As former professional athletes, Tara Dakides and Jake Zamansky are used to putting in hard work to tackle tough challenges, but life has recently sent some super-sized trials and tribulations their family’s way.
A 44-foot, fifth-wheel recreational vehicle where they were temporarily living burned to the ground Dec. 10. They lost nearly all the possessions they had kept after recently downsizing. The fire was so intense it also caused exterior damage to the barn and residence they are attempting to complete a few yards away.
Zamansky was in Canada at the time, coaching two ski racers from the Roaring Fork Valley. Dakides and their children, Meadow, 6, and Bowie, 4, weren’t at the home at the time of the fire.
“There were so many blessings — that we weren’t there, that nobody got hurt,” Dakides said standing at the homestead on a chilly Sunday afternoon. “God definitely had a hand in this, for sure.”
Zamansky said the tragedy illuminated what’s important and what isn’t.
“As long as they’re OK,” he said while gesturing at his wife and kids, “it’s just stuff.”
Dakides, 44, is regarded as one of the Mountain GOATS (Greatest of All-time Snowboarders) by Snowboarder magazine for what she accomplished during her 18-year career. She earned eight X Games medals, dominating in big air and slopestyle.
Zamansky, 38, a Roaring Fork Valley native, made the U.S. Ski Team in 1999 and competed on the World Cup circuit even after he lost team funding. He raced giant slalom in the 2010 Winter Olympics, placing 31st.
They settled in the Roaring Fork Valley after their careers. They are raising their family and Jake bought Novus Auto Glass, a business his parents, David and Diane, owned and operated for decades.
Tara and Jake bought a 28-acre lot along Panorama Drive in Missouri Heights three-and-a-half years ago and set a long-term vision for building their dream house. Their lot is an astounding piece of ground, the likes of which is rapidly disappearing in the valley. Majestic Mount Sopris looms large in the distance. Cottonwoods line a gully. Elk and deer regularly venture up from the Strang and former Hunt ranches down below. There is isolation but neighbors just around the corner and over a rise. They have planted another 200 trees designed to be wildlife-friendly.
The barn and residence was a first step in achieving their dreams, but construction came to a halt in mid-2018 when they say their contractor unilaterally jacked up the price of the work.
They found another contractor to take over the project but by March they said it was clear construction defects plagued his work. While the structure appears about halfway complete, they figure only about one-tenth of it is viable because of the defects.
They are in litigation that involves both contractors. Meanwhile, construction is stalled.
“The reason we were in the RV in the first place is because our money is tied up in the lawsuit,” Dakides said.
They made the best of their situation. They could not find a studio apartment for their family of four due to the tight housing market. They spent about one year with Zamansky’s parents, but they were eager to get onto their property.
When they were athletes, Dakides and Zamansky were used to living on the road, so adjusting to the RV was no big deal. They moved the massive fifth-wheel onto their property shortly after Thanksgiving after purchasing it in California.
“There’s been a lot of stress over the last two years,” Dakides said. “It was a celebration when we got in. I was just getting comfortable in it.”
Meadow said it was fun having nooks and crannies to store her stuffed animals (“stuffies”) and books.
They used concrete blankets and hay for insulation until they could install a trailer skirt.
“It’s those materials that ignited,” Dakides said.
Holy Cross Energy had a scheduled outage for the day the fire broke out. The couple planned ahead and got a generator prepared before Zamansky’s coaching gig took him to Canada on Dec. 8. Dakides said the generator fired up in the morning of Dec. 10 with no problem.
“I was thrilled,” she said.
She was returning from Basalt that afternoon when Jake called her between 2 and 2:30 p.m.
“The neighbor just called me. The RV is on fire,” Jake told Tara. She was rounding the corner on El Jebel Road by the big blue silo, just starting the climb into Missouri Heights when she saw the smoke and felt the gut punch.
Dakides learned on the site that an uphill neighbor spotted the flames, rushed down with a fire extinguisher and risked his life opening the RV door to make sure no one was inside. The fire departments of Carbondale and Basalt responded.
“By the time we got there, it was fully involved,” said Capt. Dean Perkins of the Carbondale Fire Department. “The only difficult part (of the operation) was getting close enough to determine the needs.”
Zamansky was powerless to comfort his family from Canada. He asked family friend Jill Howard to aid Tara immediately after the fire.
Dakides said she felt shock like she had never experienced in her life, including numbness in her legs, but soon the overwhelming feeling was gratitude that they weren’t caught inside and that their neighbor and firefighters weren’t injured.
Some items with significant sentimental value were lost in the fire. There was her grandmother’s jewelry, her wedding ring, some of her late dad’s belongings and the kids’ clothes, toys and books. While her laptop got fried, she’s hoping pictures were preserved in the cloud.
“So far, what I’ve seen, there’s nothing left,” Zamansky said while rummaging the site Sunday afternoon. The twisted, burned hulk of the RV was covered with 3 inches of fresh snow.
A few singed pages from a Curious George book were saved. Ironically, it’s a story where the monkey is dealing with flames that escaped an unattended campfire.
Dakides said she doesn’t want her and her family portrayed in a “woe is me” kind of way. Starting over “doesn’t have to be scary,” she said. “It’s part of God’s plan.”
In a way, losing possessions was liberating.
“It’s not things (that they are lamenting),” she said. “We just want a home again.”
Part of the blessing resulting from the tragedy is learning how much love and support there is in the Roaring Fork Valley, the couple said. From law enforcement officials and firefighters when the fire struck to neighbors who were quick with condolences and now to their network of friends and congregants at Cornerstone Christian Center in Basalt, they have felt a ton of support.
Howard helped set up a benefit account for Dakides and Zamansky where contributions can be made at any Alpine Bank in the region. Other friends established a GoFundMe account online that can be accessed by searching Dakides’ or Zamansky’s name.
Howard said she wanted to take action “that makes the family whole.” She is a longtime friend of Tara and like an aunt to Meadow.
“Tara’s just one of those people who will give anything to anybody,” Howard said.
Howard said she wants to preserve the Roaring Fork Valley’s special quality where people genuinely care for one another, in good times and bad.
“It takes a community to raise kids,” she said.
Dakides said her family has received generous offers of everything from clothing to bedding to housewares. They graciously must decline stuff because they don’t have a home right now.
Zamansky said they would appreciate the chance to rent a residence that can accommodate a family of four.
Dakides said they would take “prayers, first and foremost.”
She said her family would use any donations they receive to get back on their feet. Anything beyond that, they will pay forward by donating to others in need.
They are determined the litigation over the house construction and the RV fire are speed bumps, not walls preventing them from achieving their dream. As former professional athletes, they don’t give up.
“Every step we take in life prepares us for the next step,” Dakides said.