Just days from the completion of a months-long home renovation in October 2021, BackCountry resident Melissa DiLullo was on a much-needed tropical vacation when she received a phone call that landed like a gut punch.
“It was a neighbor asking if my dogs were home. I was standing with my suitcase packed, ready to come home the next day. I said no. She said, 'Are your children home?' I said no and then, 'WHAT IS GOING ON?' She said, 'Oh, Melissa, your home is on fire,' " DiLullo recounts.
DiLullo's newly renovated home in Highlands Ranch had been gutted by the fire. Over the next two years, she would navigate construction delays, insurance hassles and tight expenses — and life as a mother of three active teens in temporary housing trying to hold it all together.
After going through what she describes as the lowest point in her life, DiLullo says she learned surprising lessons. She and her family have risen from the ashes stronger and more grateful for life than ever. She shares her story here.
Highlands Ranch City Lifestyle: What happened when you first heard of the fire?
DiLullo: I learned my home was on fire and that the police were onsite. I immediately called my parents. I next called my boss and mentor. I remember telling him, "There was a fire. I don't know if I will need three days or three weeks, but don’t count on me next week.” While I was flying home he was already arranging my disability. The rest is a blur. I took a golf cart to a ferry, to a three-hour drive, to a flight to Denver. I landed with my suitcase full of bikinis, and a kind friend and neighbor picked me up. I had nowhere to go. I stayed at her house that night. Another neighbor had contacted a restoration company on my behalf and they were on site.
HRCL - What were your first impressions when you returned home?
DiLullo: The damage was significant. The entire house, barring the exterior structure, was a loss. The first floor had burned through, igniting in the open front foyer where the painter left out their rags and varnish/lacquer cans. The original photo did not look that bad. I was initially being told that yes there was a lot of damage, but four to six months of renovations would be needed. When I got to my home that night and saw the gaping holes in the floor, and the SMELL of it, it was devastating as I knew it was so, so much worse than projected. It ended up being 18 months of displacement for the kids, dogs and me.
HRCL: Through the process of rebuilding, what were some things you were most grateful for?
DiLullo: Oh gosh. There was no gratitude at all for so long. There was truly a lot of bitterness. It felt like things just kept getting worse too.
When the original company who had contracted to demolish and restore my home walked off the job in June 2022, eight months after the fire, with no work done, it was one of the lowest points of my life. I had no job, no one was building my house, and I have never felt more alone.
Enter a new builder.
It wasn’t until the rebuilding process really began that I was able to let some of the anger go. That I was able to see the beauty in the delicate way my life had been deconstructed and was literally being rebuilt. To see how the fire had taught me that I had a false illusion of safety and "home" originally. I was trying to build a fresh start for our little family on a foundation of self, not God.
When we were sitting around the TV watching football one Sunday in November, in the tiny rental house that we had just moved into, that I realized that we had not lost our home. My three kids and two big dogs were all huddled together in front of a fireplace. We had lots of blankets people had given us post-tragedy. It hit me then that this perfect home I was trying to build already existed. I was the home to these children. I was the home to these dogs. And they are and always will be home to me. We lost nothing but the shell, the illusion. We got so, so much more out of this than we lost, in terms of learning, hard and fast, what matters.
HRCL: Through the challenges of rebuilding, was there anything that was a positive experience?
DiLullo: So many. I rediscovered my love of yoga teaching and pottery. I had taught yoga for years back East, but had been focused on my career in finance since divorcing in 2018. With the leave of absence, I was able to return to teaching yoga. Instead of sitting alone and isolated in my home office, working remotely, I was part of my community again.
I had done pottery briefly before having kids, as a hobby, and the first thing I did when I took a leave was to sign up for a class at the Highlands Ranch Southridge Recreation Center. Sally Burns, and the pottery community she has created there at Southridge, felt like a lifesaver to me at a time when I was so achingly lost and lonely. I started my own little Instagram account for my pottery, @fatbottompots.co, and it's become a passion.
HRCL: What do you love most about the house now?
DiLullo: I think that while the kitchen and living room are where we spend most of the time, our secret favorite space is the loft. It has an amazing view of the mountains, and feels kind of like a cozy treehouse with all the high windows flooding the area with light.
I knew that this house was meant to be mine from when I first walked into it in 2021, due to the light. The back is south facing so I am just flooded with light back here, all day long. My mom has the eye and heart of an artist. She loves light, and taught me to appreciate it. This house IS sunshine.
HRCL: Why was it important to you to include the work of local artists in your home?
DiLullo: When I first got divorced, I had no idea how to be alone. I had been married for 14 years and had young kids. I didn't know how to yet eat at a restaurant alone, or to be alone in our home without our kids on their dad’s weekends. I used to seek out and find the coolest airBNB I could find in small towns, so that I wasn't "lonely" and all by myself I was "vacationing."
On these trips to towns like Buena Vista, Crested Butte, and Salida, I found artists like Hannah Tidechild of Embellished Organics, Dolan Geiman, and Leslie Jorgensen on these weekends. At a time when I could not define who I was, the art that I fell in love with helped me find a sense of home, a sense of self. So their work feels so tied to my own personal healing journey, like markers of time.
My realtor Marcus Harris was a constant source of kindness and encouragement, as were the local artists, who helped re-create a theme and a vision for my home before I could even see it myself. When it felt hopeless, people like Tidechild made us this incredible mosaic, it is what led to me thinking of this house as "The Phoenix House." That mosaic became the heart of our home and our purpose: To Rise.
HRCL: Lessons learned?
DiLullo: It’s easy to find people who love you when the story is over, but hard to find people to love you at your most messy, your most reckless, your most lost. Through this fire, I found those people. Through this fire, my kids and I developed a closeness and a trust level that could never be replicated without tragedy. When you need each other, in this life, is when you meld into one, like metal forged in the fire. We came out a new, stronger, family, breathed into and prayed over, in a cozy little home that we love.
There is a Japanese proverb which states, "My barn had to burn down so that I could see the moon.” Our house had to burn down so that we could remember that we are here to love one another. We see the moon. We are grateful for the moon.
It wasn't till we sat around the TV watching football one Sunday in November, in the tiny rental house that we had just moved into, that I realized that we had not lost our home. My three kids and two big dogs were all huddled together in front of a fireplace. We had lots of blankets people had given us post tragedy. It hit me then that this perfect home I was trying to build already existed.
When it felt hopeless, people like Tidechild made us this incredible mosaic, it is what led to me thinking of this house as "The Phoenix House." That mosaic became the heart of our home and our purpose: To Rise.