Officially the death toll of the High Park Fire still stands at one.
A 62-year-old woman, who coroners now believe died from smoke inhalation in her sleep.
But that’s not where the mourning stops. At last count, 259 homes have been destroyed from the massive blaze that disintegrated more than 87,000 acres.
That’s 259 families, whose lives were completely turned upside down.
“It’s a death to homes they may have been raised in or their parents lived in,” said Billy Graham Rapid Response Team Chaplain Leo Grabwoski, ministering in the Rist Canyon community near Fort Collins, Colo. “It’s a death to memories. It’s a death to possessions.”
The costliest wildfire in Colorado history also comes with a deep emotional price. And the pain, in the form of heaps of ashes, is weighing heavy on the homeowners who lost everything.
“People are sometimes angry. They hurt,” said Leo, who along with his wife, Barb, resides in Fort Mill, S.C. “And they deny it. And they hold things in. They bottle it up. Much like a Coca-Cola bottle.”
But eventually, the top blows. The chaplains try to — twist the cap if you will — and do their best to help homeowners through it all.
“We sort of open it up a little bit at a time and let some of the pain out,” Leo said, “so they can deal with it in a more tangible, easier way — if there is an easier way to deal with a loss.”
There is hope. That’s what the chaplains want homeowners to realize. Yes, you may have lost every material thing you own. But you haven’t lost the one thing that matters eternally.
The hope only found in Christ.
“That’s what this is about, just being available to be there in the time of need,” Leo said. “To share the hope that I have.”
Still, the homeowners have questions that far outweigh the answers.
“It is astounding how a fire will have a mind of its own and pick and choose where it wants to burn,” Leo said. “I don’t understand it. Nobody does.”
And there are times when words simply cannot comfort, especially when the homeowner finally faces the reality in front of them.
“They look at their house,” Leo said. “All that’s standing in most cases is a brick or rock chimney and the foundation from the basement. And about three or four feet of ashes.”
Occasionally, after hours of sifting though, a wedding ring will show up. Or pieces of China, still intact.
“One woman found a piece of a saxophone that meant a lot to her,” Leo said. “They find jewelry. They find tools. They find things you would never think possible. God didn’t let those things perish.”
But there’s also times when that personal memento is lost forever.
“One lady said, ‘My whole life is here in this ash heap,’ ” Leo said. “And then she broke down.”
And it’s times like this where chaplains can lend a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes just by listening, they can open up a spiritual dialogue that leads to a salvation or rededication to the Lord.
Other times, they just plant a seed, leave material, pray for those hurting and let God do the rest.
“I just speak a little bit,” Leo said, “stand back and let the Holy Spirit do the job.”
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