At sunrise, the scars of the Cameron Peak Fire are visible across more than 200,000 acres of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, with charred trees tattooed across the landscape — a painful reminder of the largest wildfire in Colorado history.

For Mary and Tom White — a graduate of Colorado State University and a veteran of the Vietnam War — thoughts of the Cameron Peak Fire bring back the trauma of fleeing their home in the early morning hours of one October day and the touchstones of their life destroyed by the blaze.

The White family spent years building their dream home near Crystal Mountain. It started with an 8-acre plot of land and a trailer shortly after Tom retired from 25 years as a shop teacher in the Big Thompson School District in 2005. Over the years, the plot evolved into a three-story home with a large bay window for Mary to watch wildlife and a wood shop for Tom to enjoy retirement.

They got married on the property. They gardened. They gazed up at those dark starry nights in the mountains.

“Mary and I decided we were going to live off grid, which is something I always wanted to do,” said Tom, who earned his master’s degree in technology education from CSU.

Mary and Tom White
White family home

Tom and Mary White and their home in the mountains.

Tom served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 as a weapons mechanic specialist in the U.S. Air Force, loading and performing maintenance on B-52 bombers. Their home’s solitude provided the solace he needed to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and the aftereffects of exposure to Agent Orange.

“I always wanted to live in the mountains,” Tom said. “I love the forest. With my experience in the military, I don’t like being around large populations.”

“It’s quiet,” Mary added. “It’s just different living in nature. You’re calmer.”

‘We lost everything’

fire

Smoke over the mountains near the White’s property.

The morning of Oct. 9 was anything but calm. With the fire five miles away from their home, the Whites had 30 minutes to pack everything they could into their Toyota pickup truck and head to Fort Collins.

As they traveled down the canyon, they said they were filled with shock and anger.

A few days later, on Oct. 14 at 12:08 p.m., they knew something was wrong when a neighbor’s security camera system went down, and Tom could no longer get a read on their home’s solar power system from his phone.

“It was so quick,” he said. “We lost everything. We lost virtually everything.”

It took several weeks before the Whites could return to their property. When they reached their home, they were speechless.

“Three stories down into the basement — nothing but rubble,” Mary said. “The metal roof was like ribbons. It took 2,000 degrees to melt this.”

All that remained were some charred Christmas decorations and other small keepsakes that they transported back to their temporary housing in Loveland.

‘They gave me hope’

Ryan Pfannenstiel is an Air Force ROTC cadet from CSU. In November 2020, he and seven other cadets traveled up to the White family’s property to help.

“Everything (in the canyon) looks great, and then it just transitions into a destroyed landscape,” said Pfannenstiel, who is studying mechanical engineering. “It just turns into dead trees and ash. It’s devastating to see all of those properties destroyed.”

Pfannenstiel and the other cadets helped remove dead trees and collected scrap metal from around the White family’s property. After hours of work, Pfannenstiel said they were covered in ash, but it didn’t stop the Whites from giving the cadets a hug.

For Tom and Mary, the help from the cadets as well as from family, friends and neighbors was tremendous.

“I broke down and cried,” Tom said. “They gave me hope.”

The assistance was organized by the Healing Warriors Program, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the wellness of veterans and their families.

Healing Warriors Clinic Director Karen Orlosky was among the many people who helped clear the White family’s property.

“It was an honor to be part of the team organized by Healing Warriors Program to assist the Whites in the cleanup of the property,” Orlosky said. “There’s a period of grieving that goes along with losing your home. I don’t think we can even understand it unless you experience it.”

Tom recently said they’re still working on the property, and they’re grateful for the help of the Air Force ROTC cadets and the Healing Warriors Program.

For Pfannenstiel, he said helping the White family was an experience that he’ll remember.

“Any time you get to help someone in the community, especially when it’s someone who’s in the military, it feels good to help them out,” he said. “It was devastating for them and stressful to deal with, but they were already getting things done. It’s good to see that mentality after such a devastating event.”