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A note from Mountain Shadows to Black Forest

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Losing your home in a fire is like childbirth, says Lisa Smith, a Mountain Shadows resident. Until you've gone through it, you have no idea.

"A year from now, things will be better," she adds. "But you don't wake up one day and have it gone. It's just a new path."

Smith and her family are due to move into their rebuilt home in a few weeks. It's a sweet prospect, but one slightly soured by the knowledge that other locals are about to start a new journey on that same, hard path.

As the residents of Black Forest face the devastation to their community, they can learn from the experiences of those in Mountain Shadows — certainly from people who lost everything, and maybe even from the lucky among us, including myself, who had homes to return to after the fire was extinguished.

For one thing, Smith says, prepare to be overwhelmed. People think they're being helpful when they say, "What do you need? What can I do?" Asks Smith: "How do you tell people you need everything?"

Looking back, she says, the most helpful people were decisive. One friend told her she was going to help her clean her rental house as she moved in. Another arranged meal delivery with directions to the friends bringing the meals to leave the food in a cooler on the porch and don't ring the doorbell.

It's difficult to accept help. But ultimately you need it. And people want to offer it.

Kristin Abernethy, who also lost her home, says she had several friends who offered to watch her three children while she made phone calls, sifted through the ashes or just tried to wrap her head around it. "This simple act," she says, "was priceless."

On the Sunday after the Waldo Canyon Fire, Mountain Shadows evacuees were allowed back into our homes for four hours. Beyond taking general inventory of what condition my house was in (I was lucky, we had almost no damage to our property), I had to clear the contents of two refrigerators, which had been without electricity for a day or two. I brought a friend to help me toss the tarnished wild salmon and edamame. Partway through the process, she turned to me and said, "Thank you for letting me help you."

Was she really thanking me for helping me? Yes, she was. People feel helpless, and they want to help. Let them.

That said, keep tabs on yourself, also. It's not your job to make people feel better about your situation, Smith advises. And it's OK to just say, "No, thank you": "Give yourself permission to not feel bad about saying no to people."

Smith didn't want to seem unappreciative, but for one thing, she grew tired of people cleaning out their basements and offering their hand-me-downs.

Which brings us to the need to replace everything that burned. Though it's just stuff, says fellow fire victim Tonya Hall, a time will come when you need it again. And shopping for it can be hugely challenging.

"Never go shopping by yourself — take a buddy," Smith suggests. "Initially you walk into a store and you need everything." Smith set goals on her shopping trips. Before walking into a store, she would tell herself exactly what she needed — towels, for instance — to avoid being crushed by the enormity of it.

Regardless, expect that those helpless moments will come. And that when they do, simple things will make a difference. "I remember walking into the Red Cross shelter and the volunteer asked me, 'What do you need right at this moment to feel better?'" Abernethy recalls. "He gave me what I needed ... a hug."

Like hugs, words will be simple things that help you through a traumatic loss. Hall says she received messages, primarily via social media from friends and strangers, and the support was invaluable. But as much as the words can provide solace, they can hurt.

"Everyone had well-meaning actions, but the comment that cuts the most deeply are those who said, 'I wish my house would have burned. You're so lucky to be getting a new house,'" Abernethy says.

It's not that people are stupid; again, until it happens to them, they have no idea. They don't know that, like Smith says, with every season change and every holiday, it's like starting over. Or that "for a month there's a huge amount of help, and then it stops."

They don't know that months from now, you'll probably see what Smith saw — that "my world stopped, but the world kept turning."

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