Family looks forward after fire destroys farm home outside Carbondale

Josie Taris
The Aspen Times
No one was injured when the 100-year-old family home on Dooley Creek Farm off Highway 133 in the Crystal River Valley burned down in minutes the day before Thanksgiving.

The irony is not lost on Mollie Shipman.

The day before a national holiday that emphasizes giving thanks and extending gratitude for what you have, her 100-year-old home burned to the ground. 

The smell of burning mattresses still hangs in the air walking up a hill to where the house stood, and the charred remains were still smoking two days after the fire.

She and her husband, Jake, run Dooley Creek Farm off Highway 133 in the Crystal River Valley. The farm occupies over 100 acres of land, and they produce organic beef, chicken, pork, turkey, and eggs. Regenerative farming is a core tenant to Dooley Creek Farm.

They offer a meat CSA — a type of direct-to-consumer subscription for agriculture products that is becoming more and more popular with small farms, as well as product pickup on the farm. They also sometimes set up a tent with the Carbondale Farmers Market. 

Around 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Shipman had turned her oven to the self-cleaner mode after Jake made sausage. She said she wiped out as much grease as she could and started the cleaning cycle. The oven door locked, and she moved on with her day.

“It was kind of making the stink that those ovens make when you run those cycles. And so, I had the doors open,” she said. “It seemed normal to me.”

A customer came by to pick up her meat order around noon. And, since it was chilly outside, Shipman asked her to come into her home to fill out some paperwork.

“And, we kind of heard this popping noise. And, we looked over, and there’s black smoke coming up from behind my stove. So, I was like, ‘OK, that’s not normal.’ So, I ran over and unplugged everything.” 

Shipman then sent her customer outside. 

“I’m not sure the exact sequence; it’s all such a blur. But, I ran, grabbed the phone, grabbed my 2 year old, just whisked him out and handed him to (the customer). I got on the phone and tried to call my husband to ask how to turn off the gas. I ran back to the propane tank. And, I couldn’t turn the handle to turn it off.”

The propane tank outside of the house supplied the gas stove in the house. And, when Shipman couldn’t get it turned off, she focused on putting out the fire. 

“I kind of had this momentary decision to make, like, ‘Am I going to fight this fire or am I going to try to get stuff?’ And, I thought ‘Well, I can put it out. I can save the house,’” she said.

She said she emptied a full fire extinguisher on the flames, but the fire just sprung back up. And, when she tried to get a water hose to reach the house, black smoke filled her home, and she could not safely go back inside. 

“Thinking back now, I wouldn’t have tried to fight,” she said. “I would have just tried to salvage a few things like my violin and photo albums. That kind of stuff.”

Shipman called her mother to tell her to call for help, then directed her customer to call 911 while she moved as much as she could away from the house. She got the cars out into the field by the house, but everything else went up in flames or melted. 

Carbondale & Rural Fire District responded to the call at 12:15 p.m. According to a press release, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, Holy Cross Energy, and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office also responded to the fire.

Deputy Chief Bill Gavette was part of the team who went out to Dooley Creek Farm to fight the fire.

Five fire engines, two water tenders, one ladder truck, and a brush truck responded to the fire, but only a handful made it to the structure.

“We had three engines there and some water tenders, and only a couple were able to get across the bridge,” Gavette said. 

The farm is on the opposite side of the Crystal River from Highway 133. The bridge struggled to support two engines and the tender (A truck that transports water), so the fire department contacted CDOT to assist in bolstering the bridge, according to Gavette.

Still, they described the fire as pretty straightforward. It took just under five hours to get fully under control, which he said is a normal time frame for a structure that size. The house was gone, but they prevented the flames from spreading to the surrounding property. A powerline by the house went down and ignited some grass, but the firefighters were able to easily control that. 

Next week, Gavette said, the Shipman’s insurance company will visit the property to determine an official cause of the fire. Carbondale & Rural Fire District will likely assist in that process.

The house

The 1,100-square-foot house was part of an original homestead for James Dooley, who built the house on the 160-acre homestead generations ago. The land got split up, and Shipman’s grandparents bought the house and property in 1949, according to Mollie. She grew up in her parent’s house on the property and remembers visiting her grandparents just up the road in their house. She and Jake bought it and took over the farm in 2016. 

So, when she made the decision to try to save the house instead of saving belongings, strong feelings bubbled up.

“I remember as I was running out to the propane tank and running out to get the hose, I was saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ There was nobody there. But, I was saying, I’m sorry. Because I knew how many people it would affect.”

Shipman said she knows the fire was not her fault. But, she could not help but feel guilty.

“And then, I felt really bad for my dad because this was his parents’ place. You know, my grandparents died here. And, he has a lot of memories from his aunts and uncles doing work on the place, and they planted that tree (by the house),” she said. 

Shipman said she regrets the loss of her violin, her book collection, her grandmother’s teacups, and a quilt that was a gift from their wedding. And, they are holding out hope that a fire safe with a hard drive full of family photos and videos survived the flames. But, it’s all just stuff. No one, human or animal, was harmed in the fire. And, for that, Shipman is grateful.

Chickens at Dooley Creek Farm. Shade covering on some of the coops have visible cinder burns from the fire. (Josie Taris/Aspen Times)

What’s next

Shipman said the most immediate need on the farm side of things is restoring water and power to the chicken coops and pig pens. Jake is working on digging trenches to help Holy Cross Energy get electricity to the coops. It powers contraptions to keep the animals’ water from freezing overnight and keeps commercial freezers running.

They are also focused on replacing the tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment they lost. Freezers, processing equipment, meat scales, and small things, like vacuum seal machines, are among the equipment lost in the fire. Thousands of egg cartons, electric netting and solar chargers, tents, and banners for farmers markets went up in flames or melted.

“Pigs are going to the butcher in two weeks, and then they’ll be ready two weeks after that. So, within a month, we need a place to store the meat,” she said. “I just have buckets of eggs sitting in the living room just piling up that I can’t really do anything with.”

Her laptop is also unsalvageable, and, with it years of business documents. She said some of it is backed up, but a lot of information is gone.

Shipman, her husband, and their three sons, aged 8, 6, and 2, will stay with her parents on the property until they are able to rebuild the house. And, they do intend to rebuild.

“We want to keep producing. We believe in what we’re doing. And, the community obviously wants it. They want the good food (and) the food resiliency of someone local growing,” she said. “We have the place to do it. We have the knowledge and skills to do it. We just need to get the equipment.”

A hunk of metal that was once a scooter is still sitting in front of what is left of the house. The Shipman’s son Cole has been eyeing it as something cool worth saving, and Jake said he will hang it in the workshop on the farm.

A friend of the Shipman’s set up a GoFundMe to help offset costs. Donate here.

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