CENTENNIAL, Colo. – With the large- scale wildland fires in 2012 and 2013 in Colorado, many people experienced the trauma of losing a home, but not many of those people were working to fight the fire that ended up consuming their home.
Mark De Gregorio, a public information officer trainee with the Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Team, is one who found himself in this rare situation in 2012.
He was working on the High Park wildfire when flames ripped through Redstone Canyon near Fort Collins, Colo., and destroyed his home. However, despite his personal loss, De Gregorio went to work the next day.
The incident commander called him on the platform at the early morning briefing and told everyone about De Gregorio’s situation and said he wanted to recognize him, as many of the firefighters, forestry department workers and local law enforcement agencies knew De Gregorio from years of working together on wildfire incidents.
De Gregorio said a few words, walked back to his spot in the crowd of weary, overworked map makers, crew chiefs and forestry experts who stood in the Fort Collins Armory drill floor, which doubled as the Incident Command Post. As he made his way back to his spot, kind words from friends were uttered, consoling pats on the back were given, and wordless looks of sympathy and grief peered from the eyes of those working so hard to stop such ferocious devastation.
The briefing continued, and De Gregorio continued to support the firefighting efforts, intent on getting his replacement up to speed before he’d leave the job site.
Such is the manner of people who work on things that invoke such awe and tragedy; like a wildfire. They take a moment, mark it with a gesture, and get back to work.
Disaster hits home
De Gregorio knew his house was in danger.
“During the initial attack, the first few days, the column (of smoke) was right behind my house,” he said. “As the week went on, the fire was moving away due to the winds, so I kind of thought we were out of it (danger), but then the winds shifted and aligned with the canyon at approximately day eight.
“I figured if it didn’t come my way in the first few days, just knowing fire movement that it wouldn’t affect my home,” he continued. “You’re not always right – never know for sure. Like they say when they interview people on the news, I got the documents and the pictures out of my home when I was told to evacuate. Everything else I lost in the fire.”
De Gregorio said that he asked the firefighters who’d been in the area of his home if they thought his place made it. They couldn’t say for sure, but told him it didn’t look good.
“They’re just honest,” he said. “I would rather have them be honest about it. I went up to my house the next morning. I had to drive past the house next to mine to get to my place. That house was still there – the fire burned right up to it, but didn’t burn the house – so I went up my driveway. It takes a dogleg – you can’t see the house from the road. I had this little glimmer of hope that when I came around the corner, the house would be there, but when I came around the corner, the house was gone.”
De Gregorio said he knew at that point he would have to disengage from his duties on the fire, but his mindset was mission oriented: There was another information officer coming in to replace him and he had to get her up to speed on the job before he could leave.
“I wouldn’t leave someone hanging out there,” De Gregorio said.
He said the experience of having a home burn down in a fire has helped him see a new side of things when dealing with fires for his job.
“It helped me see the other side,” he said. “I have a lot of empathy for evacuees – people who lose their place. I’ve been doing this a long time, seen a lot of houses burn, but it also helped me be realistic. I was aware that eventually some areas will have a chance to burn.
“I played the scenario, I just knew that this would or could happen someday – my neighborhood hadn’t burned for a hundred years – and it contained really thick timber.”
Proper mitigation is highly recommended for higher-risk areas – clearing land near the structure, installing metal roofs, and using fire-retardant stucco is advised – but nothing can guarantee your home will be safe, De Gregorio said.
“You can do all the mitigation in the world – and you should,” he said, “but it’s not a guarantee that it will stop your house from burning.”
He had cleared the area near his home but not taken some of the other recommendations due to lack of resources.
The process involved in recovering money for your losses can be a long and arduous one, De Gregorio said.
“I probably put 200-300 hours into doing the inventory for the insurance claim. It was my full-time hobby,” he noted.
This year, 2013, has started much better for De Gregorio. He said he worked with a great realtor, started working with a new boss who he really gets along with, and has gained a lot of progress toward getting his fire-related affairs sorted. His new home in a new location has a great view of the sunset, and in the place where his old home burned to the ground, he started a garden. Many of his friends and neighbors in the community came to help out and celebrate.
“It was sort of like a barn-raising,” De Gregorio said, referring to a garden party that took place over two days.
“The first day we brought up a small tractor, built planting beds, hauled the topsoil and got it seeded,” he said. “Everyone was planting. I knew I was never going to build a house in the same spot again, but I didn’t want to tear out the foundation and the walls. I started dreaming about that a little – thought this would be a good place to put in a little memorial garden. I’m growing tomatoes, basil, peppers, zucchini, oregano, perennials and annuals, and an apple tree.”
De Gregorio said he’s come a long way, but when asked if he’s done dealing with it, he said, “Yes and no. I still have to settle up with the insurance company, but when that’s over, I think at that point, I feel like I can really move on. I know I will deal with this for a long time.”
De Gregorio said rebuilding is a huge challenge, but in time, everyone gets through it.
One year, almost to the day that he lost his home on northern Colorado, De Gregorio began supporting the West Fork Complex fire fight in the southwestern part of the state. He said he’s been fortunate to have worked with different agencies on the fires, including the Colorado National Guard, on both High Park and West Fork Complex fires.
“It’s been good, I’ve really enjoyed the people I’ve met,” he said. “It’s interesting – I’ll stop and talk with the guys on the checkpoints. It’s good seeing the Guard out here doing things with their particular skill sets. They have a lot to offer. All these resources working together makes a big difference in helping these communities.”
To people going through the loss of a home now, De Gregorio said, “Hang in there it gets better. I’m not going to say it’s going to be the same – it won’t – (but) things will work out. Stay in touch with others that who have lost their homes.”
De Gregorio belongs to a group dedicated to people who’ve lost their homes, so that those who have the same types of questions and are going through the same experiences can give each other support and guidance. He also strongly encourages other people in the same situation to join or start a group with those objectives.
Fortunately, in the West Fork Complex fire, structural losses were limited, but in the future, De Gregorio would like to work directly with people who’ve lose their homes.
“Then I can meet with them and give them information and say that I was there too,” he said. “I’ll be able to help them better because of what I learned going through it myself.”