Heidi and Jeremy Wardell in front of the scorched trees on their property in Black Forest, Colorado.
In the summer of 2013, the Black Forest fire burned 14,280 acres and destroyed more than 500 homes on its way to becoming the most destructive fire in Colorado state history.
On June 11, Heidi and Jeremy Wardell evacuated their “dream home” in Black Forest, taking the valuables they could gather in the 40 minutes fire officials gave them to get out.
While staying at a hotel nearby, they checked the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department website for the list of homes declared a total loss. For two days, their home wasn’t on the list. It was safe and they were thankful.
While watching a news conference about the fire on June 13, Jeremy refreshed his browser and there it was; their home was on the list.
He was devastated but Heidi was in denial about what it all meant. She tried to make the best of it, thinking instead about what she wanted in a new house. Maybe she could finally get the crown moldings she’d been wanting.
The couple met with representatives from their insurance company who confirmed that records showed the home was a total loss. They began to prepare for what seemed inevitable.
Ten days after it began, firefighters finally got control of the blaze. And about three weeks after that, people started returning to their neighborhoods to see what was left of their homes and belongings. Heidi and Jeremy were in the last phase of people permitted to go back in.
When they arrived, their house was still there: it was the only one in the whole neighborhood. Everything around them was scorched, right up to their driveway.
The ground and trees were scorched up to the driveway in front of the Wardell’s home.
“The neighbors’ trees even looked like charred pencils but most of ours were still there,” said Heidi.
For Heidi, seeing their house and trees standing was like the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in chapter three of the book of Daniel. As the story goes, three men were thrown into a furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they refused to renounce their faith and bow down to the king.
But the king saw the three men walking around in the fire, untouched by the flames. He also saw a fourth; God himself — the one who spared them.
Later Heidi and Jeremy learned that firefighters had dug a trench around their home and tossed their propane tanks up the hill and away from the house to keep them from exploding and setting their property ablaze. The National Guard had even patrolled the neighborhood to keep looters from helping themselves to what remained.
“It was a miracle,” says Heidi. “I don’t know why God spared our home but we’re so grateful. This experience has made everything seem so much more precious and showed us that life can also be unstable. We can look back and remember that when everything seemed out of control God was — and still is — taking care of us no matter what we encounter in the future.”
When they returned to their neighborhood, The Salvation Army had set up nearby to offer their assistance, which included helping residents sift through the ashes on their property to find any possessions that might be left.
That day, The Salvation Army volunteers put their arms around Heidi and Jeremy, gave them hugs, and welcomed them home. They also gave them a clean up kit so they could get to work clearing the layer of ash that covered everything in their home.
“It was simple but the emotional and practical support meant so much,” says Heidi. “It was such a pivotal moment in our lives and we’ll never forget it.”
The whole experience changed the Wardells. One of the things from those days that reminds them of God’s grace is the damage assessment form they found tacked to their front door when they got home.
The form had four options:
— No obvious damage
— Cosmetic damage
— Limited structural damage
— Substantial structural damage DO NOT ENTER
The box next to ‘no obvious damage’ is checked. The form is now framed and positioned in the living room as a lasting reminder, complete with Heidi’s notes: “evacuated: June 11, 2013, total loss list: June 13, 2013, saved by God”
Heidi says they had no idea that The Salvation Army would be there to care for them when they returned but they’re so glad we were.
As always, it’s our calling — and pleasure — to stand with people when times are tough.