When Curt Busby and his wife, Kelly O’Donnell, lost their home off Buckhorn Road west of Fort Collins in the April 2011 Crystal Fire, the natural thing for this eco-conscious couple was to make something good out of nature’s cycle of life, death and renewal.
In their case, this meant reusing the burned but standing dead pine trees that dominated the 35-acre property that Busby’s lived on since 1998. So they felled and milled the dark, needle-less tree trunks into trusses and framing elements for the new house they’re building on the old foundation on Vortex Drive.
Like last year’s High Park Fire that destroyed 259 homes, the Crystal Fire burned brush in some areas, while in other areas, winds blew intense flames through the tree crowns. This left large swathes of barren trees and sterile soil. On Busby and O’Donnell’s property, the intense fire rendered the bark of about 500 trees to charcoal. The tree cores dried in the heat but managed to remain intact.
Using a Wood-Mizer wood mill they bought in Steamboat Springs in 2012, Busby and O’Donnell milled more than 50 trees, some of them over 120 years old. The project took six months of hard work.
“You gotta get ‘em out yourself to make the land look better,” said Busby. “And you can’t leave dead trees in place because they rot and can fall over, which is dangerous. Insurance also doesn’t provide much for cleanup of the land surrounding the destroyed structure.”
For Busby, clearing the dead trees had a visual element — he didn’t want to stare at dead, blackened trees for more than a few months. Removing the dead trees also lowered the fire risk and, most significantly, provided wood to rebuild his house.
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Busby said each milled tree used for the trusses had unique grain patterns in blue (from beetle kill), light brown and dark brown. The logs with the most grain character were used in trusses for the vaulted ceiling over the living room. None of the timbers show the distinctive blackened edge, and there’s no odor to indicate they burned in a fire.
It took five trees to build each truss, and the seven trusses used for the roof weigh about 1,200 to 1,500 pounds each. The trusses were assembled in LaPorte by Steven Rundquist, owner of Brewster Timber Frame Company, which has been in business since 1985.
Rundquist, who learned his trade during the two decades he lived in New England and has hand-framed dozens of structures, shaped and joined the timbers into CAD-drawn trusses.
Each truss spans 24 feet and the bottom, horizontal portion of the truss has two timbers joined together with a stepped half-lap splice. The angled connections at the peak and outer edges are hand-chisled mortise & tenon joints that are held together with wood pegs. Everything needs to fit, and with such exacting dimensions, each measurement is triple-checked.
The pine timbers are roughly 8 inches by 12 inches and were milled from 24-inch trees. Rundquist said the lore among timber framers is that fire-seasoned timbers, like the ones Busby milled, last longer and are more weather resistant than air-dried timbers. He noted that timber-frame homes do tend to cost a bit more than conventionally framed houses, but are a great value given their aesthetic beauty, strength and longevity.
“It’s nice to make something good for Curt and Kelly out of something bad,” said Rundquist. “The trees are one of the salvageable remains of a tragic fire. And I’m hoping more folks will rebuild using burned trees like Curt did.”
Busby and O’Donnell’s 24-foot by 56-foot home combines traditional building methods and modern technology with energy efficiency options and renewable-energy features such as solar electric panels and structural insulated panels for the roof.
Busby is a civil engineer by trade, but neighbor Mark Benjamin was the project engineer and has made regular visits to inspect, grade and approve the milled structural pieces.
According to Busby, the worst part of losing their home to wildfire was having to sift through the burned remains.
“It was nasty work because the ash is so alkaline — it ate the bottoms of my shoes,” he said. “Ash got airborne when it was windy and it’s hazardous to breathe. The wind drifted the ash into piles and then when it rained, the ash piles turned to concrete.”
Busby said most of the intact objects he and O’Donnell found were ceramic. “Almost everything else, including metal, ether burned or melted.”
The fire showed Busby how metals have different melting points. “The aluminum engine block on one of our cars went pretty early in the fire. It melted and left a trail of aluminum 50 feet down the hillside,” he said. Yet O’Donnell’s grandmother’s wedding ring was unharmed because the box that contained it burned first. “That one item made the sifting worth it,” said Busby.
What does he miss since that awful day in 2011 when the Crystal Fire destroyed nearly 3,000 acres, along with 13 homes and structures?
“I miss the shade the most,” he said. “I left one burned and barren tree standing near the foundation just for a little shade from the sun, but that will begin to rot so it will need to come down.
“I planted 30 to 40 seedlings, but elk and deer ate a lot of them as soon as they were planted. But they left the juniper seedlings alone.” He said the drought has taken a toll on plantings as well because “in good years, 50 percent would survive, but 2012 was really dry so most seedlings didn’t.”
Busby knows his neighbors affected by the fire have thousands of dead trees to clear. He hopes to pitch in and mill some of those trees, but he has his hands full for now. He and Rundquist are involved with the NoCo Rebuild Network, a local grassroots organization that was founded shortly after the Crystal Fire and is now helping folks impacted by the High Park Fire.
NoCo Rebuild Network is a group of local builders, contractors, architects, designers and other interested citizens that reinforces building better, smarter and safer homes using local help and resources. More information can be found at www.nocorebuilding.org.