Waldo Canyon fire: Two years later, a neighborhood is reborn
|By Ryan Maye Handy; by Ryan Maye Handy Special to The Gazette -|
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.
"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.
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.
"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?"
Much of Mountain Shadows has been reborn, and the new homes have kept the real estate prices and home values rising.
A drive along
"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 "go big or go home" trend is common in post-fire areas, said Simon, who has studied similar neighborhoods in
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
Some residents in Mountain Shadows did the same thing, said
While they are imposing, not all of the new homes are bigger than their predecessors.
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,
It's an incentive that might have brought a few homeowners, somewhat improbably, back to the neighborhood. After the fire,
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
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
"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
"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."
Residents jokingly call the street a "wildfire island" or "the oasis in the devastation," because a cluster of homes survived, surrounded by destruction.
"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,
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
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.
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
"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."
"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."
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
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.
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."
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