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Waldo Canyon fire: Two years later, a neighborhood is reborn

By Ryan Maye Handy; by Ryan Maye Handy Special to The Gazette -
Proquest LLC

Since the Waldo Canyon fire, the west-side Mountain Shadows neighborhood has become an intensely tight-knit community that, on the surface, shows few traces of the firestorm that ravaged it.

Nearly 250 of the 347 homes destroyed have been rebuilt, many of them transformed into what some residents call "McMansions" or "castles." Two years after the fire, Mountain Shadows in many places is eerily devoid of its scars - but for the "black sticks" covering the adjacent burned foothills.

Barb Palmer's new home on Tamora Way is one of many that helped change the look and feel of the community. Mountain Shadows is far from the almost quaint circa-1980s neighborhood of its origin, and most like it that way.

"All the neighborhoods look so different. But we still really like Mountain Shadows - lots of great people up here," Palmer said. "It doesn't really look like there has been a fire. But really other than the trees, it just looks like a new development. I guess that's good."

Despite Mountain Shadows' new, glossy exterior, the pain of loss seethes in many residents. Memories of the fire drove some from Mountain Shadows for good and continue to haunt those who rebuilt or whose homes survived.

Most people are tired of talking about "the fire." But, beneath the surface, their lives are defined by it.

Nevertheless in Colorado and around the country, Mountain Shadows is considered a fire recovery success story. Partially due to its urban setting, a greater percentage of homes - 77 percent - have been rebuilt than in any other fire-ravaged community in the state, including neighborhoods in Boulder and Larimer counties and Black Forest. Nearly all the homes in Mountain Shadows were primary residences, whereas in some Colorado fires a significant percentage of houses lost were vacation homes.

Brett Lacey, the Colorado Springs fire marshal who engineered the new fire codes for the hillside neighborhood, has traveled around North America to talk about Mountain Shadows. The neighborhood's fire mitigation work has become a model for cities in Montana and Canada.

But Mountain Shadows' fast recovery also echoes a disturbing trend in the West: Catastrophic wildfires wipe the slate clean, making room for bigger, more expensive dream houses in zones that remain at risk for wildfires.

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In the Oakland hills of California, for instance, homes destroyed by fires were rebuilt larger and with less space between neighbors. While a brand-new neighborhood post-fire might look like recovery, it seems illogical to Gregory Simon, a University of Denver professor who has studied fire recoveries in California and Colorado.

"When you put up bigger houses, you are increasing the fuel load," Simon said. "In some ways, there have been efforts to decrease fire risks. But you are putting more fuel on the landscape. Why did that happen?"

Neighborhood reborn

Much of Mountain Shadows has been reborn, and the new homes have kept the real estate prices and home values rising.

A drive along Flying W Ranch Road shows a modern development - massive, multistory stucco homes, with large windows facing the burned hills and Pikes Peak. Even to residents who lost their homes, like Palmer, the new homes seem huge.

"Up on the top of Wilson there is a home, it looks like a hotel. They bought two lots. It is so big," Palmer said. "It's kind of cool to see what people have chosen to redo. And the homes along Flying W, it's like 'go big or go home.' It's great."

The Pikes Peak Regional Building Department has issued 266 rebuilding permits and estimates that more than 230 homes have been completed, said Roger Lovell, head of the department. That amounts to a 77 percent rebuild rate if all 266 homes are finished.

The "go big or go home" trend is common in post-fire areas, said Simon, who has studied similar neighborhoods in California.

So, why are there so many big, post-fire homes?

"The answer is, as you know, people get their claims. They try to get as much as possible," Simon said.

In areas of California, homeowners did not limit themselves to their insurance payout when it came to spending. "A lot of people who moved in actually poured more money in. It's basically maximizing the value of their property. Building their dream house."

Some residents in Mountain Shadows did the same thing, said Kerri Olivier, who lives in the neighborhood and works for United Policyholders, a nonprofit company that helps homeowners with insurance claims.

While they are imposing, not all of the new homes are bigger than their predecessors. Joan and Bryan Gibson's impressive new home, at 5735 Linger Way, sits above Flying W Ranch Road. With a stone turret on the front and a collection of heavy wooden doors, the house has a castlelike look. But the home is the same square footage as the Gibsons' old home.

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The Gibsons were underinsured but used reimbursements from their burned furniture to help pay for the new home. Plus, they got more money from their insurance company if they built on their old lot, Bryan Gibson said.

It's an incentive that might have brought a few homeowners, somewhat improbably, back to the neighborhood. After the fire, El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman was prepared for the neighborhood to lose its appeal and he pre-emptively lowered the value of surviving homes by 10 percent.

Lowderman was surprised by the direction the area took and has since restored the pre-fire value.

"In all my wisdom, I thought there was going to be a stigma after the fire," he said. "But there wasn't."

An analysis of assessor's data shows that on average, homes were rebuilt 13.8 percent bigger, which increased value along with the continued desirability of the neighborhood.

Some people, such as former Wilson Road resident Carol Lyn Lucas, are waiting to sell their empty lots as values continue to climb. There are fewer than 100 empty lots left.

Mountain Shadows residents think that they've had their fire; the forest around them burned and will not regrow in their lifetime, they say.

But the regrown Gambel oak can carry fire, and fires could hit from the north as well. Even with their new stucco homes, Mountain Shadows residents are not invincible, and they have effectively recreated a fire-danger zone, Simon cautions.

"If the fire's big enough, it will burn anything," Simon said. "It's antithetical to all these efforts (to mitigate fire), but yet we are building these enormous homes."

Lowderman can't help but compare Mountain Shadows to Black Forest, the neighborhood across the highway ravaged by fire a year later and where recovery has been quite different.

"Mountain Shadows was this very tightly knit enclave, for the most part, of above-average quality homes. There was this degree of commonality," he said. Whereas homes in Black Forest ranged from double-wide trailers to multimillion-dollar houses. Mountain Shadows also is suburban, and much easier to rebuild, financially and aesthetically.

"The problem they didn't have was the loss of trees. The folks up there didn't have to deal with this mass removal of trees," Lowderman said. "About the only evidence really (of the fire), is if you look off to the west, in the hills."

Brogan's Bluff

Sandwiched between Rossmere Street and Wilson Road, Brogan's Bluff Drive was among the hardest hit by the fire June 26, when it decimated eight of 12 homes. Most of the destroyed homes had stucco walls and tile roofs, materials typically resistant to fire.

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Residents jokingly call the street a "wildfire island" or "the oasis in the devastation," because a cluster of homes survived, surrounded by destruction.

Patty Johnson's home survived, part of the cluster of four that emerged relatively unscathed. Unlike other parts of the neighborhood, Brogan's Bluff has not been transformed, Johnson said.

"We lost eight houses in a row across the street," Johnson said. "And I would say, we've got the least amount of houses rebuilt. We've only had three rebuilt."

Two Brogan's Bluff residents were older widowers who didn't want to rebuild. One family's insurance claim was snarled in a lawsuit. Other neighbors wanted smaller houses. For some, it was just easier to move on. But for those such as Johnson who stayed, it has been hard to forget the fire on a street where its damage remains obvious.

When the Johnsons returned to Brogan's Bluff a few days after the firestorm, they came home to a "war zone." They felt guilty because their home had survived; they cried when they saw that their neighbors' homes had not.

Months later, they were tired of staring at charred foundations and burned trees.

"Well, maybe we should just leave," Johnson thought.

Then, when homes starting sprouting up all over Mountain Shadows, her home, built in 1992, seemed paltry in comparison. Other problems surfaced - Johnson's neighbor, Masami Hua, whose home also survived, noticed that her stucco was cracked and her windows leaked. Nails were popping out on the side of Hua's house that had faced the fire.

Johnson thought she had been spared the worst of what has come to be known as "partial loss" woes, or belated damage from fire heat. But after the deluge that fell on Colorado Springs in September, her tile roof leaked.

Johnson's insurance adjuster removed the tiles and found piles of burned pine needles that had burned the roofing paper.

"I don't even understand why your house is still standing," the adjuster told the Johnsons.

Almost two years to the week that the fire hit, Johnson is getting her roof replaced. The insurance company is paying.

Lurking pain

The black sticks that bristle on the hillsides west of Mountain Shadows are eyesores. While some residents live with them, others can't. Despite rebuilding, there is residual pain from the fire - pain that chased some residents from their beloved neighborhood after decades of living there.

Lucas knew the minute she saw her destroyed property on Wilson Road that she couldn't go back. She imagined building a home on the lot where she had lived for 22 years - but what she pictured would have been disturbing.

"I would have built a whole new house, a whole different, new floor plan, had all new furniture inside," she said. But then she thought of things she couldn't bring back - wild turkeys, the forest.

"I would walk out the front door and I'm in the same neighborhood. For me, it would have been like the Twilight Zone. I'm in the same space, but it's not the same."

Two years after the fire, Lucas is in a new home on the west side, outside Mountain Shadows. She wrestled with her memories immediately after the fire, and while she feels ready to "move on," her husband, Jim, feels exactly the opposite.

"My husband said that he feels that he is grieving it now," Lucas said. "He was so caught up with the financial end of it, he feels like he is dealing with it now."

For Judy Anderson, who lost her home on Ashton Park Place, grief from the fire lingers. The Andersons moved to Peregrine but can't bring themselves to sell their lot, where they lived for more than 20 years. It would be too hard to see someone else's house there, she said.

"I get a catch in my throat when I go up there," Anderson said. "We could go back there, but we can't recapture the life that we had because that is just plain gone."

Marianne Collins, the Andersons' former neighbor on Ashton Park, waves at the Andersons when they drive past on their way to visit their empty lot. Collins doesn't understand why the Andersons make pilgrimages to their lot, but the Andersons might not understand Collins' struggles, either.

At first, Collins was wracked by guilt because her home survived. Then, she became frustrated and exhausted fighting with her insurance company to cover heat-related damage. There were times when she was envious of the "gorgeous" homes that sprouted up around her.

Like many people whose homes survived yet were infiltrated by smoke and heat, Collins feels that an intact home in Mountain Shadows is a mixed blessing.

"I've lost a couple of friends out of this deal. They just don't understand what you're going through. I'm just feeling so guilty and hating to come home. You know, I love my home. It was just a ball of emotions," Collins added.

"I wish it had just burned" is a thought that crosses more than a few minds of people whose homes survived but were damaged. But then, they have their "stuff," their memories, she said.

Collins watched Mountain Shadows transform around her but can't make up her mind - is it bad, is it good?

"It does feel different," she said. "The quaintness is gone. It's not a bad thing. It's kind of sad. It's not the same."

The silver lining

The fire seems to have made Mountain Shadows into more of a community and less of a neighborhood bound by streets and economic barriers. Homeowners say they have grown closer because of the fire.

Some, like the Andersons, resent the fire. Others can't make up their minds - such as Palmer, who has yet to decide how the fire changed her life

Patty Johnson knows: "The fire has just been such a blessing to us."

Mountain Shadows has changed, Johnson said, but it has nothing to do with "looks" and everything to do with the people.

"We, as a neighborhood, have gotten together two or three times whereas we hadn't done that before," she said.

The King Soopers off Centennial has become a popular place to spot neighbors, even those who moved away. Mountain Shadows has become "a network of people who have been united by this fire," Johnson said.

Even the burned trees, in their own way, are a reminder of the greatest common experience the neighborhood has ever known.

"They are heritage now," Johnson said.

The fire is a part of the people, too. "It's in our history, our genetics."


Gazette reporter Maria St. Louis-Sanchez contributed to this report.

Copyright: (c) 2014 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.
Wordcount: 2349


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