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How three families that lost their homes in Colorado’s record-breaking 2020 wildfires are coping

Some are ready to rebuild. Others are still weighing their options.

Courtney Walsh and her son Wyatt walk around what used to be their house on Dec. 31, 2020. The Walshes were one of at least 22 Boulder County families whose houses burned in the Cal-Wood fire in October. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)
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The worst wildfires on record raged in Colorado last year. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned, hundreds of homes went up in flames and two people were killed.

Though the flames are out, Grand, Boulder and Larimer counties — where the most structural losses occurred — have only just started down the long road to rebuild. One day of disaster equals six years of recovery, Grand County’s deputy director of emergency management Alexis Kimbrough said. And with the pandemic as a confounding factor, that timeline looks a lot more fuzzy.

“We have no idea how long it will take to fully recover,” Kimbrough said, “and even if fully recovering is possible.”

The total cost of the 2020 wildfire season is not yet known, but recovery efforts are already underway. The Colorado Sun caught up with three people who lost their homes over two months ago on how they’re doing, whether they’re rebuilding and what silver linings are shining through.

“It was our dream log home”

From volunteer firefighter to an assistant chief for Grand Fire Protection District No. 1, Schelly Olson has more than 12 years of experience with wildfire. But she still found herself overwhelmed when her home burned in the East Troublesome fire in October.

“Some people know right away that they are going to rebuild,” Olson said, but she isn’t sure yet if she’s ready for everything that comes with starting over from scratch. “It was our dream log home,” she said, “and I don’t know if I want to do that again.”

She had just finished a stint working on the Williams Fork fire south of Granby and was on vacation in Florida when the East Troublesome fire “just took off running” toward Grand Lake. The night of Oct. 21, it tore through over 100,000 acres of land — and hundreds of houses — overnight. 

Olson was working remotely to help the fire department when she got the call about her own home in the Winding River Villas. It was completely torched. In an instant she took on the role of the person she was always trying to help.

“That was pretty hard to take,” Olson said.

When she returned to Grand County a couple days later, a fire chief took her to see what was left of her house, which she and her husband built from scratch 16 years earlier. The initial shock of the scene — “the soil and everything’s just burned” — morphed into a goal to help others come to terms with the damage. Olson has since personally escorted many neighbors up to see the remains of their beloved mountain homes.

“It was really emotional, but it also kind of helped me deal with the pain by being with other people who are going through it as well,” Olson said.

Her husband was in Grand Lake when the fire came through, and had just enough time to grab their passports. Birth certificates, marriage licenses and vehicle titles burned along with three vehicles and everything else in their house. For a while, the couple stayed in a hotel, then a friend’s parents offered up their townhome in Winter Park. A few weeks ago, the couple signed a lease for another family’s rental house in Granby while they decide what’s next.

Despite losing almost everything, Olson said, “you’ll still find me out on wildfires” in one way or another, even if work — and life — is more difficult now than before. 

“Get through the day … and we’ll see what the next chapter is,” Olson said.

If anything, she has more empathy for people she talks to whose houses are in danger or lost. And more than ever, she’s working to educate people about preventing wildfires, most of which are human-caused. She urges people who own homes in fire-prone landscapes to do everything they can to create as defensible a lot as possible.

“Just because my home was destroyed, don’t give up hope that what you can do around your house isn’t going to work,” she said. “This was a crazy fire, and they’re not all like that.”

A stone chimney and some rubble is all that’s left of a home in the Sun Valley subdivision near Grand Lake on Nov. 1. The East Troublesome fire slowed down the week before after quickly becoming one of the largest wildfires in Colorado history. (Pool photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Denver Gazette)

“It sounded like jet engines roaring”

Vicky Winterscheidt and her husband are already drawing up plans to rebuild their Grand Lake cabin, which was torched when East Troublesome fire exploded across Grand County on Oct. 21.

Crews are cleaning up debris and insurance has been “agreeable” so far, for which Winterscheidt counts herself lucky. The couple is working with an architect to recreate the old house, which they had owned for 10 years, with a few upgrades like a larger garage and kitchen.

Winter conditions mean concrete won’t get laid until spring, at the earliest. Even then, it will be a while before the new house is finished. The cost to build in Grand County has skyrocketed in the past few years, and crews and materials are in high demand. 

They still travel to Grand County from their primary home in Greenwood Village almost every week, but usually just stay for the day now, due to the coronavirus pandemic. They’re not big into skiing, instead opting to enjoy the winter wonderland on foot. But a long drive home on the highway isn’t quite the same as snowshoeing right up to your front door.

“There’s a difference in going back and sitting by your own fire after you’ve been out,” Winterscheidt said. “That’s the sense of loss, is the loss of access to nature and the outdoors.”

The couple had initially heard that their cabin, and Grand Lake at large, would be in the clear on the fateful evening. But an hour and a half after the evening fire update, the messaging changed: Leave. Now.

Scrambling to get necessary items into the car, the couple heard the East Troublesome fire — and its increasing intensity — before they saw it.

“Our cabin was very close to the forest, so you could really hear it coming,” Winterscheidt said.

Their house was likely gone within an hour. The fire became the second largest in state history.

It was a miracle that the fire took its 100,000-plus acre run on a Wednesday, Winterscheidt said. Since there were few visitors in the town, traffic was manageable enough for people to evacuate in time. But an elderly couple died after refusing to flee.

For now, Winterscheidt and her husband will be remembering their old house through a book of memories compiled by family members as a Christmas gift. Winterscheidt said the whole experience has put into perspective what the mountain home means to her and her family. 

When the new house is finished, it will start a new chapter of memories for the family, and for the Grand County community.

“We aren’t going to have trees for a while, but we’re going to have mountain views,” Winterscheidt said. “There’s still a lot to be enjoyed in the Grand Lake area, and people should know that it’s worth coming.”

When the Walsh family’s Boulder County house was torched in the Cal-Wood fire in October, upper floors crumbled down into the basement. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

“Truly thankful that we all got out”

After Courtney Walsh’s home was destroyed in the Cal-Wood fire in October, a nonprofit reached out to help her family sort through the rubble. She jumped at the chance.

“That whole idea is, I think, romanticized,” Walsh said.

But given the nature of the destruction and the danger on the property — the basement is filled with assorted rubble, the remaining brick walls are unstable, and nails and glass are strewn around the lot — the nonprofit backed out. Even now, Walsh still feels an urge to see if she can find anything on her own, perhaps a piece of jewelry, but she doesn’t do it.

“It’s actually not safe to even go in here,” she said, pointing to the former basement, now filled with bricks and scraps of their life before the fire.

Walsh was in town when she got a notice that the fire was gaining traction northwest of Boulder; she scrambled home to evacuate her family and pets. Right before leaving, she yanked out the hose and desperately sprayed down the house with as much water as she could. But when she saw the sheriff speeding up her street, she knew it was time to go. 

A mildly damaged toy tractor sits among the rubble of the Walsh family home, which burned in October during the Cal-Wood fire in Boulder County. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

“Well I guess that’s it, you know? Hopefully that will help,” she recounted thinking. “It didn’t help.”

The wind was crazy that day; Walsh thinks it created a fireball that jumped over some evergreens and ended up landing on their roof.

“It’s kind of amazing to me that these trees are green and unscathed, but then you have a fire safe and a garage and all the things that you thought were fireproof, but aren’t,” Walsh said.

Until the family can get a crew to begin the cleanup, potentially salvageable odds and ends remain strewn about the property; a toy tractor, a partially broken vase — made for Walsh as a graduation gift — and the fireproof safe, empty and doorless. The air still smells acrid.

“It’s sad coming out here,” Walsh said during a visit on Thursday. 

Before the fire, Walsh’s family spent countless hours sitting in the hot tub, hiking up into the forest and playing on the trampoline as they weathered the pandemic. They had lived there for four years, and Walsh said they relished the space and easy access to nature. “It was a large home,” she said, “but I feel like we used it a lot.”

Courtney Walsh and her son, Wyatt, point to what used to be their house on Dec. 31, 2020. They were among at least 22 Boulder County families whose homes burned in the Cal-Wood fire in October. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

For now, the family is renting a house near Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, which puts them closer to the kids’ school. They still are weighing options for where to go next. Walsh isn’t sure if she wants to rebuild on the lot, though she does want a smaller home. 

“When you don’t have anything, it’s a good opportunity just to reevaluate what’s important, and things aren’t really that important,” she said. “I’m just thankful, honestly, just truly thankful that we all got out. Nobody in this community lost their life.”

There’s been no shortage of community support since the fire, whether through food from other families or clothing donations. “A lot of people, they don’t know what to say or how to help in this type of situation,” Walsh said.

A friend of Walsh’s daughter even offered his piggy bank. She politely declined, telling him, “just you saying that is enough.”

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