Victims of Lake Christine Fire rebuilding their lives, trying to find normalcy
The Aspen Times
While life is returning to normal for the 13 people who lost their homes and possessions in the Lake Christine Fire, they face a challenge putting permanent homes over their heads.
Andee and Bill McCauley, their tenant, Levi Applegate, and their neighbors the Martinez family had less five minutes to get what they could out of their homes on Lava Drive before it burned to the ground on the night of July 4.
Cleve Williams, who is a Basalt firefighter, spent that night trying in futility to save his family’s home in Missouri Heights.
He is more than ready to get started on rebuilding, but the family is living in a motorhome while they await an insurance settlement. Meanwhile, he keeps answering fire and medical calls with Basalt Fire Department and chips away at getting his property cleaned up.
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The McCauleys have been living in the Element Hotel at Willits Town Center and just recently brought their cats there.
Andee had been searching for a place to rent the past couple of weeks and was starting to feel a sense of desperation because of the tight housing market.
“This is all so new to us. … We’ve been so spoiled because we’ve owned our house for 30-some years,” she said earlier this week. “Because of the cats, it’s been hard to find somewhere to land.”
But Thursday, she reported they were able to secure a lease in El Jebel from mid-August to April.
Andee said they plan to rebuild and are working with Eagle County and the insurance company.
Applegate is staying with a friend in Missouri Heights and at his boss’ house. He, too, is searching for a place to call his own.
“I have to wait for someone to move so I can move in,” he said, noting that there isn’t much vacancy in the midvalley. “I have to play the patience game.”
The McCauley residence was one of three homes that succumbed to rapidly growing flames due to an unexpected and rare wind shift on Basalt Mountain a day after the blaze began. As of Thursday evening, the fire had burned 12,186 acres with 39 percent contained.
“Life is slowly returning to normal,” Andee said. “Every day is a little different.”
Applegate, a Carbondale native who works for Able Electric and is head coach of the Roaring Fork Soccer Club’s All Valley Select U17 team, concurred.
“It’s like any other day; it’s weird,” he said Thursday morning.
A GoFundMe page set up by Applegate’s girls’ soccer team has raised just over $19,000 for him.
He said he will use that for rent and furnishings when he finds a place.
“It’s crazy how much support there is,” Applegate said. “It’s humbling.”
The McCauleys feel the same way. Two GoFundMe pages have been created for them. Combined, more than $30,000 has been raised.
“Everyone has been absolutely wonderful,” Andee said, adding that the staff at the hotel has been amazing. “You couldn’t find a better place for a temporary home.”
SKICO HELPS FAMILY OF six
Jose “Chano” Feliciano Martinez is facing the daunting task of finding replacement housing for his family of six.
Thanks to Aspen Skiing Co., that search isn’t quite as desperate. Skico officials put up the Martinez family for free in one of the 40 tiny houses the company has moved into the Aspen-Basalt Campground for employee housing.
Officials in Skico’s housing department learned about the family’s plight and reached out to help. They had one vacancy among their tiny houses in Basalt. All others are occupied this summer by employees, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico’s vice president of communications.
He noted the company had 30-some employees and their families temporarily displaced in the opening days of the Lake Christine Fire. Skico offered rooms in its Little Nell Hotel and Limelight Hotel while the evacuation orders were in place.
The offer of housing extended beyond the Skico family.
The Martinezes moved into Skico’s vacant tiny house about a week ago and have will be able to stay rent-free for three months, Hanle confirmed.
Jose said the housing is a huge help while he looks for something larger. He and his wife, Griselda Sanchez, have four girls, ages 13 years to 3 months.
He is hoping to find something in the Roaring Fork Valley because he doesn’t want to commute to his job in Snowmass Village from New Castle or points farther west. However, the housing market is extremely tight right now.
The Martinez family’s plight drew attention from the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond. A GoFundMe page set up by Jose’s employer, Doug Hayes, the general manager of Top of the Village condominiums, had raised $64,375 as of Thursday. There were 570 donors since the page was established July 7.
“I want to say thank you for all the help,” Martinez said.
FIREFIGHTER’S FAMILY EAGER TO REBUILD
Cleve Williams, another homeowner who lost his home to the Lake Christine Fire, is chomping at the bit to get going with construction of his family’s next house.
Williams had the mind-boggling experience of working with other firefighters to try to save his home in the Vista Hi neighborhood of Missouri Heights. They lost after a heroic effort in the early morning hours of July 5. Williams and his team went on to save other houses nearby.
Williams, a fire captain with the Basalt Fire Department, was among the first firefighters on scene July 3. On July 4, he cut fire lines between El Jebel and Lake Christine with his bulldozer, then led efforts to protect structures. The day after his house burned, he was back cutting lines with his dozer.
Williams, part of the Crawford family that founded modern day El Jebel, has received an incredible amount of support from family and friends, he said this week.
Even people outside the community have shown their goodwill. Women from Hotchkiss delivered a quilt to the fire department for each of the families that lost a house, he said. They also brought a quilt for each of the Martinez girls. They will soon be delivered.
Cleve, his wife, Kerry, and their son Cole are staying in their motorhome for now. He is waiting for an insurance settlement so he can get under construction.
“I’m hoping to get started as soon as possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, he keeps thinking of possessions that were destroyed in the fire that he previously forgot to submit to the insurance company. His advice to property owners — document your belongings before a disaster. Use video to take inventory of your stuff.
A GoFundMe page was created by a Basalt resident who was awestruck by Williams’ heroic actions in the fire. Angel Cusick didn’t know the family but wanted to help. That page had raised $101,786 as of Thursday, with 875 donors in 20 days.
The help extends beyond financial contributions. Architects and engineers in the Basalt area have volunteered to help the family design their next house. Their daughter, Devin, is a student at Cal-Poly and is working on the design.
Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork has offered the Williams family a discount on custom-built cabinets made by prison inmates for the nonprofit organization.
“Everybody’s been great,” Williams said.
Andee McCauley said she tries to live by the words her friend with stage 4 cancer told her: “We can be better, we can be stronger each day in every way.”
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Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.