Armed with gloves, shovels and insurance adjusters, residents of homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire got to work Thursday, trying to salvage what they could of their old life and look ahead toward a new one.

On Courtney Drive, where only a handful of homes survived, neighbors were out en masse, showing insurance adjusters what little they had left.

“This one is a pretty easy claim,” said Tina Rieger, an American Family Insurance adjuster who was working Thursday at a house owned for 20 years by Mike and Gail Estes. “The house is gone and there’s nothing really salvageable. I just need to take photos to certify it so they can get paid.”

Photos from Thursday's cleanup effort

Courtney Drive was among the hardest hit by the fire, which killed two people and burned 346 houses on June 26 after it raced over a ridge behind the neighborhood. Despite their losses, neighbors there weren’t without hope Thursday. They visited with each other and helped out however they could, offering an extra wheelbarrow or pair of gloves. Signs promising to re-build or thanking firefighters popped up everywhere.

At Janet Wilson’s house, her niece Becca Russell built a heart out of blackened brick on the driveway. Brian Fox’s family had signs proclaiming their love for their street and vowing to rebuild. Bright pink spray paint on the driveway of another house announced: “The McCoys will be back.”

The Estes tried to keep their spirits up.

“The first time we saw it, we uncontrollably sobbed,” said Gail Estes. “I thought today it would be easier. Not quite.”

On Thursday, Reiger walked around the home with Mike Estes while he pointed out some of the more major losses. The water heater, now a twisted hunk of metal, was just a year old. High-end energy efficient windows, bought just a few months before the fire, crunched under their feet. During the inspection, his son unearthed a charred wrist watch with the faceplate broken out.

“Wasn’t that a Rolex?” Rieger jokingly questioned him.

“Now that you mention it, I’m pretty sure it was,” he dead-panned back. “Thanks for reminding me.”

Gail Estes said they are slowly starting to figure out how they will recover. They’ve been buying items they need with insurance money and recently found an apartment for the next six months. She said they were offered a place to stay nearby, but intentionally decided to live further away.

“I just need to stay away for a bit,” she said. “If I lived close by, there would be nothing to stop me from being pulled back and seeing this all of the time. And right now, it’s just too hard.”

Her next door neighbors, Dana and Iris Johnson, also are working to get their lives back to as normal as possible. They’ve been living at a friend’s vacant house but are keeping an eye out for an apartment. They have no idea when they could start building another place. But Dana Johnson knows that he will construct his home differently if he does rebuild.

“I’d like to look at the best practices in hillside rebuilding and see if we can do something to make this an example of the best types of construction for this area,” he said. “Maybe we can build this neighborhood back right, so this will never happen again.” —

Contact Maria St. Louis-Sanchez: 636-0274

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