Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content SIDE STREETS: Mountain Shadows is transformed again one year after Waldo Canyon fire

By Bill Vogrin Updated: June 26, 2013 at 6:13 am

The day after the Black Forest fire erupted on June 11, Mike Hausman and Mark Reese stood on Wilson Road high atop Mountain Shadows and looked at a billowing plume of white and black smoke churning from what would become the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Both men shook their heads.

They spoke of the charred dreams that would be left behind when the clouds of smoke and ash lifted. They talked of the devastation awaiting Black Forest residents returning to their homes and the surrounding landscape. They shuddered at the thought of the months and years to come rebuilding.

"It's just such a tragedy," Hausman said, as Reese nodded agreement.

Hausman and Reese know well what they were talking about.

Reese lost his home one year ago, last June 26, when the Waldo Canyon fire exploded down the foothills in a tornado of fire and smoke that hurled burning embers into Mountain Shadows, igniting pines and scrub oak and 1980s-era houses with their wood shake roofs and cedar siding.

The inferno was visible for miles and to millions of television views nationwide who watched in disbelief as a home after home erupted in flames and cars exploded amid the 2,500-degree heat.

Before winds died and allowed firefighters to go on the offensive, the Waldo Canyon fire had killed two, destroyed 347 homes and forever changed how we look at fire. At its peak, 32,000 people were evacuated in an apocalyptic scene that saw six lanes of traffic streaming out of the foothills in a desperate attempt to get across Interstate 25.

In terms of structures lost, it was the worst wildfire in Colorado history . . . until the Black Forest fire came along and killed two, destroyed 511 homes and consumed 14,280 acres..

Reese knows all about the terror of evacuation, accepting the loss of his home, the frustration of dealing with insurance and finally the decision of whether to move or rebuild.

Reese and his wife, Joanie, decided to rebuild, joining about half the residents in returning to the foothills neighborhood. As of June 25, the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department has issued 200 rebuilding permits for Mountain Shadows. Most were filed by original owners, though some are not.

The Reeses are among 78 families who have been issued certificates of occupancy for their new homes. When we met on June 12, the Reeses were still getting settled in their new home, moving furniture and working on their landscaping. It's a beautiful place, built with "ignition-resistant materials" under strict new building codes designed to prevent a repeat of the 2012 tragedy.

Hausman knows what Black Forest fire victims face from a different perspective. He is chief financial officer of Campbell Homes, which rebuilt the Reese's home on Wilson Road. Hausman also has the perspective of someone who built a community only to watch it burn and now struggle to rebuild.

Turns out, Hausman built Mountain Shadows. Not every house. But he and his family transformed it from a cattle ranch into a residential community.

And Hausman was still clearly a bit stunned at his own role in the whole Mountain Shadows story.

As he read was researching Mountain Shadows covenants, Hausman was startled to see a familiar signature at the bottom of the 25-year-old documents that govern life and dictate building materials, paint colors, landscaping and more in the subdivision on Colorado Springs' west edge.

"I had signed them myself," Hausman, 64, said. "I was kind of surprised to see my own signature."

It brought back memories of a different time when he was leading a different company.

It was 1977, when he was managing partner of Ridge Development Co., a partnership of 11 brothers and sisters based in Pueblo who had grown up in the development and construction business.

At the time, Hausman said he learned that the Wilson Ranch was for sale and he began negotiations with Don Wilson and his son-in-law, Russ Wolfe, for the rolling ranchland that climbed into the foothills.

"It was a reasonably complex negotiation," Hausman recalled. "Don Wilson was elderly and I dealt mostly with Russ Wolfe."

Perhaps complicating the deal was the fact it wasn't something Wilson really wanted. He was very attached to the land that he bought in 1947 when it was known as the Douglas Homestead.

He eventually, reluctantly agreed to sell to Hausman and his family.

It took a year to complete the purchase of 1,837 acres in a deal worth approximately $10 million, Hausman said. The family kept about 800 acres for the tourist business and their private homes.

It took another year of work by landscape architects and lawyers and others for the project to take shape.

Almost immediately he sold 230 acres to developers of Oak Valley Ranch on the north end of the ranch. And he sold 60 acres to a company that would build the high-tech campus now occupied by Verizon.

Then Hausman spent the next 15 years or so leading Ridge as it developed Mountain Shadows into "A Place to Live," as its early slogan beckoned.

"It was a magnificent piece of property," Hausman said. "The concept was to make the development fit the topography."

On Jan. 4, 1979, the City Planning Commission approved its master plan for Mountain Shadows where Ridge intended to build 6,310 homes for 18,000 residents along with four elementary schools and a junior high. It envisioned townhomes and apartments and commercial development, as well, on streets named "Wilson" and "Chuckwagon" and "Flying W Ranch" among others.

In December 1980, Ridge launched phase one of the project for 100 homes on 50 acres. The initial homes would range from $80,000 to $200,000. And the list of builders included 16 prominent companies including familiar names such as Bach Development Co./Steve Bach Homes as well as Cullen, Gendron and Veitch.

The initial projections for homes and population were never met and retired city planner James Mayerl knows why. He recalled that interest rates in the late 1970s were double-digit and money was harder to borrow.

But as Ridge broke ground on new subdivisions and interest rates dropped in the mid-1980s, plans changed.

"Buying a house became easier," Mayerl said. "As interest rates went down, they changed the master plan to eliminate much of the higher-density townhomes and condos. It was market-driven response."

He said many of the buyers were young families who wanted large, two-story homes. And they became the norm. Erin McCauley, a current city planner, said she's noticing a trend among those rebuilding in Mountain Shadows that is just the opposite.

"A lot of ranch homes are being built," she said. "The people who were 30 then are 60 now. They want homes without stairs. They want to downsize. They don't want two stories."

In fact, that's exactly the situation with the house Hausman's company rebuilt earlier this year for the Reeses on Wilson Road.

"We were thinking about selling the lot and moving," Mark Reese said. "Then we saw a Campbell floorplan that was perfect for us. I've been in construction for years. My knees aren't so hot anymore. We wanted all one-level living. It worked out really sweet."

Reese said when they bought their home 15 years ago, there wasn't a lot of concern about wildfire.

Mayerl said it wasn't really on anyone's radar when the subdivision was launched. New building codes about building density and defensible space in hillside areas didn't take shape until the early 1990s incorporating lessons learned in a massive Oakland, Calif., hillside fire.

Hausman said he doesn't recall any talk of wildfire threat.

That's one reason the review of those 25-year-old covenants was so jarring. Hausman never dreamed they would play a key role in the destruction brought by the Waldo Canyon fire.

But consider this Gazette-Telegraph story from 1987 touting Mountain Shadow's construction rules.

"Covenants will require native-type building materials such as shake shingles, cedar siding," the story said. "Landscaping, too, will be required to follow the natural foothill terrain hosting scrub oak, pinons and native grasses."

Of course, wood shake roofs are now illegal to build in Colorado Springs. And all new homes, like the one Hausman's company built for the Reeses, must meet strict building codes including Class A roofing materials, ignition-resistant materials instead of wood decking, stucco instead of wood siding among other requirements.

Hausman can hardly believe what he watched a year ago along with everyone else when the Waldo Canyon fire exploded.

"What a tragedy," he said repeatedly. "The loss of life. The people who lost everything but what they had on their backs. The old-growth vegetation that was lost. The trees we planted - more than 1,000 ourselves as well as all the homeowners who were required to plant two evergreens and other trees."

And those covenants he was proud of and was sure would guarantee a beautiful, high-quality subdivision for years to come?

"One of the obvious things is the shake shingle roofs," he said. "They were very much in vogue at the time. Turns out that was one of the things that caused a lot of properties to start on fire easily. I always loved them. I thought they were beautiful."

His voice trailed off.

-

Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

A HISTORY OF MOUNTAIN SHADOWS

Before it was among the most desirable neighborhoods in town, Mountain Shadows was known as the Douglas Homestead, a rolling ranch that stretched from Douglas Creek on the west side of Popes Bluff into the foothills and the edge of the Pike National Forest.

Don Wilson, with his wife, Minnie bought the ranch - about 2,500 acres - in 1947. They relocated from Kansas with their daughter, Marietta,, accompanied by daughter Marian and her husband, Russ Wolfe.

Together they created the Flying W Ranch, raised Hereford cattle as well as registered quarterhorses on the spread.

Eventually, Marietta married Gene Reed, who took over the horse business while Wolfe concentrated on the cattle and his growing chuckwagon dinner business for tourists seeking an authentic ranch experience.

By 1953 their focus shifted mainly to tourism as the cattle market waned.

By the 1970s, the Flying W Ranch was famous nationwide for its singing cowboy Wranglers, the Old West town Wolfe built and its chuckwagon dinners.

Meanwhile, houses were creeping west and the Flying W was at a crossroads.

The cattle business - the original heart of the ranch - was jeopardizing the Flying W, Don Wilson told The Gazette-Telegraph in a 1984 interview.

"There wasn't anything I could do but sell the ranch," said Wilson, who was 93 at the time. "I didn't like the idea. But it got too expensive to operate. I wouldn't have any money left to pay my income taxes if I didn't sell. I really didn't have much choice."

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