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Colorado wildfire survivors surrounded by loss and guilt

Colorado wildfire survivors surrounded by loss and guilt
An aerial photo shows how the Waldo Canyon fire destroyed some homes but skipped past others in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo.
(R.J. Sangosti, Denver Post)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In a place where tidy suburbia meets the foothills, where middle-class families came for the view and stayed for the schools, 10 footsteps now separate relief from ruin.

On Vantage Vista Drive, Ernie Storti toes at a line of charred earth so precise it looks as if it had been drawn with black Magic Marker. He struggles to comprehend why his home is nearly untouched from the catastrophic Waldo Canyon fire, yet the house next door — one so close he once joked he could reach over and turn off the sprinkler — was all but vaporized.

Nothing is left there now but a hole in the ground filled with white ash. Piles of nails mark where walls once stood, but the wood has disappeared.

“By all rights this house should be on the ground,” Storti says. “It’s such a weird feeling to be here.”

Peering down his street past the yellow police tape, he sees that the fire’s devastation was nearly complete, incinerating house after house where Christmas lights once hung from rooftops and his children played in neighbors’ backyards. Yet when he looks the other way he can almost pretend nothing happened. His house, with its telltale heat bubbles on one side, was some kind of a turning point.

Maybe the wind shifted just enough. Maybe salvation came when firefighters pulled down a burning split-rail fence between the two properties. Or maybe it was that awful choice firefighters sometimes make to let one house burn so another can be saved.

He may never know.

As Storti describes his feelings, his voice is filled with awe, but there is a note of something else too. It feels wrong to be happy, feels wrong to now be able to curl up on the couch in front of the TV when so many around him lost everything.

Mental health experts call it survivor’s guilt — a condition of colliding emotions when someone randomly survives and another does not. “It’s this feeling of, ‘What on Earth did I do right?’” says Farris Tuma, chief of the Traumatic Stress Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Often those spared feel undeserving, or at least no better than those who weren’t. The Stortis have certainly batted that feeling around in recent days. “Why us? Why is our house still here?” asks Kathy Storti.

Survivor’s guilt is typically studied in relation to soldiers on the battlefield whose buddies have been killed. Tuma says it is a relatively recent acknowledgment that those who survive a natural disaster have the same feelings.

The family confesses to an embarrassment with their insurance adjuster. They discovered after moving back that their house did not emerge completely unscathed. They will need new siding, windows and insulation, and their wood floors will need to be refinished because the refrigerator leaked when the electricity was cut.

“It feels weird. I’m talking about getting new floors and other people lost their houses,” Storti said.

The family evacuated on June 23 when the fire first ignited, but like most in their neighborhood, were sure it would never breach a nearby ridge.

Three days later, Storti listened on a police scanner as firefighters did battle on nearby streets, hearing the call to pull back. Before falling into bed that night, he posted a message on Facebook: “I think we lost the house.”

A day later, counting lots in an aerial photo, he figured out his house had survived. But there was no celebration. Elation was quickly replaced by tears as they realized what had become of so many others. At a community meeting later that day, their next-door neighbors still did not know. “Yours?” the couple asked Kathy Storti. She said her house was fine.

Then, the inevitable: “Ours?”

Storti swallowed hard: “Your house is gone.”

Officials say when the monstrous fire exploded on June 26 and made its march through the Mountain Shadows subdivision and surrounding areas, it reached between 1,500 and 2,000 degrees. It damaged or destroyed at least 386 homes and killed two people, making it the most destructive fire in state history. It was not fully contained until July 10.

In any large tragedy, society is often quick to assign a “hierarchy of loss,” assessing who is suffering the most, says Carolyn Mears of the University of Denver, who studies the aftermath of trauma on communities. Those who appear to suffer less damage than others are reluctant to express their grief. “But really,” Mears asks, “how do you measure loss?”

As the days since the fire on Vantage Vista Drive pass, subtle changes in the Storti family routine have emerged.

When Kathy Storti takes their dog, Zoe, for a walk, she turns right out of her driveway, not left. The block to the right looks pretty much as it always did. To the left there is only ruin. She worries the lingering smell of the fire may further traumatize their pet.

Even when a cool front moved through last week, the Stortis kept their windows shut and curtains drawn. And when the overgrown lawn could no longer be ignored, Storti mowed it quickly.

“I kept my head down the entire time,” he said. “I wanted to be off the frontyard as fast as I could. I put the lawn mower away, closed the garage door, and went back inside.”

Sixteen-year-old Ashley Storti has been thinking a lot about Halloween this last week. She wonders whether there will even be trick-or-treating this year. For some reason she can’t get it out of her head. Her younger sister walked by the spot where a friend lived, and for a moment, when she closed her eyes, the house was still there.

The Stortis toyed with the idea of moving away. It is not easy here with no escape from the cratered houses, the silence of a once noisy neighborhood, the pretty hillside that now looks like a charcoal drawing. But they know they won’t really leave. They will wait it out until neighbors rebuild and their little neighborhood reinvents itself.

In the meantime, Storti plans to hang a plaque on the side of his house: The fire stopped here.

national@latimes.com


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