WALDO CANYON FIRE: Residents learn fate of homes

RYAN MAYE HANDY Updated: June 28, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: June 28, 2012

Thousands of distraught and numbed homeowners flooded a meeting Thursday to hear from city officials what many of them already knew: that their homes, along with cars, pets, childhood keepsakes and other precious mementos, were devoured in the fiery bursts of the Waldo Canyon fire.

Residents from 34 northwest Colorado Springs streets sat side-by-side while city officials handed them lists of homes vaporized by the fire. Two days after a firestorm roared through the Mountain Shadows and Flying W Ranch subdivisions, tripling the size of the blaze, city officials released the addresses of the 347 homes destroyed.

Through aerial photos, tips from firefighters or social media posts, many knew the fate of their homes even as they walked into Thursday’s meetings. Neighborhoods appeared to have been leveled by a bomb.

But prior knowledge did nothing to deaden the sense of shocked loss.

Rebekah and Bryon Largent found the charred foundations of their home in Mountain Shadows in aerial photos published by The Denver Post on Wednesday. What they will never find again is Rebekah’s wedding dress, reduced to ashes along with her grandmother’s china.

“Our brains just started sifting through our memories from the house, and all the things that can’t be replaced,” Rebekah said Thursday night.

Such as the rocking chair they lulled their baby daughter to sleep in every night, Byron said. Their home burned to the ground the night their daughter turned 1 — a birthday that will now forever serve as a reminder of their escape and the inferno that consumed their home.

During the meetings, local officials gathered evacuees in a main room, and then divided them into six rooms. CJ Moore, who lives in the Parkside neighborhood of Mountain Shadows, said Steve Cox, chief of economic vitality for the city, talked with her group. He handed them a list of addresses.

“He basically said if your address was on the list your house was gone,” Moore said.

Some folks learned they had lost their homes, and others were astounded to find out that theirs had made it through the blaze.

“There wasn’t as much crying and hysterics as you would have thought,” Moore said. “But there was a lot of hugging.”

Moore figured her house was gone when she saw an aerial photo of her street. For her, seeing her address on the list wasn’t a shock but a confirmation.

“It was destroyed,” she said. “But I’m going to look on the bright side. I get a whole new wardrobe and new furniture.”

She vows to rebuild her home.

Some residents went straight from their meeting to a nearby news briefing hoping to get more information on return dates. People whose homes survived the fire’s run are desperate to return — even to singed homes that have been blast by high-pressure hoses. A return date has not been set.

“I’m going to be disappointed if (President Barack) Obama sees my house in Mountain Shadows before I do,” said Patrick Davis, on Facebook, referring to the president’s visit Friday.

Official word was long awaited, and by many frustrated residents thought to be long overdue. Guy Lenny, who was anxiously waiting for news of his home early Thursday, was ready to move on with his life. The prolonged process of destruction notification made it all that more difficult, he said.

William Daughton, who moved into a townhome a month ago, also had seen a photo in Wednesday’s Denver Post that made it clear that the fire had destroyed his home. He examined the photo with a magnifying glass to be sure.

“Once I saw that photo I sent it to my insurance agent, and they immediately processed the claim,” he said.

Daughton saw the haphazard destruction the fire left, wiping out his street but leaving a home across the way standing.

For many Colorado Springs residents, waiting for Thursday’s official lists was frustrating. Many turned to social media, satellite technology and other means.

“I think they’re being very careful to be sure that they actually have the right information,” Daughton said. “But the information has been there.”

Firefighters were told in briefings Wednesday that 200 to 300 homes were burned to their foundations. Some firefighters were letting family and friends know how their homes fared. Photos of the eerily empty and blackened Mountain Shadows area flooded Facebook.

Daughton said flocks of 80919 residents lined up at the post office expressed similar frustrations. Many knew their worst nightmares had come true, but they were ready to get on with their lives and dispense with what Daughton described as the city’s “paternalistic” attitude.

The city justified the two-day delay on releasing damage information by citing the need for accuracy and compassion. Nothing could be worse than mistakenly telling homeowners that their property is safe, said Cox.

Erratic fire behavior kept city officials from running good assessments of homes lost, said Bret Waters of the Colorado Springs Emergency Management team. Until Thursday afternoon, city officials avoided using graphic descriptions and definite numbers to qualify and quantify the devastation of the Waldo Canyon fire. It was not until Thursday that tentative and vague plans for informing residents were discussed.

Local governments set their own timelines for informing residents about home loss, using safety considerations within affected communities, said Micki Trost, public information officer for the Colorado Division of Emergency Management.

The time it takes to give residents information also depends on how quickly officials can access it by doing assessments, and seeing the homes themselves, said Trost.

The smaller the losses, the quicker the information might be available. In the Lower North Fork fire, 27 homes were burned, and their owners were told in a face-to-face meeting after a couple of days. For the High Park fire near Fort Collins, it was five days before residents were informed about some losses.

Community meetings are usually the way residents learn the fate of their properties, Trost said. There was a community meeting for the newly evacuated Woodland Park region Wednesday night; the last community meeting in Colorado Springs was on Monday.

In the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos, N.M., roared through the Jemez Mountains in May, burning nearly 57,000 acres and destroying over 400 homes, said Los Alamos Police Capt. Randy Foster.

Much like the Waldo Canyon fire, the Cerro Grande fire made a run one night and destroyed hundreds of homes, Foster said.

As soon as they could, Los Alamos officials compiled a list of lost homes. The day after the fire made a run, Los Alamos residents could query police dispatchers about their homes. Police would read from the list to homeowners, Foster recalled. Within two days, lists of burned homes were posted at community meetings and disseminated to all media outlets.

Daughton felt the city misunderstood his and others’ basic needs — the simple knowledge if their homes would be there for them to return to, eventually.

“I think the worse situation is not knowing,” Daughton said. “That’s worse than reality.”

Gazette reporters Maria St. Louis-Sanchez, Lance Benzel, Daniel Chacón and Lauren Fellers contributed to this report.

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