By Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
It was a foggy 7:30 a.m. Nov. 26, with flurries covering the area in the middle of Black Forest, Colorado. The mist and snow gave an impression of a pristine meadow. However, underneath it all belied the scars of a devastating fire that most residents want to forget. Yet the marks are a constant reminder of the event that changed their lives forever.
On June 11, 2013, a fire ignited at Highway 83 that quickly travelled to Black Forest. It grew to more than 14,000 acres, making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history, destroying more than 500 homes destroyed.
“It was horrible; it was devastating; it was a total loss,” this was all Ginny Vinson could say. The Black Forest resident could only shake her head as she recounted those bleak days that turned into weeks.
When Vinson and her family were told to evacuate their home immediately, they did not have the chance to bring any of their clothes, furniture or other belongings. They did manage to save several of their animals — horses, cows and dogs.
“We had to leave the sheep; amazingly, all 12 of them made it, I don’t know how they got out of it with just singed wool and burnt feet,” Vinson said. “But we lost all [of our] chickens and turkeys. We didn’t get to take them out.”
What was worse, her home was diminished to ashes.
“It was pretty difficult,” she said. “It was a struggle.”
Vinson and her family have been trying to rebuild their home. She has reached out to Black Forest Together, a non-profit organization, for help.
“Black Forest Together came about after the fire to help people recover and help them mitigate their property to prevent future fires,” said Bill Mantia, project manager. “It’s about neighbors helping neighbors.”
Following residents’ application for help, the organization conducts an assessment and tries to get resources. Most people just need help with the cleanup and other manual tasks.
“Homeowners can’t do this by themselves; it is impossible,” Mantia said. “We had a number of organizations come out and help our community. They lend not only physical support but morale support as well. People don’t feel they are alone trying to recover.”
On this morning of Nov. 26, Vinson didn’t feel alone.
Approximately 30 strangers consisting of active-duty Airmen and reservists from 25th and 379th Space Range Squadrons as well as family members volunteered through Black Forest Together to be with Vinson and help in her rebuilding.
“We felt that there was no better way to show our gratitude for the community than to give thanks through an act of service for someone who endured a hardship,” said Capt. Shawn Green, 25 SRS. “We thought the Thanksgiving season was a timely opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life and to heighten awareness about a noble cause.”
Green initiated the idea of volunteering as a holiday activity. He has been in Vinson’s place when he was evacuated and suffered significant damage to his home during a 2011 flood while stationed at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.
“As I was rebuilding, I was incredibly grateful and inspired by the amount of support that rallied behind me,” he said. “I wanted someone affected by the Black Forest Fire to feel the same way. Hopefully, we helped encourage them that better times are on the horizon and moved them one step closer to recovery.”
Green had asked Marian House Soup Kitchen if there were volunteer opportunities for his group. Because of the size of his group, the soup kitchen referred them to Black Forest Together, which was able to accommodate them.
“We are fortunate to be in a position that we can take a half a day or so and give back to our community,” said Lt. Col. John Thien, 25 SRS commander. “We should take advantage of those opportunities. I am a big proponent of making sure that our folks are part of the community.”
Thien said volunteering helped folks to be appreciative of what they have.
“Seeing this helps bring it home to me and be thankful that I’ve never had to go through this tragedy,” he said. “Hopefully, we can ease the pain of somebody else.”
Despite the 28-degree temperature, the team went on to work that morning. They dug a trench, built a fence, gathered burnt trees for a wood chipper and loaded damaged scrap metal into a dump truck.
“It was a great opportunity for us to team build, practice our followership skills, work up a sweat, reflect on our blessings and help someone in need,” Green said.
What could have been a couple weeks’ worth of work were done by the volunteers from Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, in just one day. Lt. Col. Shakir Khan, 379 SRS commander, said this was a great way to give back to a community that is very supportive of the military.
“It feels extremely gratifying,” Khan said. “Seeing somebody whose house was damaged and now she is rebuilding, it gives me confidence and hope.”
The fog was still there at approximately 10:05 a.m., but little rays of sunlight were starting to creep by. Little by little, burnt woods and scrap metals piled up. The rubble around the area was starting to clear up.
Vinson cracked a smile and said, “It’s gonna be good to be back home as soon as we get this rebuilt. It would be nice to come home.”