Jeff Johnston mans the backhoe at the home of Christy Williams Dunton and Michael Ford Dunton Sunday, June 24, as Chris Brunner, left, Mitch Stock, Michael Ford Dunton and Christy Williams Dunton shovel remaining debris. A May 26 fire destroyed Michael Ford Dunton’s Castle Valley studio. (Photo by Kristin Millis/Moab Sun News)

Friends and neighbors came armed with hand tools Sunday morning, June 24.

One brought a dump trailer. Another brought a dump truck.

They gathered early – at 7:30 a.m. – to help a Castle Valley family rebuild after a May 26 fire.

The home of Christy Williams Dunton and Michael Ford Dunton was spared in the blaze that burned 20 acres. But Dunton, a sculptor, lost his studio and 20 years worth of welding and wood-carving tools.

Charlie and Jil Kulander, whose home is across the street, also lost two outbuildings in the fire that threatened six homes and was propelled by 60-plus mile per hour gusts of wind. No homes were destroyed.

At the clean-up party for the Duntons, more than 20 people worked until 10 a.m. clearing away burned charcoal, chicken wire, plaster and personal belongings.

But there was relief for the weary.

“Just as it got hot,” Williams Dunton said, “we pulled out the watermelon. They looked like chimney sweeps, covered in soot, eating the watermelon.”

At a barbecue that evening, Williams Dunton expressed gratitude for the work her friends had done. She referred to the amber light from the setting sun.

“I’m thankful for the light,” she said. “I’m thankful for the light in your hearts.”

Castle Valley resident Dave Erley offered a dose of humor when he responded, “And I’m thankful for the backhoe!”

Despite battling the flu, Jeff Johnston, owner of JRJ Construction, came to help anyway – by driving his backhoe.

“Jeff was an absolute epic hero,” Williams Dunton said.

In addition, Chris Brunner brought a dump trailer, and Kevin Clyde offered use of a 10-yard dump truck.

“We didn’t even have to pay for a container,” Williams Dunton said.

The clean-up party was the first phase of what the Duntons are calling “Project Phoenix.” The name is derived from the mythology of the Phoenix bird, which has the ability to be reborn from its own ashes.

The second phase is a benefit at Eddie McStiff’s, 57 S. Main St., on Saturday, June 30. All proceeds from the night, including food and drink sales, will benefit the Duntons.

The destroyed studio once served as the Duntons’ home.

When Christy Williams and Michael Ford Dunton married in 1995 they were living in a school bus with their daughter, Rio. Their friends Michael and Donna Rivette wondered what they could give the couple for their new marriage and opted to grace them with a house.

The house was a prop from the movie “Geronimo,” filmed in nearby Professor Valley.

Friends and neighbors loaded the one-room cabin made of chicken wire and plaster onto a trailer, and then transported it from the Rivettes’ property in Castleton to the Duntons’ property in Castle Valley.

The trailer was unable to make the second 90-degree turn on the property, though, to place the building on a concrete pad. So the men lifted the house off the trailer and put it in place by hand.

“A lot of the people here today set it on the property,” Williams Dunton said. “And then they swept it back into the earth.”

The one-room cabin was only 400-square feet. There was no running water or plumbing, yet the Duntons and their daughter lived there for seven years before their current home was completed.

“We had a pit toilet,” Williams Dunton said. “We were copping showers from friends.”

When the family moved into their home, the cabin became storage and a place for Ford Dunton’s work.

Until last month’s fire.

“My wife and I watched as my studio, 20 years of beloved tool accumulation and my livelihood went up in violent, wind-fanned flames. As terrifying as the event was and devastating as the aftermath has been, I have been filled with gratitude,” Ford Dunton said. “What could have happened but didn’t was near miraculous; no one was hurt, our home was untouched… none of my work was damaged.”