New Beginnings: Those who lost homes to Lake Christine Fire try to look past pain, believe in future
Over the past year, sometimes it would be the lack of the basic living tools — try nail clippers for instance — that could send Bill and Andee McCauley into an emotional spiral.
Or when Bill turned 68 earlier this year, Andee wanted to make him a cake but didn’t have all of the necessary kitchenware to complete the task.
“I was going to make him his favorite,” she recalled. “And I had this meltdown because I didn’t have a mixer.”
Such has been the couple’s way of life ever since their home was obliterated by the Lake Christine Fire on the Fourth of July. They are grateful for what they do have and try not to focus on what they don’t have — unless it’s an immediate need.
“Every day you have to count your blessings,” said Bill McCauley on a warm June morning, as he sat outside in front of the spot he and Andee had enjoyed since they wed in April 2001. Bill and his previous wife bought the home in 1987. It’s the same parcel of land where a new home is going up. The McCauley couple hopes to be living there by the middle of the summer.
“You can always replace stuff,” he said, “but not memories.”
For all of the horrific memories they have from that night their home burned to the ground, and there are plenty of them — like when firefighters pulled Andee out of the house as the fire was burning their home — the couple takes solace knowing that the same community they had supported over the years was returning the favor.
“We’ve always taken in the strays, and now we’re the strays,” Andee said.
The fire thrust the two into a new world, even though they remained in the same area. First they stayed at the Element Basalt hotel for seven weeks.
“They treated us like royalty,” Bill recalled.
They also dwelled at a residence in El Jebel and most recently have been living at the Ranch at the Roaring Fork in Carbondale.
Their way of life shattered because of the Lake Christine Fire, the McCauley couple said they even once considering leaving the Roaring Fork Valley for the Front Range. They have family members there and seriously considered it. For about a month.
“We talked about moving to the Foothills,” Bill said, adding he even suggested the RV life, but Andee wasn’t having any of that.
The outpouring of community support, however, convinced them the midvalley was their home for the future.
“The people who came and contributed to us — how do you thank them?” Bill said. “Twenty bucks here and 100 bucks there, and checks that were larger.”
He added, “This valley is my family.”
SENTENCING: Victims get their day in court to face couple who started fire
GoFundMe contributions also poured in, like they did for the Martinez family, neighbors of the McCauleys on Lava Drive. The five-member family lost their home, which they had rented from Quent and Kara Williams for 14 years, to the blaze. Gone were some of their most prized possessions — father Jose Martinez’s riding saddles, or one of the girl’s bikes. Afterward the family lived in a tiny house provided by Aspen Skiing Co. before buying a home in Rifle partly with the proceeds of a GoFundMe account that raised more than $67,000 for them.
“We’re OK now,” said father and husband Jose Martinez, who works at the Top of the Village in Snowmass. “Everything is OK now.”
Also displaced was the McCauleys’ downstairs tenant, Levi Applegate, who lived there by himself for five months. Born and raised in Carbondale, Applegate, 35, said he lost most everything he had, but received clothing donations from Obermeyer and temporarily stayed at a friend’s house in the nearby Missouri Heights area. Families of players on the youth soccer team he coached provided financial help as did others, said Applegate, who now resides in Old Snowmass.
“It’s been unbelievable, the tons of support,” he said.
Applegate said he still sees the McCauleys, mostly Bill, who works part-time at NAPA Auto Parts in El Jebel. He also plays cribbage with them, something they did as neighbors.
The McCauleys weren’t shy in admitting they have had their moments over the past year, and they said they are likely living with post-traumatic stress disorder, especially from that night the fire shifted directions and claimed their home.
“She broke down the other day,” Bill said. “And I woke up at 4:30 in the morning the other day screaming.”
Bill said he lost $100,000 worth of tools. Among Andee’s prized possessions that were lost included her grandfather’s journals and diaries from when he did missionary work in the 19th century, as well as the first half of the 20th, in Central America. Bill rescued their two cats and they saved Andee’s jewelry, but other than that, they lost most everything their house contained.
“We’re embracing the minimalist attitude,” Andee laughed.
And then there are the two young adults whom authorities have held responsible for starting the fire by shooting tracer rounds at the nearby Basalt shooting range. Fire danger was extremely high that day, and tracer rounds were prohibited at the range.
Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, both in their mid 20s, each pleaded guilty in May to a misdemeanor charge of setting fire to woods or prairie. As part of the plea deal, the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office dropped three charges of felony arson.
The plea agreement calls for Miller and Marcus to spend 45 days in Eagle County Jail, perform 1,500 hours of community service, be on probation for five years and each pay $100,000 in restitution.
“I know they did wrong but I don’t know what 45 days in jail will do,” firefighter Cleve Williams told The Aspen Times after the plea hearing. Williams and his wife, Kerry, also lost their home in Missouri Heights to the fire.
All told, the fire burned three residences to the ground.
The McCauleys also have some opinions about the two defendants, but said they’re trying to move on and not to harp on their legal fates.
“I think I agree with Cleve,” Bill McCauley said of his friend. “They’ve cost society enough money.”
Neither Miller nor Marcus have reached out to them, they said.
“I’d love to see them up here with a rake,” Bill said as he gazed around his property where their new home will be.
Their new home’s kitchen will have windows facing the very mountain where the fire roared down the mountain — yes, down — and destroyed their home. That view will offer a daily perspective of what was and what is, they said.
“I want to look at the mountain,” Andee said. “I want to look at it all of the time. I want to see all of the new beginnings, and I want to look at the scorch. I want to it to be a constant reminder.”
The two said their gratitude for heroic efforts for the firefighters who battled the blaze and prevented it charring the entire midvalley remains. They have their friends. They have their family. And they not only have memories of their harrowing experience, but also memories of how they managed to pull through — thanks to their local support system.
“Pass it on,” Bill said. “That’s the next step.”