Facing Our Black Forest Wildfire Debris

It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. It’s now been 20 months since the 2013 Black Forest Wildfire killed two people, burned over 14,000 acres and destroyed 507 homes, including our 1924 log cabin home. 

Black Forest wildfire near Firehouse on the Run BBQ

(Above) Wildfire burning behind my brother’s business, consuming our cabin.

(Below) As the flames engulf where our house once stood. Video from Wayne Laugeson.

So, let me catch you up on the story.

After we viewed what was left of the cabin and my brother’s house, we stopped at the town center where Red Cross folks were handing out shovels, ash sifting screens, tarps and other supplies. What a great group of people. I wish I could have been more sociable, but I felt like I was in a dream – basically pretty numb.

Black Forest Fire Red Cross Volunteers

The next few weeks were a blur. I had to meet with the insurance company before any of the debris could be collected or removed. We had The Hartford and our adjuster was very thorough and empathetic. He took a ton of pictures and measurements. I had been cautioned not to consider him a friend and keep things professional. Overall, they were fair with us – certainly not Santa Claus – but fair. I had a notebook where I wrote down everything he told me, so I wouldn’t forget. My mind was like a big black hole.

I took advantage of the offer for volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse to sift through the debris for us. The day in July they showed up, it was in the high 90’s and everyone had to wear a hazmat bunny suit for fear of asbestos. Those people were saints! They encouraged Mom and I to sit back under the shade and let them do the work. Every once in a while a volunteer would bring over a “treasure” they’d found to show me. They asked where any important items might have been located in the house and stacked everything they found in piles. They raked the mounds of ash into piles as well.

Dishes debris Black Forest wildfire

They were dripping wet under those hazmat suits. And at the end of the day we formed a circle in prayer. They gave me a Bible, which each one of them had signed. They stressed they weren’t doing this work so I would donate, but it was something they each felt called to do. Teams of volunteers do this kind of work throughout the U.S. and internationally when there are disasters. I’ll say it again – they are saints!

Samaritan's Purse Volunteers Black Forest Wildfire

There was very little left intact after the fire. Many of my depression glass dishes melted together. Our cast iron skillet that had been on the stove was warped. Imagine how hot the fire had to be to do that! My son’s military dog tags survived, as did some teacups and coffee cups, ceramic Christmas angels and ornaments. (Perhaps a spiritual message?) What we saved from the fire fit into three 5-gallon buckets and some of that was broken glassware and oriental blue dishes I thought I might create something with in the future.

One of the most surprising discoveries were the two ceramic decorative houses my Mom and Dad had given me. They were sitting on top of the stone fireplace mantel, totally intact with only the paint bleached from the fire. Just think of all the burning logs and roofing that fell from above when that fire swept through. And these two little houses survived without a scratch on them. I use one of these houses to close my keynote speech on the fire. Audience members are pretty amazed at how something so fragile could be so resilient. It makes a great analogy for how we humans survive troubling times.

Ceramic house survives wildfire

So, you see, going through the fire itself was one hurdle. Then you had the cleanup and all the decisions about what to do with the debris. There was a lot of metal: the woodstove, twisted water pipes, garage equipment, refrigerator, hot water heater, furnace, washer and dryer, stove and the innards from my Mom’s piano (THAT was a big loss). Thankfully a very dear friend volunteered to collect the metal and after his days and days of hard work, we took it down to the salvage center where we were astounded by the amount of metal from the fire. The number of burned out cars and trucks alone was amazing.

Black Forest wildfire salvage

After that, I could interview and contract with the debris removal guy to haul everything else away. I wanted the place cleaned up as quickly as possible. I wanted the mess gone. The insurance company required me to get bids from three contractors. It was hard to figure out who to go with; I’d never done this before. Once everything was hauled away I went out there and noticed the stepping stones that formed a path in front of the cabin now led off into an empty space. Perhaps it represented our future – yet to be determined from the absence of our past.

Stepping stones after wildfire

The last step was tree removal. Fortunately, trees out front on the majority of our property were spared. The fire had only singed them and the Forest Service guy said they’d bounce back. But the trees along the side of the cabin and in the back were “toast”. We had to remove about 45-50 trees, big ones and little ones, haul away the slash, cut up and stack the trunks. My “woodsman” was kind enough to carve a cross with his chainsaw out of one of the bigger trees. These crosses cropped up all over the forest as people cleared their property. It was a sign of hope.

Cross carved from burned Black Forest trees

Coming next: we rise from the ashes