EAST PROBLEMES, Colo. In March, the Colorado Baptist Disaster Relief sent out the call that teams needed to come to Grand County, CO to help their efforts to help locals recover from last fall’s East Troublesome forest fire. On October 14, 2020, East Troublesome burned at an astonishing rate, burning more than 100,000 acres in a day, making history as the largest single-day forest fire in the state’s history. By the time the fire was contained on November 30, 2020, it had burned nearly 200,000 acres and crossed the Continental Divide, forcing tens of thousands of evacuations and reducing hundreds of structures to a pile of toasted ash.
When MBCollegiate campus missionary Jon Smith heard the CDR team’s request for help, he knew his BSU had to respond. Ten BSU students felt the same push. On June 20, the team, consisting of Smith, his wife and ten students, headed to Winter Park, CO to meet with Denniz Belz, director of CBDR, and prepare for a week of ash shovel.
Over the next five days, the team detected heavy equipment operators, sifted through rubble in search of valuables, separated countless free pounds of metal, and pulled out countless buckets of ash. The tedious work left the team covered in ashes from head to toe despite wearing Tyvek masks and suits. “This hasn’t been an easy job,” says Dennis Belz, director of Colorado Baptist Disaster Relief, “especially for all the out-of-state teams that have come and had never done Ash Out and fire cleaning before.”
The Grand Lake County Emergency Response Manager held an information session with the team, thanking them for their work and talking about how these types of situations are handled. “It turns out a lot of people like the separation of church and state until an emergency service is needed; then they love it if we work together,” Smith says.
Overall, the trip “wasn’t too spiritual,” Smith says, “You’re climbing ash for 8 hours a day.” But as they examined the devastation surrounding them, the team looked for opportunities to pray with the owners and share the gospel with them. “I was impressed to see two of the young people praying with an owner at the site,” Belz says. During an unexpected event, the team shared the gospel with a recent high school graduate who marked them to go to town on their way to Marine training camp.
“We cleaned the houses every day, and every day it was crazy to see that there was nothing left but ashes,” says Southern Missouri student Kristin Yeager. The sudden and total devastation opened the eyes of the team. “It was a great reminder of how temporary this life is and how we Christians have in our eternal life with Jesus,” Yeager reflects.
While storms and floods often leave some remnants behind, fires burn everything. Forest fires like East Troublesome burn hot enough to melt glass. The brick and concrete walls become so brittle that they sometimes sink to the touch. Metals are deformed or melted. At one point, the team found aluminum puddles that had previously been a trailer for a boat. Most days, they were lucky enough to retrieve a few unbroken dishes.
That is why one of the highlights of his trip was to return the wedding rings to a couple after spending hours sifting through the charred remains. “You tell yourself they’re just things,” the woman told Smith through tears, “then you become something like this and you realize it’s not.” Her husband was working when the call came to prepare for the evacuation. Evacuation notices are usually given 2 or 3 days in advance and are followed by an official evacuation order if necessary, leaving residents enough time to pick up their valuables and leave safely. But with East Troublesome sweeping more than 100 acres per minute on its peak day, the couple, who own an ice cream parlor in Grand Lake, only had a twenty-minute notice to evacuate.
The team worked hard every day, laughing, joking and commenting on what they were seeing and experiencing. The group was “Fantastic!” says Belz. “From leaders to students, they did a great job working the properties that needed help. They were all a blessing not only to me as Colorado’s state baptismal disaster relief director, but also to the community as they brought help, hope, and healing to that community. It was a joy to serve by his side for a week; he hated to see them leave. “
The joy was the most palpable emotion Smith observed in the group through the sweat and dirt of the week. “There was a sense of overwhelming joy at being able to serve and do things to be on a mission off campus,” he says. With four trips canceled due to COVID, this was the group’s first trip since the pandemic began 15 months ago, and they made the most of every moment.
The BSU team went home after a week of manual labor, but disaster relief efforts continue, although the fire has long since consumed most of the memory. of the country. But for those who lost homes and livelihoods, the impact of fire is an ever-present reality. Many of them do not have adequate insurance to help them get started again.
While the new disasters are catching the attention of the media, the CDR team is working tirelessly to find those rare valuables that can bring some comfort to distressed families as they build relationships with them in the hope of tell them about the only treasure that can never be taken away. “For the families we attended that week, the trip is far from over,” Smith says.