Five years after Waldo Canyon fire, neighbors have returned to a beloved street
On Friday, June 22, 2012, in the woods off a popular hiking trail about four miles west of Colorado Springs, someone started a fire and didn't put it out. - It smoldered, at first so discreetly it eluded fire and forest service crews dispatched to search the area for the source of reported smoke. But around noon Saturday, less than a half-hour after the incident was declared a probable false alarm, Waldo Canyon exploded in flames, sending up a column of smoke so dense it cast a shadow over half the city. - Before it was declared 100 percent contained on July 10, the Waldo Canyon fire spread to more than 18,000 acres, killed two people, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands and destroyed 347 homes and buildings. For almost a year, until Black Forest ignited in the city's northeastern exurbs, it was the most devastating fire in Colorado history.
Five years later, the Front Range has made great strides toward healing. Survivors have rebuilt homes, lives and businesses; the charred path of destruction is carpeted with green. But the scars - personal, economic and environmental - remain. In many ways, the landscape and its residents are still recovering from a tragedy that, in 18 days, forever changed our relationship with the place, and the people, we call home.
At first, it seemed the fire might spare Courtney Drive in the newer Mountain Shadows development.
Families living in the collection of well-cared-for primary residences built in the 1980s and 90s on a wide, sweeping street at the city's northwestern foothills were anxious, but guardedly hopeful. After all, their street was north of the evacuation zone officials had announced Saturday. Over the following days, those who returned or had remained on site made emergency plans they hoped were overly-cautious and watched as plumes of smoke continued to pulse skyward beyond the ridgeline.
On Tuesday, June 26, afternoon temperatures hit record highs and storm winds whipped the Waldo Canyon flames into a relentless march east over dry, sun-baked terrain. Mandatory evacuations were extended to all of Mountain Shadows - a community that, ultimately, would bear the brunt of the fire's fury as well as its only casualties, a couple in their 70s who lived about a mile south of Jonni and Beau McCoy.
"It fell like a watermelon," said Jonni McCoy, recalling the massive cloud of smoke that slammed over the ridge and began advancing on her and her neighbors' homes. "It felt like an apocalypse movie or a nightmare. There was fire rolling down the street, four houses up. We just got in the car and started heading east, dodging traffic, just going and going..."
Across the street from the McCoys, Sandy and Julian Rivera rushed to repack go-bags, snap photos of the home and belongings and grab the dogs and what family heirlooms they could. As they backed out of the driveway of the house where she and her husband had spent the last 15 years, Sandy snapped a final photo and said goodbye.
After the fire, only four of the 32 homes on Courtney Drive still stood; the rest were smoldering piles of ash and rubble - for as long as it took to clean up and break ground, that is.
Within two years, most of the homes on the street had been rebuilt on the original lots, by the original owners.
"I know there were people that sold their lots for a dollar; they just needed to move on," Julian Rivera said. "There have been some turnovers here since the fire, but I think the majority of people on the street stayed."
It takes about five minutes to walk the length of Courtney Drive - if you're a stranger. Residents should budget more time, especially in good weather.
"Everybody knows everybody on this block," Julian said.
Today, even as neighbors gaze from new front porches at a street reborn in grander proportions, at people walking dogs and tending lawns and kids riding bikes on a sunny afternoon, it's hard not to be reminded of the community that was.
There are two sides to that nostalgia, though.
"No one understands what we went through. It's so nice to be with people who get it and who really understand," said Jonni McCoy, whose home at 2280 was razed. "Going through all that, you sometimes feel like you've lost your mind. Not a lot of people understand what that's like."
The McCoys knew they would rebuild, and even left a sign to that effect in front of the ruins of their home.
"We loved our neighborhood and most of the people on the street felt the same way, so we painted a sign, 'We'll be back.' My friend said it sounded like a threat," Jonni McCoy said. "We're a unique street, very close. There were only about four that decided not to come back and they each had reasons."
One family couldn't shake the trauma of the evacuation, during which they lost track of a loved one.
"Because of that terror they decided not to come back. They love their new home but they miss the neighborhood," McCoy said.
In the weeks after the fire erased life-as-they-knew-it, as they returned to oversee demolition of the charred shell of their home and deal with insurance, the Riveras couldn't decide, for certain, what to do. Should they stay and rebuild, as many of their neighbors had vowed to do, or turn their backs on an ending that not only had destroyed their present but reached back to wipe out a lifetime's worth of touchstones from the past?
"I didn't think that I could come home to the same spot but a different house. I wasn't sure I could do that," Sandy Rivera said, standing in the yard of the larger ranch-style house she and Julian built on a double lot up the street from 2235, the two-story garage home where they'd raised two kids and become part of a tight-knit community of young families. "You can see where the roof is of the place where we used to live. We sold the property and someone rebuilt."
The only undeveloped lot remaining on the street is just north of the Rivera's new house, which backs up to open space. The fire stripped the hill's natural groundcover and changed the terrain; runoff now flowing through the empty lot means a mitigation nightmare for anyone building there.
Sandy suspects the property likely will remain unimproved. In time, it might be the only visual that speaks to the destruction.
"Above the ridge, that's all come back. People have planted. Some of the scrub oak is coming back. You can tell pretty much where the fire was because that's where all the small trees are," said Sandy, whose landscaped back yard contains a water feature. "It's just peaceful back here. You see deer. You see foxes, coyotes. You get to see it all back here. Although we love our neighbors, we wanted the view of the wild."
How Courtney Drive residents chose to reconstruct played a role in the healing.
"For our kids, it's the only neighborhood they've ever known. My son, it's hard on him because he lost his only home, where he grew up,"
— Julian Rivera
"One of my neighbors asked, 'Why are you using the same floor plan?' I said, 'Because I liked it,'" said McCoy. "Some people didn't want to be reminded of what they'd lost. I think three families on the street used the same floor plan and the rest used something new. I was seeking familiarity; they were seeking, 'Let's not think about it.'"
The Riveras were still undecided about whether to relocate, when Courtney Drive survivors decided to start up a monthly progressive potluck dinner, first off-site at borrowed spaces and then at homes as they were rebuilt.
"Every meeting was full of trading stories, sharing advice on what we'd run into and just support for the aggravation of what we were going through," McCoy said.
Those monthly dinners convinced the Riveras that Courtney Drive was where they were meant to be.
"Before, we knew the people near us - Jonni's daughter and my daughter went to school together and played together when they were younger - but we didn't know the people up the street at all," said Sandy Rivera, tearing up. "Now, everybody knows everybody really well. We're a lot closer. I think we're stronger. We know what's important ... families, neighbors and community and a sense of belonging."
For survivors who managed to save only what they could carry out in that final, frenzied exodus and later sift from the ashes, what was stolen is only superficially defined by dollars.
"For our kids, it's the only neighborhood they've ever known. My son, it's hard on him because he lost his only home, where he grew up," said Julian Rivera.
Losing your home and everything you own turns memory lane into an emotional minefield. Only a fellow survivor can truly understand that property loss is about more than the loss of property.
"A lot of people say you should be grateful, your family's alive, it's just stuff. That's true, but all of the Christmas ornaments my children made when they were young, all the heirlooms from grandmother are gone," McCoy said. "There's a lot you can't replace that is not measurable in money or anything like that. Yeah, I have an amazing home now and everything's great, but it leaves you with a great sense of loss."
Five years after the Waldo Canyon fire, loss is part of the fabric and the bond of Courtney Drive. Community potluck dinners continue on a bi-monthly basis, but these days the disaster that originally brought everyone together rarely is the subject of conversation.
"We had one a dinner in late April, so that means we've got one coming up at the end of the month," said Sandy.
And then it hit her:
"Actually, that's right around the five year anniversary of the fire."
Who knows? Maybe the topic will come up.