The cross atop the hill on North Plum is a reminder for Mike and Ginger Ellegood of the importance of faith.
The wildfire of March 6 destroyed their country home at 9415 N. Plum Street, as well as outbuildings and most their personal property, but the cross attached to a tall wooden pole weathered the firestorm.
Back on that night as Mike Ellegood prepared to evacuate he stopped to look back at the glow from the wildfire coming over the hill, about 30 feet to the west of their house. The smoke had turned the sky black. A sensor automatically lit up the cross in that time of darkness.
The fact that the cross survived, “gave us a lot of hope,” said Ginger Ellegood.
Just days away from the anniversary of the wildfires that ravaged 5,400 acres of grassland in Reno County while destroying at least 10 homes, the Ellegood’s sat in their new home, on the same spot of the home they lost that night. While they rebuilt on the same location, they made changes that will protect their home and property should a wildfire ignite again.
They have been in the new house since Oct. 6.
“We were out seven months to the day,” said Mike Ellegood, the Buhler High School principal.
Inside the fresh, new space, the decor is austere. But the visitor’s eye catches the large lettering on the wall where the words, “Faith, family, and friends,” are displayed.
“All things can be replaced but family,” said Ginger Ellegood, a special education teacher with Head Start
Despite it being February, a nativity set is displayed on a cabinet in the living room. It’s one of the very few family treasures that survived.
When they were sifting through the rubble, in what had been their garage, Mike found the head of the angel poking through the debris. He began digging and found the rest of the set. Minus Joseph. But Ginger reminded Mike that Joseph had fallen from the mantel and broke the Christmas before the fire.
There is some black around the bottom of the figures which came from a pressure cooker stored next to the nativity in the garage. The fire was so hot it melted the steel onto the figures.
The couple agreed you never know what a tragedy will do until you are forced to live through it. For them, it was faith, family, and friends that got them through.
“We want to say thank you to Reno County,” said Mike Ellegood. “And thank you to our friends, family church, schools, all the people who helped us, that’s the big thing we want to say. We even want to say thank you to our insurance company. They have been very good as well.”
From wood to masonite
Back in the fall of 2004, they bought the log cabin style home on the hill with the beautiful view, because they wanted to live in the country. Now they no longer have cedar logs because they can become very dry and flammable. Instead, they specifically chose a hardy masonite siding that is not as flammable.
Gone are all the cedar and other brush thanks to the help of the Buhler Baseball team, family and coaches who spent the entire day cutting down brush and cedar. Now they have more grass, and less brush, plus a sprinkler system they can turn on if a fire is in the area to wet down their property. They also removed a large sand dune that was a fire hazard.
“We don’t want to live in fear,” said Ginger Ellegood. The couple agreed if they can put their anxious minds more at ease that’s what they will do.
People have been amazing, and they can’t stop praising the fire department and the police.
“If you have to have a tragedy Reno County is a good place to have it. The United Way and VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster) and the churches, schools, both Buhler and Hutch,” Mike said, naming off all who helped them through the devastation.
“We are very blessed,” Ginger said. “Ten homes were lost but nobody was hurt, that is huge. God is good.”
A different rebuilding
Across North Plum Street, Wayne and Richele Calvert are living in a metal garage, as they watch the slow rebuilding of their home.
For now, the garage has become, “home for us,” said Richele. She and Wayne and their youngest, 14-year-old Katrina, are living there. The process of recovering has taken longer for the Calverts, whose home was paid for, but not insured at the time of the fire.
Thanks to the generous donations from the community, they have been able to move forward rebuilding on the property they own.
Because their three adult children are out of the house, they are building a smaller home than the brick structure incinerated by the March 6 fire. They moved into the garage on June 29. That came about with the help they received from Reno County Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster.
The garage is an open space sectioned off for privacy. The walls are insulated, and they heat with a wood stove. There is running water and electricity and they prepare meals thanks to a microwave and toaster oven. It works, and they are grateful for all the help they have been given.
“Everything in the garage has been donated,” said Richele, thanks to friends and volunteers with VOAD. She is a clerk in the Reno County Treasurer's office. She said the County has been “wonderful” through the ordeal.
The Calverts worked closely with VOAD who provided volunteers to help with the clean up of the property and then put them in touch with Mennonite Disaster Services and together they have put up the footings for the new house. Both volunteers with VOAD and MDS will put up the frame of the house and the Calverts will take it from there and finish their home.
The VOAD has been key during the recovery from the fires, said Lisa Gleason, director of the United Way of Reno County.
"The Calverts are such resilient and amazing people," Gleason said. "They just see the best in the situation."
Meanwhile, during the past year, VOAD worked with 42 families helping with recovery efforts.
“VOAD is working on a case by case basis with each family to determine what their needs are. Right off the bat, we started reaching out to those that lost everything to help with supplies and immediate and personal needs,” Gleason said.
They helped organize a multi-agency event at the Kansas State Fairgrounds so those affected by the fires would have a central location to obtain information about resources available to them.
“We have gotten hay for horses and food for cats. We have worked on getting plumbing going, so families could get back into their house, “ Gleason said.
For those with insurance, they filled in the gap if there was a need that insurance didn't cover.
“For others, the need has been helping with clearing off their property with strong backs and great volunteer help,” Gleason said. “Each case is unique but the important thing that we want everyone to know is that they are not walking this walk alone.
That was their goal with the Calverts.
"We check in to see where they are and what we can do for them," Gleason said.
Christmas after the fire
The Calverts spent their first Christmas in the garage. They had a tree and thanks to a gift from the VOAD they were able to purchase Christmas ornaments. They bought clear glass ornaments and decorated them, to begin replacing all the handmade ornaments lost in the fire.
"We just want them to feel normal," Gleason said. "We forget all those things gone from these people and its a new start that can be daunting."
The Calverts have been so heartened by the love and support from the community and the many people who reached out to them.
They are creating new family memories in their makeshift home.
"This has drawn us closer as a family," Calvert said.