Up in Flames

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

| This is the 209th story of Our Life Logs |

For as long as I can remember, all I desired was a simple life for my family, alone in the wilderness. This wasn’t without struggle, of course, but it never failed to bring us peace. Then, with one fire, we lost everything.

I was born and raised near Denver, Colorado in a family of four kids in the late 1960s. My parents raised me to be a hunter and explorer. It was in our blood as Navajos. Many of our family bonding experiences revolved around the aspen and pine trees of our land. Although Mom wouldn’t allow it at first, there was nothing more at eight years old that I wanted than to trek alongside my Dad on his hunting trips. Nature always drew me in. Come to think of it, I excelled attending our local school, but resented how it kept me from being outside! Even my young mind knew where I needed to be.

As fate would have it, the love of my life, Kryssy, had the same goals and desires as me. From our first date, we knew we wanted to live a wildly simple life, living off the land somewhere in the mountains, and being one with nature.

Kryssy and me on our wedding day, 1991.

Kryssy and I got married in 1991 when I was 21 and she was 19. For the first five years, we worked on having a family, and had our first daughter. Ten months later, Kryssy became pregnant again. With pregnancies that close together, most people would put off thoughts of moving. However, my wife wasn’t like most people. One day while I was at work, she called me with the news. “I found our mountain home,” she said. I could hear in her voice that this was the one. Trusting her instincts, I told her to put our current house on the market.

Within just days of listing our house we received the offer we wanted. We made the decision to put our entire future on the line and sell it—even though Kryssy was eight months pregnant and we couldn’t move to our mountain home just yet. Thankfully, Kryssy’s parents let us move into their basement as we made the final arrangements for our new home.

Our new wilderness property became the scene of my labor and love. I started building our new log cabin in the early part of 1997. During the summer, the kids stayed in the camper while Kryssy and I split our time between working and building. I worked night shifts at my job and day shifts on the house, averaging about two to three hours of sleep each night. I didn’t mind, because this was our dream and everything we had worked to achieve. After the house was built, our simple life began.

Kryssy and me in our new home.

I was never afraid to take my children into the wild. We camped, we hiked, and we chased down bears and elk just like I did growing up. In the evenings, we would play what we called, “Horse Pasture, World Series.” We and the kids ran around until our sides ached from laughing. Eventually, we would make our way into the house late at night and grab a bite to eat before we toppled into bed. This was a typical day in our lives. Every minute was precious and we savored. Little did we know exactly how fleeting it all was.

Our home in the mountains.

In the spring of 2010, we woke up one Saturday to see smoke coming from a slash pile across the mountain. I had to go to work, so I put Kryssy and our son in charge of monitoring the situation.

When I came home, the horizon was blue. I asked my son if he smelled smoke. He said no. He had taken his bike up to the top of the hill and hadn’t seen anything to report.

That night, there was a buzz in the air. Kryssy was on the computer arguing with a neighbor over whether there was a fire, our daughter was reading a book, and my son and I were watching a movie—all staying up later than we usually did.

Around 9 pm our neighbor who lived about three miles away called our home. She said, “I see fire and I am going to leave. You might want to leave too.” Kryssy started getting worried, but I wasn’t so sure. Then, our neighbor from on top of the mountain called. They were also leaving. Bewildered, we sat looking at one another, wondering if we needed to leave too or if they were just being dramatic. Then a third neighbor called. “I’m going to come help you get your horses out.” Finally, something clicked in our brain. Our daughter and son went out to check on the horses.

Our son, whom we had taught never to swear, came back in with eyes as big as saucers yelling, “Get the fuck out!” Our daughter came in screeching with a hot ember burning in her hair. Smoke was quickly covering our valley and entering our lungs.

I took one look outside and saw how serious the situation was. I told my family, “Get your shit and get out! Whatever you deem to be important, leave in the kitchen in less than 10 minutes and I’ll grab it on my way out!”

Within minutes, my daughter was in the first of our two pickup trucks with my wife and our dogs. Meanwhile, my son and I were in the house chasing down our two cats.

Have you ever had a really important meeting, but you’re two minutes late and you’ve left your cup of coffee on the table? You want to go back and grab it but you don’t have time. OK, now magnify that feeling by ten. I didn’t have time for this, but my son was insistent, “The cats! We have to get them out, Dad!” The first cat jumped into a carrier as slick as you please, but the top fell off and we had to try all over again. The second cat was putting up a fuss, making us chase her across the kitchen and dining room. Right when I thought I couldn’t handle it anymore, she cooperated.

Just in time, we began driving away. When the embers were falling, we had not felt any wind, but fire creates its own air system. As the heat of the fire increased, everything changed. By the time the fire was on the hill by our house, we were driving in 97 miles per hour winds. The smoke was blinding, leaving us to choke on the bitter fumes.

The entire mountain behind us was engulfed in flames. The hill that we had greeted each morning was now transformed into was a living, breathing monster. I was driving the pickup ahead of my wife, leading us out of the valley. I shouted at my son to keep an eye out for her headlights. Whenever he didn’t see them, I stopped and waited. Trees were falling across the road and our windshield wipers were melting to the windshield.

Looking back at all the carnage, we were exhausted and terrified, but thankful to make it out of the hell alive.

Our horses miraculously made it out with a few blisters. We still owned the land our burnt house was on, but it was so scorched that we didn’t try to rebuild. We had been through so much trauma already that after six months of staying with a friend, we found a home on the outskirts of the city. It was semi-private with enough space for our horses, so we decided to cut our losses and stay out of the mountains.

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What does it take to rebuild your life? On the outside, it looks like getting a new house after getting the insurance money, settling into a new neighborhood and working with friends to move into a new home. On the inside, it takes much longer, if you can rebuild it at all. You can’t get back the time you lost and you can’t make what disappeared ever come back. In a lot of ways, the transition back into the noise of society has been harder than the material things we lost in the fire.

Our home inside city limits.

I may never understand why God has allowed so much suffering in my life. Why he would give us a dream just to take it away. All I can do is keep breathing and making it through the pain, and accept that God didn’t do this to punish us. It happened so I could learn from it and be grateful for what I have. Most of the time for me, I am still in pain over the loss. Some of us don’t like the pain so much that we don’t want to reflect and learn from it. But that was never me. When I find peace, I try to reflect on it. In those moments, I have felt that in some small way, God is working good out of the devastation, even if I can’t understand how. Maybe one day I’ll know.

My daughter, Kryssy, and me after the fire.

And yet, I can still find humor in it all. At 5 am, not long after we moved into our new home, I woke up and stepped out on the front porch to greet the morning, buck naked, just like I used to do in the mountains. The ladies who came jogging by were…a bit surprised. What could I do except smile and wave as they passed? It’s who I am and some things aren’t going to change.

It’s been eight years since the fire. God willing, we’ll be back in the mountains again.

This is the story of Andrew Santillanez

Andrew currently lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife, son, their three horses, three dogs and two enormous cats. After moving his family to a paradise in the wilderness of Colorado, he believed he had reached the heavenly atmosphere that he was raised in. Nothing could prepare him for the mayhem that awaited them when an illegal fire destroyed their home and way of life. He has discovered that, while time doesn’t heal wounds, faith brings greater good out of devastation. His favorite hobby remains hunting bear and elk with his son. When he isn’t hunting or working on the farm, he enjoys visiting his local Catholic church where he is loves to sit for quiet prayer time.

He and his wife are currently busy helping their son and daughter-in-law prepare for their upcoming wedding. Their daughter is now a game warden in South Dakota. They miss her a lot but stay in touch with her almost daily. If it wasn’t for his family, he doesn’t know where he would be. The desire to provide for his family keeps him going each day. To cope, he also shares the story of his suffering with as many people as he can. He considers that maybe he does this because it lightens his burden. But again, and again he finds that his story helps other people and has made peace with what happens.

Andrew, Kryssy, and their son.

This story first touched our hearts on October 4, 2018.

| Writer: Mary Flanagan | Editors: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |

#fire #marriage #family #home #tragedy #farming #mountains #rebuild #startingover #startfresh

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