Dan Breed started building a passive solar home in Sunshine Canyon almost 30 years ago. What his daughter, Phoebe, loved about the vaulted ceilings was hoisting up a 13-foot Christmas tree cut from the woods behind their home. Now, they don’t have a roof. And there are no trees on their lot to be cut and decorated.
The Breed house was one of 170 lost in the Fourmile Canyon Fire in September. With the holidays coming, these families have roofs over their heads, but they may struggle to get into the holiday spirit. The thing they all seem to agree on is that this year’s holiday season will be different from all those before it, and that they’ll have a chance to build some new traditions in new homes.
The Fourmile Canyon fire left little of the Breeds’ log home, but the spikes that held the logs together and glass curled in the heat like ribbon candy. Much of what remains fits into a glass jar, where Diana, his wife, has collected chunks of cinder and glass. Dan carries a teardrop of aluminum in his pocket—they found aluminum in puddles all over the house, some as big as dinner plates, and suspect it came from the window frames.
Dan and Diana are currently living in a furnished condo in south Boulder — temporary accommodations Dan compares to the kind of places he stays on business trips.
“[He said] it’s kind of like going on a vacation and staying in a condo, and I said, ‘This vacation has gone on long enough. I want to go home,’” Diana says.
Phoebe, who was away at college in Minnesota when the Breed house burned, has asked to travel this holiday season; she says she doesn’t have a home to come home to. She’s spending Thanksgiving with relatives in the Midwest and is happy to be with her cousins, Diana says. Dan and Diana may join their son, Tanner, who lives in Westminster, or may have him up to their condo in Boulder. “I don’t think we’ll be cooking a whole turkey,” Dan says. “But something to make sure it’s still a little special.”
At a time he might just be worried about his own living situation, Dan took the weekend before Thanksgiving to travel to Juarez, Mexico, to build houses with a group from his church.
“What else have I got to do? It’s not like I have anything to do around the house,” he says.
He’s gone on this trip about 10 times, usually around Thanksgiving.
The Breeds say they plan to rebuild their house. They’ll be starting completely over — not even the concrete can be salvaged.
“I keep saying — wouldn’t it be done by sum mer?”
Diana says. “But maybe next Thanksgiving we’ll have our home back.”
They’ll take the chance to do things the way they’d like them now, planning a house for retirement instead of a house for raising children.
“In some ways, the silver lining is there’s a chance to rebuild, number one, in a way that suits my wife,” says Dan, who designed and started to build the house before he met Diana.
Their rebuilt home will include a few relics from the old house. Among the bits and pieces they found sifting through the cinders were a handful of Christmas decorations. They found melted Christmas lights and a few ceramic, metal and glass ornaments that had survived the fire. Some of the ornaments were family heirlooms: a glass ball ornament that looks deflated, its color mottled yellow and embossed with ash. Some were souvenirs from trips: a ceramic bell they bought in Albuquerque, its yellow and orange flowers visible under a coat of grime; a metal angel, coated in rust and ash, the hangar in its skirt still movable and ready to ring.
The principal at Louisville Elementary, where Diana works, offered to get her and Janice Wheeler, a co-worker who lost her home in the fire as well, Christmas trees.
“I said I don’t even know if I want one,” Diana says. “I don’t have anything to put on it, for one thing.”
In the new house, Dan says, they’ll have their “fire ornaments,” and hang up a few of the ones they recovered from the rubble.
“I don’t know about new traditions, but there will be new stuff. Less stuff,” Dan says. “We don’t need a thousand ornaments now.”
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Matson Tew has been so busy settling six kids into a new home that the holidays have crept up on him.
“If you’re talking to the people who have lost their homes, we’re still in September because there’s so much minutia and details,” he says. “It’s not just your home, it’s everything you own. It took me a month to get my feet back on me work-wise.”
Tew and his partner had lived in Fourmile Canyon for four years and are raising a blended family with six kids. They happened to have all six, ages 7 to 11 plus a five-month-old infant, with them when the fire evacuations started.
“I don’t even know if we have enough stuff to pull off a Thanksgiving dinner,” he says. He’s got other plans for the day.
“I’d like to give back to the homeless community as a way to be thankful because I pretty much know what it’s like to be homeless now, to bounce around from couch to couch and be away from your family because you can’t all be in one place,” he says.
They had a 110-year old home and lost it down to the foundation. They’re leasing a home in Arroyo Chico while they rebuild.
“We’re still in Fourmile Canyon … it’s the only place we know to live,” Tew says.
For Christmas, Tew says, they’ll ski as usual — he and his partner both work at Eldora — but they will try to make it a unique Christmas as well.
“Every day, too, we’ve been buying things to replace stuff through insurance, so the kids have new coats and a new iPod or a new CD player,” he says. “It’s almost like I don’t even want to do anything for Christmas because we’ve been replacing things so much.”
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On Saturdays, volunteers gather to clean up and rebuild the Colorado Mountain Ranch, which is going to run camp again this summer because, as Rosie Walker has declared, “Our spirit is fire-proof.”
Rosie’s father, Mike Walker, grew up on the ranch, and her mother, Lynn Walker, has lived there for 41 years. Rosie was one of two of the Walker daughters who relocated to Longmont after being evacuated from the ranch for the fire, which consumed the barn, tool shop, activities building, and the personal family home.
She’s hoping to return to the ranch, with her six-month-old daughter, for Thanksgiving.
“It’s going to be the first year we’re away from our house for Christmas or Thanksgiving. It’s just different,” Rosie says. “But it won’t be sad because we have all of our family. It’ll just be a new location.”
The Walker family has moved into the lodge, traditionally a summer building, and is still winterizing it. They’re planning to have all three daughters, Kate, Josie and Rosie, plus Kate and Rosie’s boyfriends and some of their boyfriends’ family members, at the ranch for Thanksgiving.
“We’re feeling like it’ll be quite a celebration, both Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Lynn says. “We’re just really glad we’ve got the lodge. The lodge is the heart and soul of all we do with our camp and our camp children, and now with our family, too.”
Kate Walker, the oldest of the daughters, is organizing a fundraiser for the holiday season to raise money to replant the trees.
“We’re still trying to do as many of the traditions as we can, just relocate to the lodge to do them,” Kate says.
She’s also asked for camp alumni and staff to donate an ornament to decorate the Christmas tree at the ranch.
“They say you’re supposed to give thanks during the holidays, but for sure this year it means more than it might have in the past to have family and everybody around and just start new traditions and build around that,” Kate says.
When the family evacuated, they grabbed the photo albums from the lodge that show the camp’s history. They didn’t get the girls’ baby books or family photos.
Donations and volunteer support have poured in since the fire.
“It just has really showed us the importance of what we do,” Kate says. “Something good has come out of this. You’re not always sure what that’s going to be at this time.”
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Janice Wheeler had been cleaning the Sunshine Schoolhouse and headed home just 15 minutes before the reverse 911 call came. She and her husband, David Wheeler, took less than an hour to get what they could and get out of their home. Nothing remains now but steel skeletons of what used to be there.
“It was my childhood home, and it’s burned to the ground,” Janice says. “It had been my family’s home, where we had all the holidays and everything.”
They moved into a home in Lafayette, where they plan to stay for as long as it takes to rebuild, if they choose to rebuild.
“There’s still so many things we have to mull over. It’s like losing a spouse and then people are like, ‘Well, are you going to get remarried?’” Janice says. “We’re just trying to take our time and figure out sanely what our next steps are.”
Wheeler, a principal’s assistant at Louisville Elementary, has two sons, neither of whom were at home when the fire started. They’ll both be back for the holidays, and Thanksgiving will be held at the home in Lafayette.
“I am excited about all the change that’s going on,” she says. “Number one, you have no choice in the changes, so you need to just grab them as opportunities and just fly with them. I’m looking forward to my family coming over to this home and being part of this new adventure, if you will.”
The family had another property in Sunshine that wasn’t destroyed, so they’ll be spending Christmas there. It was the first house the family moved into, in 1960.
“I just want people to know we’re happy,” Wheeler says. “We’re trying to transition as best we can.”
Clean-up days at the Colorado Mountain Ranch are every Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information on ornament or tree donations, e-mail Kate Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.