtle is virtually unscathed. It's the rare thing Reynolds can joke about right now. Mostly he's just mourning what he's lost.

REYNOLDS: It is just stuff and it's just ashes, but it hurts something terrible.

VERLEE: The Samaritan's Purse volunteers plan to keep working on the Reynolds house until there's nothing left to find, and then they'll move on and on and on. There are more than 200 houses in Black Forest whose owners have requested their help. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Megan Verlee in Black Forest, Colorado.

HOBSON: And we're back in a minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.