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Wildfire Survivors Struggle at Christmas

December 25, 2002

DECKERS, Colo. (AP) _ Charred trees stand out bleakly against the snow outside Edith Mae Stump’s mountain home where the only green tree this Christmas is an artificial, flame-retardant one in the front room.

Months after losing their home of 40 years and most possessions to Colorado’s worst wildfire, Stump and her mother, Anna Mae, sit on donated second-hand furniture inside a modular home on their lot and laugh about how a cousin jokingly threatened to plant another artificial tree outside.

``It’s home even if it doesn’t look like it,″ Edith Mae Stump said.

Their home was one of 133 houses destroyed by a 137,000-acre blaze that burned for three weeks in June about 35 miles southwest of Denver. A former U.S. Forest Service employee pleaded guilty to starting the fire.

A Teller County task force has distributed $100,000 in donations to 115 people in four counties touched by the fire. The money helped the underinsured who lost houses and people who sold belongings to make ends meet during the evacuation. It also provided a boost to small businesses that lost tourism business, director Greg Schilling said.

The county’s food bank gave out over 300 Christmas boxes this year, nearly double last year’s total, director Katherine Blough said.

Many people whose second homes were destroyed have decided not to rebuild, having lost the views and trees that brought them to the area. But year-round residents with mortgages to pay say they have no choice but to stay. Some manage to joke that the burned landscape should keep them safe from another wildfire for a while.

Most say Christmas isn’t the same.

``We’ve been overwhelmed with so much,″ said Alisha Alitz, whose family is rebuilding near Woodland Park. ``It’s really hard to get into the mood.″

They hope to move into their new house as soon as it has electricity and heat, perhaps by spring. Drywall, carpet and kitchen cabinets will come later.

Many residents whose homes were saved are struggling because they missed work or lost business during the fire.

Ginger Krabbenhoft’s house was spared, but the fire charred 40 acres her family bought for a cabin. Most days she and her husband and some neighbors take turns working on each others’ land to prevent erosion. They haul 70-pound bales of straw up the hill on a six-wheeler, break them open and spread a 2-inch layer.

One couple went to Yellowstone National Park to remind themselves how land can come back from a fire. Nearly 800,000 acres of park land was scorched in a 1988 fire, but ecosystems recovered quickly.

Krabbenhoft, 64, a retired floral designer, helps her mood and her neighbors’ during the holidays with three small, artificial evergreen trees planted in a burlap sack. One tree has a bird nesting in it with a note reading, ``Someday we’ll have this again.″

She picked up 20 of the artificial trees at a grocery store and carries them in her car. ``If I meet someone down in the dumps, they’ll get one of my trees. If it helps them it will be worth it,″ she said.

Despite their loss, Edith Mae Stump and her mother said they believe they are among the lucky ones. Although insurance did not cover all their losses, their property was paid for. Friends and family helped them clear the land and assemble the prefabricated house in October.

But reminders of what they lost keep surfacing. Hearing ``Up on the Rooftop″ on the radio reminded Edith Mae Stump of a dancing Christmas tree she owned that played that song.

Still, she is thankful for small wonders, like finding the recipe for her Christmas fudge in a church cookbook she received at a ``fire shower″ thrown by family and friends. Her copy of the recipe had burned in the fire.


On the Net:

Hayman Fire Recovery Center: http://wildfires.nwcg.gov/colorado/hayman/hrac.htm

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