Motorcycling is everything to Jim Key. He got his first motorcycle at the age of 10 and has gone on to make a living doing what he loves. He owns and runs a videography business filming motorcycle trips and races, and has been all over the world on a bike.
Jim met his wife, Jeannie, at a motorcycle rally and they both love to ride. Jeannie did some work for Honda’s motorcycle events, including the Honda Hoot, and Jim worked for BMW Denver before the couple moved to their dream property in the mountains outside Fort Collins, Colorado, less than two years ago.
The Keys worked to renovate their home and filled their 40 x 40 shop with tools, five bikes and piles of motorcycle gear. They could take off on a two-up trip with a moment’s notice. Jim spent his time doing motorcycle restorations and repairs on the side and said he was living the dream on his remote 25-acre mountain property.
Then everything changed.
The morning of June 9, 2012, Jim woke up and noticed a big plume of smoke to the west, which he thought was a bad sign, as the Roosevelt National Forest is located in that direction. He took his favorite motorcycle, a 2002 BMW R 1150 GS Adventure, to the top of the mountain to see what was going on. He spent two hours filming the forest fire, which he said was moving very erratically, “But I never felt threatened.”
Jim said there was a large open area between where the fire was and where his property was located. He thought several different events would have to come together just right in order for it to reach him. Unfortunately, they did.
Jim brought his wife up the mountain to see the fire, and when they headed home they were stopped by police, who were evacuating the area. They gave the couple 15 minutes to go in and grab whatever belongings they could stuff into Jim’s Suburban and Jeannie’s car. The motorcycles stayed behind.
“I still thought everyone was overreacting, but Jeannie was panicking,” Jim said.
Three days later, their mountain home, Jim’s dream shop and all his motorcycles were gone. Completely destroyed in the High Park Fire in Colorado.
Three weeks passed before the couple was able to return and survey the damage. For the most part, what they found were piles of ashes where their home and shop had once stood. Very little remained.
After pulling what was left of the garage roof off the ground, Jim spotted the charred remains of his 1971 BMW R75/5 tucked underneath. The rest of his bikes had melted into nearly indistinguishable puddles of metal. The R75/5 was by far the most recognizable.
Jim, wearing a cowboy hat and white hazmat suit, laid over what was left of the motorcycle’s frame and snapped a photo.
“It was how I felt,” he said. “It’s like going to a wake and kissing someone you love good-bye.”
He later posted the image on Facebook and has been amazed by the number of supportive comments and personal messages that have been rolling in ever since. He said people offered to let him borrow their bikes, offered to come out and help the family rebuild, and offered to send money to help him start over.
“I guess that photo really brought home the devastation that this national disaster brought,” Jim said.
In addition to losing bikes, Jim lost massive amounts of motorcycle gear—everything from apparel to helmets to camping gear. Thankfully, the Keys were well insured and the bikes will be back. Jim said working with the insurance company has gone very smoothly. He expects to have his garage/shop rebuilt before winter and is expecting to purchase new bikes soon.
“All the bikes in there, they were my babies,” Jim said. “I lost a few of my best friends in my garage. I give my bikes personalities and names. I know every little sound and thing they do.”
But they’ll be back. In early August, Jim purchased a 2004 R 1150 GS Adventure in Ohio and said he’ll likely buy another R75/5 with the insurance money. He sees no need to upgrade when what he had fit him so well. Also lost in the blaze were three dirt bikes.
“I love the old classic bikes. They’ll come around and I’ll have another one,” he said. “It’s just stuff. Yes, those bikes were like my kids, but I’ll get new bikes.”
The couple’s move to the Stratton Park subdivision in Bellvue was a retirement of sorts. Their dream property is nestled in the woods on a mountain at the end of a 2.5-mile dirt driveway. They had been working to clear some of the thick forest and were just getting to know their neighbors when the fire came.
“We always wanted to live up in the mountains. It was amazing and it will be again,” said Jim, who has remained optimistic throughout the experience. “For the first time in our lives, we understand the importance of insurance. That’s just stuff. It can be replaced.”
The High Park Fire burned 87,250 acres in the mountains west of Fort Collins and 258 homes were lost. There were $97.1 million in insurance claims due to damages. Firefighters nicknamed the fire “The Dragon” because it moved in unusual ways and just kept going and going. Extreme heat may have fueled the fire, but even amidst the disaster, the Key’s have found a few miracles.
An old Dodge pick-up, which was parked next to their burnt-down garage, was roasted like a marshmallow on one side. But when Jim opened the door the dome light came on, and when he turned the key it fired right up. A tractor parked in an outbuilding also remained in working order, and the a garden the Keys had worked so hard to keep the wild animals away from was also untouched by the flames, and had survived weeks without water. A sawmill, which Jim had planned to use to make wood floors for the house, was also completely untouched.
Jim said the hardest thing to take is the loss of his legacy—the things that will live on after you’re gone.
“The first 50 years of my life has burned up. My artwork I’ve been saving since grade school, hoping my grand kids would see how goofy grandpa was, or to inspire them, is gone. My full passport of motorcycle travels is gone…”
Part of the legacy that did survive the devastation was a motorcycle lamp that Jim’s mom had made for him and his brother when they were young. Jim gave it to his own son, and then kept it for possible grandchildren. After the fire, he found the lamp. It had been broken, but all the pieces were there and it will be put back together again. “The cracks and defects will only heighten its legacy,” Jim said.
Throughout this entire process, the Keys have been shocked by the outpouring of support they have received from complete strangers. They ask that those who feel the need to help make a donation to the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department (rcvfd.org). The department’s personal protection gear was worn out or melted during the efforts to stop the fire, and a lot of the engines and other equipment are in dire need of repair.
RCVFD Chief Bob Gann said that one of his the stations burned down along with a fair amount of spare equipment that was stored inside. While the building was insured, the contents were not. Several sets of gear (bunker gear, wildland gear, and medical gear) were also burned while being stored in the homes of firefighters whose houses burned. Other equipment sustained damage while battling the fire for three weeks. One of the engines needs six new tires and another has a power take-off problem that needs repair.
“Our needs are related to maintaining emergency response capability and getting our equipment back into normal condition,” Chief Gann said. “Thankfully, none of our fire fighters sustained any significant injuries.”