Reinventing After You Lose Everything

A devastating fire and hurricane wiped out all these two women had. Then they got to work, rebuilding their lives

by Dana Hudepohl
Photograph: Morgan Rachel Levy

Linda Masterson: She faced the unthinkable

The night of Saturday, April 2, 2011, Linda Masterson and her husband, Cory Phillips, were fast asleep in the home they’d built on 72 forested acres in the Colorado mountains. Outside, the wind was howling so fiercely, it shook the gutters. Suddenly, at around 11, Masterson was awakened by a thundering boom! She ran to the glass doors leading to the deck and saw a crimson mass coming toward her. “It looked like a tsunami, only it was flames,” she says. “Cory and I talked for two seconds, and then he phoned our neighbors and woke them up.” Masterson ran through the house grabbing stuff and threw it into their two cars: suitcases packed with capris, T-shirts and computers for a Florida vacation (they were scheduled to leave on Monday morning), a pair of heirloom quilts she yanked off a banister as she flew by, their “fire bag” (an emergency-preparedness must-have she’d added to earlier that day, containing documents, medications and a little bit of family jewelry). Within 15 minutes, she and Phillips were navigating through clouds of smoke down a steep road with 800-foot drop-offs and no guardrails. “It was like driving through hell,” says Masterson. “When I looked up, the ridgetop was on fire. The flames were 100 feet high. All you think about is staying alive.”

The couple had moved to this mountaintop retreat 11 years earlier, leaving behind their fast-paced advertising careers in Chicago. They started a small, home-based marketing and communications firm and immersed themselves in their new community, hiking in the nearby national forest and volunteering with Colorado Parks and Wildlife; in 2006, Masterson published a handbook about living with bears.

Like bears, wildfire had become part of her reality. In preparation for their trip to Florida, she had taken pictures of the home’s interior so they’d have a record of their possessions, just in case. Now, two days after fleeing, they returned to a smoldering pile of ash and debris. Only a few dozen of the thousands of trees on their property had survived. “Our view in every direction was of giant charcoal toothpicks,” says Masterson. Gone were the house and its contents: 40 years of diaries; weekly letters Masterson’s father had written to her in college; their wedding album; the charm bracelet Masterson’s grandmother had given her when she was 13. “There was just a huge, gaping hole where our life used to be,” says Masterson. “In the blink of an eye, our past was eradicated.” She and Phillips followed through with their travel plans and made a small Florida cottage their home base for the next month. Seated at a window overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Masterson listened to waves roll in while she typed a 100-page, 2,500-item list of everything they’d lost—the inventory required by their insurance company. At night she couldn’t sleep. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I would see the fire creeping into our home and devouring everything I loved, ” she says.

Eventually, Masterson and Phillips decided to return to Colorado and look for a new place to call home. With their insurance payout, they bought a house on three acres with views of the mountains they used to live in, and furnished it by shopping at thrift stores, antique shops and estate sales. “Buying things someone else had owned and loved helped the new place feel more like home,” says Masterson. She says she learned “more than I ever wanted to know” about stitching a life back together after a disaster. She wrote a short article for a newsletter put out by the volunteer fire department, and it inspired a book, Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life. Masterson’s nightmares returned while she worked on the project. “But I knew it was important to do it,” she says.

First published in the November 2013 issue

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