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Gazette Premium Content A month after start of massive wildfire, Black Forest sees a recovery that will 'take years'

By Garrison Wells Updated: July 11, 2013 at 10:07 am

A month ago, these were verdant, sleepy hills.

Ponderosa pines rose hundreds of feet like protectors of the idyllic lifestyle that characterized the Black Forest community.

Today, heavy machinery drags debris across scorched earth, the roar of the engines like big jungle cats. Large trucks huff as they navigate dirt roads barely wide enough for everyday vehicles.

Thousands of trees are dead. Others are dying.

Dream homes have been replaced by recreational vehicles as a community struggles to get back to normal.

The Black Forest fire destroyed 486 structures, consumed more than 14,000 acres and killed two residents.

People who lost their homes face an uncertain future tangled by insurance issues, home rebuilding and the potential of new fire protection rules.

Everything is in flux. At this early stage, there are more questions than answers.

But there's an impatience, too.

People want to get on with their lives. Many moved their RVs to their property even before they were given the OK.

This is an independent mix of ranchers and retirees, the well-heeled and middle-income, mobile homes and million-dollar estates.

"They're kind of on the one hand 'leave me alone, don't bother me,' but when they're in a crunch, they pull together and work well as a tremendous community," said Eddie Bracken, president of the Black Forest Community Club. "They are resilient. They want to go on with their lives."

Ten-year Black Forest resident Joshua Havens hauled a fifth-wheel donated by Big Johnson Construction of Fort Morgan to his 5.2 acres on Shoup Road on Monday.

He lives there now, with his wife, Amber Sathre, and children Boston and Jericho.

Their mobile home suffered fire damage and the two-story shop he used for his business, Erect This Inc., was destroyed.

Burned tools and the heads of sledgehammers, the wood handles burned away, lie on blackened ground near the shop's foundation.

Havens had planned to build a home on the property, but that's on hold. Now he's looking at rebuilding his shop, with an apartment on the second floor.

Fortunately, he builds steel structures for a living. He will rebuild his own, then his neighbor's and has bids on six others in the Black Forest area.

When he finally builds his new home, mitigating for fire danger is at the top of the list, he said.

"I want to make things safe for my wife and my children," Havens said.

In a thousand different ways, life here will never be the same. Memories that disappeared in billowing clouds of smoke linger like ghosts among the remaining trees.

Nonetheless, rebuilding has begun as residents push forward.

Already, 282 permits have been pulled - mostly for demolition and debris removal.

El Paso County commissioners are clearing the way for residents wanting to get on with recovery.

Led by Darryl Glenn, whose district encompasses Black Forest, the Black Forest Long Range Recovery Planning Committee was formed. Its job is to help residents through recovery. The commissioners, meantime, relaxed land use regulations for one year and building permit fees have been simplified and trimmed.

"Our focus has been on the long-term recovery process," Glenn said. "The No. 1 priority I had was to set up a communications network and we've done that."

It's a tough spot. The commissioners are pressed by residents who want to move on, but at the same time need to look at long-term recovery.

"We recognize that this is a marathon, not a sprint," Glenn said. "There are two different groups. Some are focused on 'I want to work on my property right now.' But you also have a group of people just starting their grieving process. We need to provide information for people who want to rebuild right now and provide that safety net for individuals who are grieving."

The community is pulling together.

La Foret Conference & Retreat Center on Friday will open a resource center for residents on Burgess Road.

It will offer grief counseling, fundraising and free fire mitigation to residents who need help, said William Townsend, spokesman for Black Forest Strong, which is part of the center.

Reducing fire danger on remaining properties in the relatively untouched southern Black Forest area is critical, he said.

"We're still an at-risk community in terms of fire," he said. "We could have another fire this summer."

The center also will set aside more than 430 acres as an easement to preserve forest, he said.

The Black Forest Community Club has formed a committee of about 50 residents, Bracken said, and fire mitigation will be a top topic.

"We view ourselves as a facilitator, communicator, ombudsman, a conduit for reaching out to the people who were affected by this devastating fire," he said.

"Mitigation is something we're going to emphasize," he said. "This recovery isn't going to be instantaneous. It's going to take years."

The annual Black Forest Festival on Aug. 17 will be dedicated to the theme of "recover, rebuild and restore" and the parade will be dedicated to first responders, Bracken said.

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