The full weight of Bill and Christine Poley's loss in Colorado's wildfires – 5,000 sq ft house, hand-made quilts and family heirlooms, model train and stamp collections – bore down on them in stages.

The first report came over a police scanner on the same night as their smoky chaotic flight. The next day brought more grim news from a firefighter friend. The Denver Post published an aerial photo of burnt-out homes on their cul-de-sac that – agonisingly – stopped just short of their home,

But reality for the Poleys, and for hundreds of other families in Colorado Springs, did not entirely hit until they were called to an emotional public meeting on Thursday night to be officially informed that theirs was among an estimated 347 homes burnt to the ground by the fire.

Until then, Bill Poley had clung on to hope, saying: "A little part of me thinks it is still there."

The Poley's house on Talleson Court was in the Mountain Shadows neighbourhood, where entire roads were incinerated in a matter of hours when a giant ball of fire exploded across protection lines earlier this week.

Bill and Christine, their adult son Jeremy and his girlfriend Brooke Bradley, got out with only moments to spare. Flames had already jumped through to a neighbouring home by the time the evacuation order went out.

Most of their neighbours had left, and the streets were obscured by smoke and bits of ash and falling debris. The roads were clogged, and people were driving aggressively. "It was like something you see in a movie," Christine Poley said.

"We didn't even stop to talk. We were just flying by each other saying, 'Did you gets this, did you get that?'," she said. "It was such a rush. I looked at things inside my china cabinet and I thought, 'There is nothing in there that is important. I just need to get out.'"

She even told Jeremy to leave the family photo albums. He ignored her, and grabbed them anyway. She was feeling one or two twinges of regret now. She could easily have grabbed one of her prized quilts off a rail and stuffed it in the car. Bill could have grabbed one of his locomotives.

Then there is her crafting business, which Christine ran from the home. Her entire inventory of rare fabrics was in the basement. The aerial photographs they have been scanning on their cellphones provide frustrating little detail.

The building the Poley point to as their home looks more like an archaeological ruin – just a hint of a foundation. It had been their home since 1998, when the Poleys returned to the area from California, attracted to Mountain Shadows in part because of the trees. Bill Poley acknowledges that seems strange now.

"I do realise rather abruptly the area we live in is rather more dangerous than I had thought," he said.

The authorities have promised a bus trip within the next few days, but residents were told at Thursday's meeting it was still too dangerous to allow them to sift through the wreckage.

But the Poleys said their minds are already made up about what to do next: they will rebuild, hopefully on the same site. Bill, a retired engineer, had already spoken to their builder. He even had the original plans, he said – although he then remembered they were in the house.

"We may look at the site and say: 'Oh my lord things are so bad, we can't put up with it,'" said Bill Poley. "But I am 70% sure – she is 100% sure – we are going to rebuild."

His wife agreed. "I am so looking forward to rebuilding," Christine Poley said. "It's like getting my house back."

The only caveat, said Jeremy. was if the area was left so desolate none of their neighbours would want to return.

But there was reason to hope on Friday. Officials said the destruction – though total in the Poleys' case – seemed confined to pockets. Firefighters managed to save more than 18,000 other homes in Mountain Shadows. Even in the Poleys' immediate area, some trees were still standing and their neighbours' houses looked intact.

And, as they all acknowledge, it could have been far, far worse. Christine Poley was several minutes behind the others in reaching their pre-arranged meeting point after their evacuation. There was no answer on her cellphone.

"When we got to the house and Christine wasn't there – that was probably the worst five or 10 minutes of my life," said Bill Poley tearing up.

"We got out what was important, which is ourselves," said Jeremy Poley.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

[Colorado Wildfires via USDAgov / Flickr]