CSU student and firefighter Kyle McGraw makes a difference in year since High Park Fire

Dishes, a snowmobile, a rusty truck bed, a railing and three porch chairs were all that was left after Kyle McGraw’s home was destroyed in last year’s High Park Fire.

But McGraw, a fourth year mechanical engineering student at CSU, not only lost his home to the High Park Fire, he also eventually helped beat it. After losing his home on the second day of the fire, McGraw fought with the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department to save a number of his neighbors’ homes.

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“I just sat here and went ‘Wow,’ totally, amazed at the amount of power involved to do all this,”  McGraw said of his reaction when he first saw the burn site.

 “It was a surreal experience; it didn’t sink in for a long time. I was in awe of the power involved here at first. My life was about to change in a huge way. All my stuff is basically gone,” he said as he looked around at the rubble and cracked foundation of his former home.

McGraw, who lived at the Rist Canyon residence for three years before the fire, said he goes up to the area where the house was as often as he can. He said his family, on the other hand, does not like to go up there.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” he said. “My parents, they just wanted to wash their hands of the whole thing and get out of here.”

McGraw’s mother, Karen McGraw, a nurse practitioner at Poudre Family Clinic, said that losing her house was a serious warp to her reality.

“I used to feel like my home gave me energy, it made me feel good. Now going up there, it just sucks the energy right out of me,” Karen said.

That sense of loneliness when Kyle returns to the lost home doesn’t stop there. He also feels it at school, because he’s rare among his friends in having lost his home.

 “There were a lot of CSU students (who also lost their homes), certainly, but most of them were adult students, in their thirties or forties,” Kyle said. “There weren’t too many my age, that I’m aware of.”

 At the time of the fire, Kyle was taking a summer class, working fulltime at JAX and fighting the fire.

“I had several days where I had no sleep,” he said. “In the morning I went to my summer class, went to work, I was there until six and I fought the fire at night. I’d go home . . .and start all over again. That was the most rough part of it.”

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“I couldn’t quit fire fighting. I couldn’t quit school and I desperately needed the money from JAX. I had no options. It was a weeklong adrenaline rush that I was running on. At some point, there’s a breakdown period; where you can’t do anything,” Kyle said. “So that was probably the roughest thing to go through. Meanwhile the fire was still going and I’m still trying to heal emotionally.”

“Kyle misses it more than us,” Karen said. “It’s hard for a twenty-year-old to lose everything and walk out unscathed.”

Yes, he felt defeated but Kyle overcame it. And the fire going out helped him do that.

 “My favorite thing about when the fire went out was when they stationed all the fire fighters on the road,” Kyle said. “Everyone, hundreds of people who live up here, came up the roads, waving to the firefighters, and thanking us. That was a great experience.”

The fight continued as Kyle and his family were hit with the biggest challenges of all — finding a new place to live and then realizing that they had nothing.

“No toothbrush, no toothpaste, anything,” Kyle said. “In order to get some of those things, you have to deal with insurance. Insurance is kind of a nightmare to get them to cut you a check so you can buy necessary things to live.”

It took the McGraw family until September before they had all of that figured out. “We went all that time staying at friend’s houses or in hotels,” Kyle said.

While finding a home was difficult, it has consumed all of their time. They’ve also put a lot of thought into what it takes to stop future disasters like the High Park Fire.

“It’s a constant battle here, to mitigate the forest,” Kyle said. “Because it’s an ongoing process, you think ‘I’ll get to it next week.’ And that really nips a lot of people in the bud. You’ve got to be ready. The most important thing for us now, is to try to move on and do this better next time. The road to recovery is a long process. Finally a year later, I’m at a comfortable place. Time heals everything.”

To make the time go by faster and to help make a difference in the community, Kyle is self-employed, working for his neighbors to help them get ready for the next fire.

Because there will be one.

Content producer and digital media manager, Hannah Glennon, can be reached at news@collegian.com or digitalmedia@collegian.com.

For an exclusive interview with McGraw, see below.

Video produced and edited by Sarah Prinz.  Sarah can be reached at news@collegian.com