Jim Rottenborn and his family were on vacation when the Waldo Canyon Fire ripped through their Mountain Shadows neighborhood, burning their house to the ground.
Rottenborn, a foreign language teacher at Falcon High School, and his wife, Carrie, moved to their house in 1998, less than a year after they got married. “It was the only place any of our kids have ever lived,” said Carrie Rottenborn.
The fire sparked on June 23; and, by June 26, it had raced down into Queens Canyon from its point of origin in Waldo Canyon.
“The Waldo Canyon fire had confounded fire managers for three days – defying normal wildfire behavior, making nightly runs when most blazes sleep, and dancing with erratic winds,” according to a July 15 report from denverpost.com. “Normally, fires slow down when they hit a ridgetop. This one didn’t. It ran downhill almost as quickly as it did uphill.”
“We were visiting friends in Ohio (when the fire started),” Rottenborn said. “We had a house sitter, and she called on that Tuesday (June 26). The first message she left said that it was a voluntary evacuation. The second message said to call her. The third message said the evacuation was mandatory.”
Ten minutes after speaking to the Rottenborns, the house sitter had to evacuate. “The sitter grabbed some of our insurance documents,” she said. “I had her grab three antique rings that my mom bought for each of our daughters. “ Rottenborn said she considered having the sitter grab the CDs and DVDs containing their daughters’ baby pictures, but Rottenborn said she didn’t think the fire was an imminent threat.
“Waldo Canyon doesn’t seem too close to Mountain Shadows,” Rottenborn said. “We really didn’t think that it would be a problem. It seemed so unlikely that the fire would cross Queens Canyon.”
“When the flare crossed on Tuesday afternoon, we were in Kentucky at the time,” Jim Rottenborn said. “We were watching the news conference and saw a newspaper that said Flying W Ranch was completely engulfed in flames and that 10 acres east was in flames. I strongly suspected at that point that our house was probably gone.”
Rottenborn said he and his wife tried to get information about the status of their house; meanwhile, the media was not allowed to publish photos that would identify any structures.
“It took about 36 hours for Carrie to find a picture of the house,” Rottenborn said. The family was watching the news from rural Kentucky, and Rottenborn said he felt like he couldn’t get any answers.
Cell phone coverage was spotty and authorities were asking people not to call anyone’s cell phone, he said. “Everyone we know only has cell phones,” Rottenborn said. “We would call for about 30 seconds and ask quick questions, but most of the time we couldn’t even complete the call.”
After finally reaching friends and family for updates on their house, Rottenborn said the answers weren’t conclusive. “They would say, ‘We don’t know what to do, the smoke is so thick.’ They didn’t know more than we did.”\
The family returned from their vacation July 4 and set up house at Carrie Rottenborn’s mother’s home until they could find another place to stay.
“A friend said there was a rental house close by, so we dropped our girls off and went to see it,” Rottenborn said. “It was about two or three blocks from our house. The rental is closer to the girls’ friends and closer to their school than we were before. We’re glad to have it.”
They still had not seen their own property because the police and the National Guard would not let them in. “We got within 100 yards but couldn’t see the property itself,” Rottenborn said. “What we could see was devastating.
“When you have something like this happen, you are thrown onto a really steep learning curve.”
The aftermath of a fire can be challenging, he said. “I think some of our neighbors just want it to go away and have someone come in and make it better.” He said part of the problem is the sea of disreputable people who will try to cheat victims of the fire. “It’s exposing the fact that people are short on money, and some of them will do anything to take your money,” Rottenborn said.
“The fact of the matter is we’re getting the best out of a lot of people. I expect this to be the high point or one of the highest points in our life. Around the world, people are reaching out to us.”
Carrie Rottenborn said their daughters are handling the loss in their own way. “It’s been hard on our 5-year-old,” she said. “It’s always right there under the surface and it doesn’t take much to bring it back. Our 10-year-old feels it in the sense that we don’t get to talk as much or play games as much. Our 7-year-old had a special teddy bear that was lost in the fire that she got from Penrose Hospital. Her grandma contacted Penrose and asked about getting her another one. Penrose went out of their way to get her one and presented it to her in a really special way.
“The Falcon community in particular has been really amazing. Working at the high school like he (Jim) does, he comes into contact with a lot of people in the community, and they’ve really responded in an overwhelming way.”
She said the family has received bags of books, clothes and toys; gift cards; money; and, three times a week for six weeks the family received a prepared meal.
“We’ve been very mindful of the good things and the things to be grateful for,” Jim Rottenborn said. “We’ve been thinking about how we would respond if something like this happened to someone else. It makes you want to reach out more quickly.”
Rottenborn said his family plans to rebuild, but for the time being they are looking at the situation in a positive light. “I was thinking about oysters and how they form a pearl around an irritant,” he said. “I think the fire was that irritant and the community is coming around to bless us. They are turning that irritant into a pearl.”
Carrie (right) and Jim (left) Rottenborn asked a crew member with the Red Cross to snap a photo of them in front of the burned ruins of their house after the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed it.