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Family loses home but doesn’t lose heart

Thursday, 28 September 2017. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Family loses home but doesn’t lose heart
David and Theresa Cassidy stand near the remains of their home, which was a victim of the Kenow fire. They are grateful for community support received as they begin cleanup, recovery, demolition and rebuilding.   
Photos by Brenda Shenton and Shannon Robison

Family loses home but doesn’t lose heart

By Shannon Robison

It’s sadly ironic that two old fire trucks sit at the site where all that remains of Theresa and David Cassidy’s holiday home is the foundation and two stone fireplaces standing tall against the blue sky. The burned remnants represent the aftermath of the Kenow wildfire, which passed through their property Sept. 11.

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Looking around the property Sunday afternoon, one can imagine why the Cassidys chose this spot for their family retreat. The view is amazing, even with the landscape changed, for now, to blackened grass and trees.

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Theresa and David appear remarkably calm as they prepare for the demolition of the second home that was so dear to their family. She says that wasn’t the case earlier on.

“Nobody was hurt, right, that’s the important thing,” Theresa comments.

They chose to have someone at the property either until ordered to evacuate or until the danger had passed. David was there Sept. 11 with intentions to stay and fight the fire if necessary, but left later in the day for work.

David says that when their son Michael left at about 10:30 that evening, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see fire, only smoke — that’s when Michael evacuated. He stopped to see neighbour Jennifer Jenkins, who was preparing to do the same.

They are grateful Michael was paying attention. “If it had been me, I could have been in bed or watching the iPad and been unaware of what was going on,” Theresa says.

She says it was hard being at home with the fate of their cabin at the whim of the fire. From the viewpoint of a webcam, she watched it consume their yard after Michael left.

“I didn’t watch the house burn,” she says. “I could see the trees on fire, I could see the grass on fire and the hill going on fire, but the cabin was still standing.”

The ferocity of the wind was evident as a windsock, visible through the camera, was “straight out.”

The webcam went out at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday due to either a lack of power or loss of Internet connection. It was Wednesday before the family learned the fate of their cabin.

In days leading up to the evacuation, David and Theresa took the nearby Waterton evacuation seriously. They made great efforts to use FireSmart tactics to protect their property in the event the fire breached the park boundary.

Grass was trimmed throughout the yard and wood piles were moved. Fire officials who checked the site before the fire came through said they had done a great preparation job.

Their most precious items, including paintings, some antiques and the guest book, were removed from the home in advance — just in case.

What remains of the cabin speaks to the intensity of the fire.

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Melted glass dots the scene and stonework crumbles to the touch. Melted hoses now lie where sprinklers doused the cabin and surrounding area. All that remains of one kayak is a steel rudder and a blackened area that appears to be melted plastic. A restored 1948 Ford truck has been totally gutted. Nearby, an aluminum ladder from one of the fire trucks is melted into the ground.

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The stone fireplaces, built of rocks David had collected over his lifetime and through his years as a geologist, still stood early Sunday afternoon. Hope of salvaging the rocks was dashed — they are structurally compromised from the heat, fractured and brittle, and cannot be used to build a replacement of a very personal component of their home.

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Theresa says there was no way to prepare for their first visit back to the cabin.

Looking down into the foundation, one can see where the kitchen fell through to the basement. Bottles in the wine rack are fused together, but most household items and many antiques were reduced to ashes. A few items were recovered but they are in rough condition. Theresa plans to hang onto them for now, but isn’t sure what will actually be salvageable.

A terra cotta pot, painted pink by their daughter years ago, is something that could again become a freshly painted memento of the past. A few Christmas ornaments also survived.

Kenow has been referred to as a fire that behaved like no other. Across the countryside it covered, there doesn’t appear to be much rhyme or reason to what was burned and what wasn’t.

The Cassidys did everything possible to protect their home, but didn’t do the same for an old garage. “It’s the only thing I would have been fine with burning down,” Theresa says with a laugh.

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The fire burned right up to the foundation of the garage and it remains standing while the cabin was completely demolished. “You can see burn marks all up the wall,” David says.

Pat Neumann, deputy fire chief with Pincher Creek Emergency Services, can only speculate that the fire had diminished in intensity by the time it reached the short grass near the structure.

A steel corral still stands and horses were safely moved before the fire came through the property. Further into the trees, a guest cabin was also consumed by Kenow.

Primary access to the cabin is via the Jenkins Ranche and across a steel bridge. It was damaged by the fire and David says an engineer sent out by their insurance company told them it couldn’t be salvaged. Thanks to volunteer efforts on the weekend, it was restored and provided important access to the property.

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Unfortunately, the bridge has since been barricaded, after the Cassidys’ insurance company saw footage of vehicles crossing the bridge on a television broadcast.

“There’s a real difference between the working cowboys, who can get a  job done, and the bureaucracy of the people who impede progress,” David says. “It was put together by very smart people.”

He is concerned that a fear of liability may become a major impediment to getting things fixed.

“The community has been unbelievable,” Theresa says of all who came out last weekend to assist those affected by the fire. While some may consider them “weekenders,” they have been supported as strongly as everyone else dealing with loss right now.

David agrees that help from neighbours has been incredible. Some family members and friends were also on hand to do whatever they could to help over the weekend.

As a backhoe digs a massive pit on the site, Theresa shares live video footage with her daughter in Vancouver and prepares for the demolition that will happen later in the day.

It’s an emotional time. “I think I’ll just stay for the first few crunches,” she says.

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Wendy Main shows up with hot drinks and snacks for everyone while her husband, Mac, checks in to ensure all is going according to plan. Mac was quick to organize the community work bee to assist their neighbours and his experience was invaluable.

Earlier in the week, David and Theresa started trying to figure out where to begin the process of cleaning up, repairing the bridge and replacing damaged fencing.

“We don’t know how to do these things!” Theresa exclaims. They couldn’t imagine how, logistically, they were going to get everything done.

An “amazing call” came from Mac, telling them how the work bee volunteers would be helping. “We were blown away,” Theresa says. “He said that’s just what people do around here.”

Having experienced help has made a world of difference.

People came from near and far to start the rebuilding process for ranchers and homeowners directly affected by the fire. Donations of of manpower, equipment, fencing supplies, tools, food and cash were put to use throughout the area over the weekend. Small-town spirit was evident from dawn to dusk and the Cassidys are most grateful.

Theresa also notes that the Pincher Creek fire department brought out water and Gatorade, and Royal Bank Pincher Creek gave them $100 gift certificates to Walmart and the Co-op. The community of Nanton also donated $35 of Subway gift cards that will be handy as she and David travel back and forth between Twin Butte and Calgary. The generosity has been overwhelming.

David and Theresa purchased the property in 1993 and first stayed there in a teepee and a camper. They started building in 1994 and the cabin was finished two years later.

As a family, they have spent nearly every weekend at their southern Alberta getaway. Now that their kids are grown, David and Theresa spend more time at the cabin than in the city.

Strong friendships have been built with others in the area and the Cassidys were particularly close with the late Bob Jenkins.

“We’re so glad that Jennifer didn’t lose Bob’s house. We still look that way when we come to the bridge,” Theresa says.

A week ago they didn’t think they would get much done before the snow flew. Thanks to help from work bee volunteers, family, friends and neighbours, they are well on their way to a fresh start.

The Cassidys hope the majority of their loss will be covered by insurance as they begin the process of rebuilding.

With a smile, Theresa tells David that he’d better get collecting rocks.

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Theresa shows a pot-bellied stove lamp, recovered from the rubble, that belonged to her parents.   

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David chats with Pat Neumann of PCES.

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Read more in this week’s online edition here.
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From the September 27, 2017 print edition of Shootin’ the Breeze.
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