Colorado wildfires: Volunteers help families find belongings

Samaritan's Purse, an international relief organization, uses local volunteers in Colorado Springs to help families find their belongings in the aftermath of the Colorado wildfires.

Susannah Kay/The Colorado Springs Gazette/AP
Bill Smith and Chris Cumming, both Samaritan's Purse volunteers, sift through ashes left over from the Waldo Canyon Fire on a property on Yankton Place, Colo. on July 15, 2012. Samaritan's Purse, the international organization uses local volunteers to help out after tragedies.

Before saying a prayer and heading out to sift through the ash and rubble of people's homes, Byron Spinney had a few words of advice for a group of volunteers.

"You are going to find things that are melted and all folded up and look like a blob and look like junk," he said. "Don't use the word 'junk.' Imagine how you would feel if someone looked at something that had been on your wall and called it junk. We want to respect them. We want to provide comfort and we want to love on them."

He was talking to a group of about 60 volunteers for Samaritan's Purse who chose to spend their afternoon shoveling and sifting through the ash of people's homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire.

The international organization uses local volunteers to help out after tragedies. Volunteers have also helped after tornadoes and, most recently, in Larimer County after the High Park Fire.

Wayne Shoemaker, who leads the wildfire response in Colorado Springs for the organization, said that they are sifting through anyone's house that requests it and they vow to stay until the job is finished.

The work can be tedious, he said, with some houses taking several days to completely sift through.

"If you can get one house accomplished in a day, we're doing good," he said.

On Sunday, volunteer crews were at two homes on Yankton Place, where all 13 of the homes in the cul-de-sac had burned to the ground. The shells of the homes were filled with twisted metal, rock, ash and nails. At first glance, nothing looked salvageable.

Before starting, Spinney gave the volunteers more instructions.

First, they had to gently shovel the ashes into a bucket.

"Be very careful," he said to the shovelers. "You don't know what could be in there."

After getting filled, the bucket contents are placed on large sifters where teams of two shake the smaller debris into a wheelbarrow or trash can.

"Keep an eye out for anything shiny or dull," Spinney said. "Fire can dull the look of metal."

After a few minutes, the crew was working in lockstep, sifting through the homes one shovelful at a time, a small cloud of dust rising from where they worked.

Sometimes, the work can be uplifting, Shoemaker said. Crews from Samaritan's Purse have found jewelry, china and, once, a metal cross that had been part of a jewelry box given to a homeowner on her 16th birthday.

Other times, what they find can be difficult, Spinney said. One homeowner has a large gun collection and had hoped that something from it had made it through the blaze. All they found were a few ruined gun barrels.

"We knew everything we were handing him back was a heartbreak," he said.

Still, the work of the volunteers was a comfort to Mekena Morgan, 20, and Katie King, 17, who lived with their parents in one of the burned houses on Yankton Place. They were happy to have a team take over and find whatever else was left of their home.

"After a while, looking through it all becomes emotionally draining," Morgan said. "They also have more resources than we do and can get a lot more accomplished."

Many of the volunteers didn't have a personal connection to the homes that burned. They just felt they needed to do something, anything to help out.

"I've given money but what I needed was to do something for someone," said Heather Florence, who lives in the Rockrimmon neighborhood.

In truth, Shoemaker said, there's not a lot that can be salvaged from the homes. But even the smallest finds can make a difference, he said.

"If we can find those mementos, it brings them some positive feelings and gives them a little hope," he said. "That's what you need to do to turn their attitude. We love to spend time with the homeowner. That's our most important mission."

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