Waldo Canyon Fire Survivors: Jerry & Tina Pati

Jerry & Tina Pati lived in the Parkside neighborhood in Colorado Springs for over 26 years when the tragic Waldo Canyon fire destroyed their home in June of 2012.

 

Jerry & Tina Pati

Originally from The Philippines, Jerry emigrated to the USA and spent a majority of his life serving in the US Army. Living in Sunnyvale, California in the mid-1980s, Jerry had recently retired from the military and started working for the US Postal Service. Tina’s employer, Control Data, offered to relocate them to Colorado Springs. When they arrived, they chose to make their home in the Parkside neighborhood within the Mountain Shadows area for a few reasons: “One of the engineers at work had just bought a house on Majestic Drive and told me about it,” Tina says. “It was just down the road from Garden of the Gods where I worked, so I took a look, and they were still building in the neighborhood. And, we knew we wanted to buy a home close to the mountains with a view.”

 

She continues “It’s funny, some people told me ‘That’s a small neighborhood, and you won’t have a backyard.’ But I told them ‘Well, it snows here, so who needs a back yard?'” They ended up buying a home on Majestic. Jerry echoes Tina’s thoughts: “We love this neighborhood. Some people have been here as long as we have. Most people here are retired military like me, and we all know each other.”

mountain shadows home before fire
The original home, before the fire hit

The Patis lived in Mountain Shadows without incident until 2012, when the hot, dry summer set the perfect conditions for the Waldo Canyon fire which was, at the time, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. Tina recalls the day the fire started: “I was working that Saturday (June 23rd), up north near Interquest Parkway and I-25. It was lunchtime, and everyone was taking a break, and I heard people say ‘there’s a fire,’ so we were all watching the news. I could see the fire was near our neighborhood, so I called Jerry at home and wanted to tell him ‘there’s a fire very close to the house’ but he wasn’t answering the phone. I kept calling and calling, but he didn’t pick up.”

I told him to pack his bags, but he just kept frying… chicken wings during the fire!”

She decided to drive home to make sure her husband was safe: “When I got home, I saw Jerry on the back deck, watching the fire with our neighbors. He had been deep-frying chicken wings and watching the fire, which is why he didn’t answer the phone. I asked him ‘Didn’t you see the news?’ because I’d heard that they were evacuating the area. I told him to pack his bags, but he just kept frying chicken wings—chicken wings during the fire!”

Jerry remembers that day as well: “I wasn’t so worried because everyone was telling us ‘the fire has three canyons to pass over before it gets here,’ and the firefighters had already done ground control and mitigation with bulldozers, removing everything in the fire’s path. We were told ‘Don’t worry about it—the fire is at least three miles away from your house.’ But they didn’t expect that the wind would pick up everything and blow it down the mountain. Embers were landing on rooftops, and some houses in our neighborhood had wood shingles on the roofs, and there were pine trees everywhere.”

The Patis heard mixed reports on the news about what they should do, but Tina was convinced that it was time to evacuate: “I yelled to Jerry, ‘I’m going upstairs to pack. Get the computer! Get my sewing machine!’ but he kept saying ‘It’s fine… we’ll be back soon… we’ll be back.’ So all we left with was two day’s worth of clothes and a tiny box of papers because by then the Sheriff’s Department was outside telling everyone to get out and honking their horns and sirens. We went to my Mom’s home off of Fillmore, and you know what Jerry brought with him? The chicken wings! He brought them in a little plastic bag and said ‘Sit down; let’s eat.’ So he was eating chicken wings on the floor in my Mom’s living room, and we watched the fire burn on the news! I think he was in shock.” “I just didn’t expect the fire to cross the street,” Jerry says.

home burned in waldo canyon fire
The home, immediately after the fire

“They said ‘You cannot go back,’ and there were cops everywhere. We never saw the house after that.”

The next day, Tina had a sinking feeling that their house had burned down. “I was watching the news all night long and all day long, and I was crying. We tried to drive back to look, but the police had the street blocked off, so we went to the Albertson’s parking lot and saw lots of smoke coming from our neighborhood. We went to a meeting and asked ‘When can we go back into our neighborhood?’ and they said ‘You cannot go back,’ and there were cops everywhere. We never saw the house after that.”

 

Tina and Jerry were told they could learn the status of their home later at a meeting at UCCS. Jerry remembered: “It was total chaos… nobody knew what to do. They separated everybody into two sides of the room: on one side, all the people whose homes were safe; on the other side, all the people whose homes were burned. It was a big commotion. They handed us a paper that said ‘TOTAL LOSS.’ That’s when we knew for sure that it was destroyed.”

“Waldo,” the Pati’s new puppy they named after the fire

The first thing the Patis did after hearing the official word was to call their insurance company. Coincidentally, they had just changed insurance companies two years earlier: “We used to have bad insurance—they didn’t want to replace our roof even though it was very old and had wood shingles. We finally got them to replace it, and as soon as they did, we switched insurance companies” Tina recalls. “Our new insurance company is much better, which is good because they did a great job helping us after the fire.”

The couple stayed with Tina’s mother for a few weeks until their insurance sorted out a way for them to rent a place of their own, then they moved to an open apartment in the same complex. They also added a new member to their family—a little puppy (Chihuahua and Yorkie) mix. His name shows their sense of humor: they named him “Waldo.”

Jerry remembers: “It was sad because 2 or 3 months before the fire, I spent a bunch of my military retirement money on fixing up the house—I paid $18,000 to replace all the windows on the house because the original windows were cheap and ugly. I also bought a brand new flat screen TV, brand new beds, and a brand new computer. Then the fire came and destroyed it all.” Several of the neighbors had been upgrading their homes right before the fire: “Our neighbor across the street was doing a big home improvement project, and so were a few others, then the fire came and burned everything.”

When asked about what she was and wasn’t able to rescue from the fire, Tina pauses: “I had taken all the important papers when we were evacuated, but one thing I did not bring was our pictures. Since I’m the oldest of 11 children, my mom gave me all the family photos, and we lost all of them in the fire. They’re all gone now.”

Jerry’s Army dog tags are all that survived the fire

Jerry lost nearly all of his military memorabilia: “I lost my pictures, my uniform, my discharge papers, my medals… but there’s one thing we found in the rubble: after the fire had hit, Samaritan’s Purse came and sifted through the ashes of our house, and they found my dog tags.”

When it came to deciding whether to rebuild or not, they weren’t sure what they wanted to do. Tina remembers: “We went to all the meetings for the fire survivors, and we talked about it for a long time. We went to meetings run by Colorado Springs Together, and we looked all over town to see if we wanted to buy a different home instead of rebuilding. Jerry wanted to just buy a house near Briargate, but I wasn’t sure.” “Tina didn’t want a cookie-cutter house,” Jerry recalls. “She told me, ‘I don’t want the same house as all of my neighbors; I want a house that is different from the rest.'”

One important factor in deciding whether to rebuild or not was the state of the neighborhood: what would it look like after the fire? Jerry remembers saying “Let’s go buy a house somewhere else. Parkside is an ugly place now because of the fire.’ “But,” he says, “…we love this neighborhood. People can walk around at night and feel safe. We’ve lived here for 26 years.”

“I thought it would take a long time for people to start rebuilding,” Tina remembers. “…but then we were so jealous when some of our neighbors started building right away.” We looked around and thought ‘Hey, these new homes are very nice!’ And we had one neighbor who sold her lot on the corner right after the fire and bought a house near Peterson [Air Force Base], but she didn’t like that house at all. She told us ‘the Parkside house was small, but it’s a very nice area’ and that stuck in my head.”

The Patis interviewed three home builders and decided it was worth rebuilding. Stauffer & Sons Construction was one of the builders they interviewed. “The fire happened in June, we met Andy Stauffer in August, and in November we decided to rebuild, and we picked Andy.” When asked why they chose Stauffer & Sons, Tina says “We picked Andy because he did not pressure us at all in working with him. He just said ‘Hey, do you want to see a house I built in Woodland Park?’ So we drove up there together and took a tour of a beautiful home, and I thought ‘Man, this is like a million dollar house from California—I wish I had a house like this!’ I said ‘If he can build a house like this, he can build us a nice house too.'”

“Andy is really nice, and he doesn’t pressure you at all. He tells you ‘It’s your house; we can do whatever you want.'” Jerry agrees: “Andy is a good builder. Anytime we had a question or a problem, he would take care of it. Andy and his team were great to work with.”

“This is the first time we’ve built a house, and we loved it!” Tina says. “It was a little bit hectic when it was time to pick everything like the lights and carpet and counters, but it was fun. We didn’t have any problems building at all. The insurance was great, and everything worked out. The hardest part was when I picked out the paint colors: [Project Manager] Mike said ‘Wow, Tina, those are bold colors! Usually, a house has white or off-white colors, but you’ve picked Green and Orange.’ So at first, I wondered if I made a mistake, but people who come over and see the house love it.”

Being able to build a new home also opened up new opportunities for the Patis: “I love our new bedroom, and my new kitchen is much bigger than what we had before,” says Tina. “Our old kitchen was very small and closed in, so when we were building, I told Andy ‘I want it to be very big and open.’ I have my own room now for my office too, with a couch so I can lie down and watch TV when I’m tired of working on the computer. I didn’t have that with our old house—my office was in our bedroom. Also, in the old house, our floors squeaked all the time, but not anymore!”

Jerry’s favorite part of the house is the basement: “Our old house didn’t have a basement; just a huge crawl space. It was a total waste. Now, I have a man-cave with a big flat-panel TV where I watch football with Waldo.”

 

mountain shadows man cave in home
Jerry & Waldo in the new “man cave” downstairs

When asked what they would tell other families who are considering rebuilding after a fire, Tina answers with empathy: “I would tell people to go with their gut on what they want to do. If they don’t want to rebuild, that’s fine. But for me, I felt like this place was my home. I feel good living here, so that’s why we rebuilt.” She continues: “When Andy started building our house, I was so proud. I said ‘Hey, we’re one of the first ones!’… I was just so proud.'”

 

The Patis are in the final steps of buying furniture and other accessories for the home. “Our insurance was very good to us. We’re still getting invoices, and the insurance is paying them…” says Tina. “I still have more shopping to do!”

The best part about rebuilding was when the new home was complete. “My favorite part was when we got to move in!” says Jerry. Tina agrees: “We didn’t want to go to sleep at night—we liked the design so much, we just wanted to stay up and keep looking at everything! We love this new house!”

This article was originally published on www.staufferandsons.com.

Originally published at www.staufferandsons.com.