Fanning Embers of Hope in Wildfire Survivors

July 1, 2024 • United States

Volunteers are sifting through the ashes to uncover priceless mementos for New Mexico residents who lost everything in the deadly South Fork and Salt wildfires.

U.S. Disaster Relief

On June 17, two of the three roads out of Ruidoso, New Mexico, were impassible due to the wildfires raging in the towering pines. Tucked away in the Sierra Blanca Mountain range, the arid landscape is no stranger to wildfires, but this blaze was one of the worst Ruidoso residents have ever faced. Tragically, the inferno claimed the lives of two individuals and burned hundreds of homes to the ground.

Phil and Jill Dipaolo were two of the nearly 8,000 residents who evacuated from Ruidoso, unsure if anything would be left when they returned. “It felt like we were under attack—like it was a war zone. It was really scary,” said Phil.

Samaritan’s Purse volunteers work to recover treasured belongings at the Dipaolo home—one of hundreds that burned in the Ruidoso, New Mexico, wildfires.

After news of the wildfires spread, Samaritan’s Purse reached out to River Crossing Ministries, a church in the heart of Ruidoso that had hosted our 2022 response to the McBride fire. Despite losing his own home to this most recent round of fires, Pastor Tim Gilliland urged us to come and gladly welcomed us back.

So far, over 50 volunteers have served families in Ruidoso by sifting through the ashes of their homes. Numerous keepsakes have been recovered, bringing tears of joy to the eyes of grieving families, including the Dipaolos.

Uncovering Memories

After evacuating, Phil and Jill found shelter with extended family. The next morning, they received a call from a neighbor telling them their beautiful home was gone—only their stone chimney was left standing. “I was in shock. I thought, ‘No, my house is not gone.’ I really had no idea this could happen. It’s gone—everything is gone,” said Jill.

Jill wrestled with regrets about what she wished she had packed before she evacuated. What weighed heavy on their hearts was an irreplaceable vase handmade by their daughter, Sarah Dipaolo, who passed away from cancer when she was only 21 years old. Jill shared that throughout her daughter’s battle with cancer, the young woman’s positivity and faith in Jesus was unwavering. Now nearly 12 years after Sarah’s passing, the vase reminded them of her precious life.

When Samaritan’s Purse offered help with sifting their home, the couple’s only request was to locate that precious vase.

Before the volunteers began to work, they gathered around Phil, Jill, and their daughter Susanne McCaw, who had come to help sift. Together, they prayed and asked for God’s direction in their search. Not much time had passed before a first-time volunteer named Dallas Hancock moved a piece of roofing material and picked up a vase, hardly damaged by the fire.

“God is amazing. He gave us our vase,” said Jill.

Jill immediately hugged Dallas—he had found their daughter’s vase! All three of the family members broke down in tears of thankfulness for how God had answered their prayers.

“God is amazing. He gave us our vase,” said Jill. The moment strengthened her faith in Jesus Christ that had started years ago after watching Billy Graham preach on television.

The family had also lost their Bible to the flames and Susanne was praying that they would get a new one. She cried tears of joy when God answered prayers again and Samaritan’s Purse volunteers handed her parents a Bible signed by the team.

Susanne (second from right) rejoiced that her parents received a new Bible from Samaritan’s Purse to replace the one that was lost in the fire.

“I believe God is with us and he’s carrying us through whatever disaster comes,” Jill said. In a few weeks, Jill hopes to come serve with our teams so she, too, can find precious mementos for other suffering families who’ve experienced such painful losses.

Finding ‘Indescribable Joy’

Ashley Allen and her mother, Jenny Allen, didn’t have a chance to grab anything before the fire devoured their home, located only a couple minutes down the road from the Dipaolo’s. Ashley was on vacation when she received a call from her neighbor. He was checking to ensure they weren’t home because he saw—from his doorbell camera—their house engulfed in flames.

The Allens’ hearts shattered as they considered all the priceless keepsakes lost to the flames. Almost 10 years ago, Ashley’s dad had fallen ill and passed away. Everything they had left from him was in that home—including her parents’ wedding rings.

“I’m not good at letting people help me or with leaning on others but when you guys showed up, you took over and did what we needed most,” said Ashley.

Volunteers sift through the charred remnants of the Allen home.

Within an hour of sifting, volunteers began finding pieces of jewelry, and among them were the treasured wedding rings. As the volunteer handed Ashley the rings, she exclaimed over and over again, “That’s my dad’s wedding ring! You found my dad’s wedding ring!” Tears streamed down her face. She called her mom and over the phone the two of them cried tears of relief and joy. Volunteers gathered around Ashley, praying over her as the emotions swelled.

Ashley expressed how she felt when the rings were found. “It’s joy. It’s overwhelming joy to have found those.” Standing among the ashes, she added, “it’s also devastating, because I can walk around this house and see life but it’s indescribable joy to be handed those rings and to have some closure to move on.”

Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains were able to call and pray with her mom. Ashley had expressed that until the rings were found, her mom had not let herself cry or grieve the loss they had experienced. Uncovering those rings provided the emotional healing and closure to move forward.

Volunteers recovered the cherished wedding ring that belonged to Ashley’s father. It had survived the flames.

Alan and Susan Flick, Samaritan’s Purse team leads who served the Dipaolo and Allen families, shared that often families are carrying heavy burdens even before a disaster strikes. Alan said, “This was true for both the Dipaolos and Ashley. The items they wanted to find had a much deeper story because of family tragedy from the past. We saw the Lord alleviate some of that stress and start a new process of healing by bringing families closer together and to Christ.”

Please pray for families as they grieve the loss of their loved ones and homes that once held so many memories. Ask that our volunteers serving in Jesus’ Name will help homeowners realize that God has not forgotten them. Continue to also pray for first responders who have worked around the clock for weeks.

Ashley is grateful for all the work and support of the Samaritan’s Purse volunteers.

Additionally, life-threatening flash floods have exacerbated the already difficult post-fire conditions by rendering roads impassable, sweeping away cars, and prompting swift water rescue teams to work tirelessly to save those in danger. Our volunteer teams are prepared to also assist with mud and debris clean up caused by the torrential rains.

VOLUNTEER WITH U.S. DISASTER RELIEF in locations across seven states. Sites are open in Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

U.S. Disaster Relief Samaritan's Purse mobilizes and equips thousands of disaster relief volunteers to provide emergency aid to U.S. victims of wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. In the aftermath of major storms, we often stay behind to rebuild houses for people with nowhere else to turn for help.

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