Volunteers Sift Treasures from Black Forest Ashes

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Duane Reynolds (blue shirt) with Samaritan's Purse volunteers at the remains of his house. [Photos: CPR/MVerlee]

When fire swept through the Colorado Springs suburb of Black Forest last month, it devoured homes down to their foundations, but it didn’t take everything. In the ashes there are still relics waiting to be recovered, if a homeowner has the physical and emotional strength to look for them.

Residents don’t always have to search alone though. Teams of volunteers with the disaster assistance group Samaritan's Purse are scattered around Black Forest helping sift through the rubble.

An Ash-Covered Archeology Dig

From a distance, it seems like all that remains of Duane and Lee Reynolds' home are just a few scorched concrete walls and the blackened finger of the chimney. But down in the ruins of what used to be their basement, there's a busy hunt on for whatever else may have survived.

Wearing dust masks and bright orange Samaritan's Purse tee-shirts, more than a dozen volunteers shovel debris onto big wire sieves and shake them vigorously over garbage cans. They pick out and set aside little bits of metal and fragments of china and throw away the rest. It’s like some ash-covered archeology dig, where the artifacts they’re trying to recover are mementoes of the Reynolds’ life.

"We had a lot of stuff in that house," Duane Renolds admits. He sits in the shade of a pine grove that survived the fire untouched a little ways from the house. "After 45 years of marriage and living all over the world... We had a lot of stuff."

The volunteers have already managed to reunite the Reynolds with several of their most treasured pieces of "stuff," among them a gold coin given to Lee Reynolds by Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, while Duane was serving in the military there.

For the past 30 years, the coin sat unnoticed in Lee's jewelry box, but when volunteers asked the couple what they hoped could be found, it was one of the first things that sprang to mind.

"Two gals kneeled in that pile of ashes for about three hours and eventually..." Reynolds breaks off for a moment and clears his throat before concluding, "that little gold coin is still shiny."

That's a specialty of the group, trying to find the one thing homeowners say they're most hoping to recover, and volunteers say it's surprising how often they're successful.

The Reynolds weren't home when the fire swept toward their property. Neighbors, and even strangers, flocked to help save their many horses, but there wasn't time to grab anything more than some bottles of medication from the house. The Reynolds are older and suffer from health problems, so they would likely have had to give everything else up as lost, without the help of these volunteers.

"I’m seventy years old. I can’t sit down there and sift the ashes of that house," says Renolds. "My wife is half a cripple, and she can't breath up here. We couldn’t do it. We have a lot of friends, they all work."

Trying to Help Homeowners Find Peace, as Well as Possessions

North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse has its roots in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and does this kind of work at natural disasters around the country. Close to a hundred people a day, mostly locals, are volunteering in Black Forest.

Registered nurse April Still wears a ventilator mask as she shovels through the rubble. She first volunteered with Samaritan's Purse last year after the Waldo Canyon fire, and didn't hesitate to sign up again.

She says she does it because she feels so helpless in the wake of these disasters, "and this is a way I can get out and make a difference and do something to help these people."

Still sees a divine hand in the work she’s doing; last year her crews found numerous nativity sets in "perfect" condition. She recalls thinking, "okay, this has to be God."

"We encourage [volunteers] to put down the shovel and take time to talk to these homeowners and let them tell their story," says program manager Wayne Shoemaker. "It’s good therapy. It brings on healing when they tell their story."

Not Everything Recovered is Wanted

As volunteers find things they think the Reynolds might want, they spread them out on a patch of gravel next to the house. After a few days the spot has taken on the look of a post-apocalyptic garage sale. The ground is thick with things like half-melted cutlery, old lanterns, the remains of a Singer sewing machine.

Almost every one of these blackened relics seems to call up a fond story from Reynolds, with one exception.

"You see that turtle?" he says, pointing to a big terracotta turtle, virtually unscathed, sitting on a patio table. "An old boyfriend gave that to my wife for a wedding present. And if there was anything that I wanted to get rid of, it would have been that turtle."

The thought makes Reynolds chuckle. It's one of his few jokes that doesn't end in a sigh.

People who've lost homes to fire often hear from well-meaning friends and family members that they should not to worry about material possessions, that they should be grateful just to have escaped with their lives. But possessions are also the vessels for memories, and for all the surprising things the Samaritan's Purse volunteers manage to salvage from the destruction, many more are gone for good.

"It is just stuff and it is just ashes, but it hurts something terrible." Reynolds says.

The Samaritan’s Purse volunteers plan to keep working on the Reynolds’ house until there’s nothing left to find, and then they’ll move on. They're likely to be busy for quite a while. There are more than 200 houses in Black Forest whose owners have requested their help.

[Photos: CPR/MVerlee]