Jim Giannestras hears it all the time.
The worried residents affected by the High Park Fire north of Fort Collins have, for the most part, shared the same sentiment.
“I never thought this would happen to us,” Giannestras, a Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplain, said Thursday of Colorado homeowners’ most common reaction.
But the wildfires that tore through more than 87,000 acres — an area two-and-a-half times the size of Denver’s airport — claimed more than 250 homes and one life in the heavily wooded area, mostly in the hills.
“There were 8,000 acres burned in one single afternoon,” Giannestras said. “The homes that have been affected have been turned to dust. Just the chimney left standing.”
It’s also left thousands with questions: What’s next? And where’s God in all this?
And that’s where Giannestras, his wife Sandy, and other chaplains deployed to both the Colorado and Ruidoso, New Mexico, fires come into play.
Sometimes just a listening ear. Sometimes more.
“We’ve had a chance to visit and comfort,” Giannestras said. “We try to get to the point of their faith, ask them where they find a source of strength.
“Some don’t want to deal with that at all. Some are very open. They’ll tell us, ‘If it wasn’t for God in my life, if it wasn’t for the faith in my life, this would be so hard.’”
One of the many people the chaplains have been able to minister to was a woman named Kim, a former Montreat College student, who as soon as she saw the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team logo, got off her phone and introduced herself. She had heard so much about the Graham family from Montreat professors.
“I think I know more about Franklin Graham than my own family,” Kim told the chaplains, who were able to pray for Kim, a Christ-follower.
It also led to other open doors of ministry in this close-knit community.
“It’s almost like we’re visiting with neighbors,” said Giannestras, who also found the reputations of both the Rapid Response Team and Samaritan’s Purse were able to open other doors of ministry. “We’ll be talking and we’ll say, ‘We were talking with George the other day,’ and they’ll say ‘Oh, you know George? He’s my neighbor.’
“They realize we’ve gotten to know the community.”
And now with the smoke starting to clear, for the first time in weeks, things are starting to look up.
Especially for those who look up.
“I look up into the hills and I see a fire that is out,” said Giannestras, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. “As nearly as I can determine, I think they’re just being extremely, extremely careful.”
The latest High Park Fire update was 75 percent containment, with local officials still concerned about hot spots.
As of 5 p.m. local time today, 1,900 evacuated residents are allowed to go back home in the Rist Canyon area. An indicator of a decreasing level of angst, what is routinely 500-600 people showing up for information at the daily community meeting had trickled off to about 200 on Wednesday night.
Many are about to get answers.
“The one thing that’s different (than other disasters) is that people don’t have any sense of closure or knowing what has happened,” Giannestras said. “They’re not quite sure how to respond. They’re just as open as any other situation.”
What was once nearly 2,000 firefighters working the High Park Fire is now a little more than 1,300 as resources have been deployed south to the Colorado Springs-area fire that has forced more than 32,000 out of their homes.
The re-entry date for the High Park Fire, at one point set for the end of July, was moved up to July 15 and now July 1.
But there are other issues homeowners may deal with.
“They’re dealing with four major animals on the hill,” Giannestras said.
Most of the animal traffic stems from the smell of spoiled food from abandoned refrigerators and freezers left in homes without electricity.
“First and foremost is bears. But when they go chase off the bears, they have to deal with badgers, rattlesnakes and an occasional moose.
“Basically, these homes have been unoccupied by humans and all these different animals are rummaging through what’s left.”
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