WALDO CANYON FIRE: While others rebuild, a few still stuck in clean-up

By: Ryan Maye Handy and
 Maria St. Louis-Sanchez
November 24, 2012
photo - Scrap metal from the Rick Estes home on Courtney Dr. is loaded into a dumpster by Jeff Miller from Action Excavation & Utilities Co. on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) Photo by The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett
Scrap metal from the Rick Estes home on Courtney Dr. is loaded into a dumpster by Jeff Miller from Action Excavation & Utilities Co. on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) Photo by The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett 

Jennifer Riese is one of three Mountain Shadows homeowners who have yet to clear charred debris off their properties after the Waldo Canyon fire.

For Riese, who discovered after the fire that she is grossly underinsured, being able to remove her debris comes down to insurance and money problems.

For the other two Mountain Shadows property owners, debris remains for other reasons, unknown to officials. For months, officials have been unable to reach either owner. One property has since been sold, while the other might require action from local code enforcement.

“Every site has a human side of it and a human story and we are reaching out to find out where are they at and what’s causing delays,” said Bob Cutter, founder and president of the nonprofit fire recovery group Colorado Springs Together.

After the Waldo Canyon fire destroyed at least 346 homes on June 26, home-owners were given until early October to remove their debris, and nearly all of them have done so. Fifty construction permits have been issued for rebuilding. Most of the people who obtained permits have seized the opportunity to construct houses with new designs.

Although pushed along by the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department and the Colorado Springs police code enforcement unit, the debris removal has been stymied by emotions, insurance and construction issues.

Tom Wasinger, code enforcement officer, is focusing on the three remaining debris-filled lots, talking to their owners, and in one case, hiring companies to do the cleanup.

“I’ve been really waiting and hoping that I wouldn’t go this route,” Wasinger said Wednesday. “But after Thanksgiving it looks like this is going to be my new project.”

Two of the three remaining lots are on Hot Springs Court, in the community of Parkside, where 178 homes burned. Wasinger and Parkside homeowners association board members have reached out to Riese, who has resigned herself to having to pay for the debris removal out of pocket. 

Riese is far from the only Mountain Shadows resident caught in the snare of insurance settlement problems. Problems similar to hers might have forestalled the clearing and rebuilding for many other homeowners, Cutter said.

“In terms of lessons learned for me, it was the time it takes to file claims,” he said. “To get adjustors out, to get your claim adjusted and go through that process, it takes a lot of time and a lot of information and isn’t perhaps the well-defined process that people would expect it to be.”

After the fire destroyed her home on Hot Springs Court, Riese discovered that insurance reimbursements for every aspect of her home, from the dwelling to the landscaping, were several thousand dollars short of what she estimates the home would have been worth on the market. Her home was insured for $178,000 while she estimates its value was $250,000; her contents were valued at $133,000 but should have been $187,000, she said.

Months ago, she hired public adjustor Don Fymbo to help her sort through the mess; by late November, not much progress had been made. Meanwhile, she discovered that the lack of money affected other things as well — there is a certain amount of money Riese can’t access until she commits to rebuild or buy a new home, neither of which she is financially prepared to do. Also, she wasn’t able to get enough money to clear her lot, which can cost $10,000 to $20,000.

“I didn’t know that either, that because I’m underinsured that number affects everything so it’s a like a domino. Inside and outside the house,” she said.

Riese has decided to cover the cost of debris removal, although resolution of her next steps — to rebuild or not to rebuild — depend heavily on whether she can get more money from her insurance company.

Parkside, of all the neighborhoods in Mountain Shadows, is off to the slowest start when it comes to rebuilding, and it will probably take the longest to complete, Cutter said. The destroyed homes in that community account for almost half of those claimed by the fire. Also, because the homes were built so close to each other, residents need home plans that won’t encroach on the space of their neighbors.

“That’s been part of the challenge,” he said. “In some respects, the community has to move forward somewhat in lockstep, whereas an individual lot, the same restrictions don’t apply.”

Homeowners were given a deadline of early October to get their debris cleared. The rebuilding process involves three permits — the first is for debris cleanup, followed by a wrecking permit to crack the foundation and, if the homeowner is rebuilding, a building permit. By late November, 270 homeowners have applied for wrecking permits, and 149 have been completed, said Bob Croft, of the regional building department.

At this point, Riese’s debris pile is not the most concerning for Wasinger, who has yet to reach the owner of 2517 Hot Springs Court. If the owner remains out of contact, code enforcement will cover the cost of debris removal and bill the owner, Wasinger said.

“I’m in the process of getting bids to get that property cleaned up,” he said Wednesday. “First, we’ve got to figure out if we can come up with the money to do that cleanup.”

The unit has money set aside for that, he said. “But we run out of money very quickly.”

Ultimately, if the homeowner continues to be out of contact, Wasinger will resort to other measures.

“What we will do is bill the property owner,” Wasinger said. “If they don’t pay for the bill, we will place a lien on the property, which will come due with the taxes.”

There is another debris-laden property at 5469 Lions Gate Lane that Wasinger is nervously watching. The lot stands out on a street of mostly intact, or at least cleaned up, lots, and looks as if its ashes and debris have been left untouched.

“The owner (might have) just decided to walk away from it,” Wasinger suspected, although he doesn’t know for sure.

Vantage Homes recently bought the lot, Wasinger said, and “for sale” sign is posted beside the charred home.

But, there’s been no change to that lot since the fire. “I’m really getting angsty about that one,” he added.

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