Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Damage assessment grows for Black Forest fire

By Ryan Handy Updated: July 17, 2013 at 7:17 am

The ponderosa pine of the Black Forest were many things - they were majestic, sheltering, old and dense - but they were also what gave parcels in Black Forest their value, both emotionally and financially.

After the fire, the trees now represent a large portion of market value loss to the forest - all told, $29 million worth of trees were incinerated by the fire.

That number, based upon decreased property values and computed by the El Paso County Assessor's Office, was one of many updated damage numbers released on Tuesday, among them the total number of homes, outbuildings, garages and commercial buildings destroyed or damaged in the fire. As homeowners file insurance claims and damage assessors gain access to properties, the financial toll of the Black Forest fire has begun to take shape. The fire, which raged for two weeks and killed two people, has yet to surpass the most expensive fire in Colorado history - last summer's Waldo Canyon fire remains the most costly, in terms of firefighting as well as insured damages. Thus far, the Black Forest fire has generated nearly $300 million in insurance claims. It also brought $116,308,348 of market value loss to area that was mostly dependent upon trees for its appeal.

Homeowners' reactions to properties destroyed by fire have been different - some have chosen to stay, others will likely leave. If a crown fire roared through a property, incinerating the trees from top to bottom, property value was instantly decreased by 30 percent, which accounts for the $29 million in tree damage, said El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman. But those homeowners will still have to pay taxes on their properties, regardless of how transfigured the land might be.

"That's kind of a shock for people," Lowderman said of the strange realization that rubble, black trees and soot are still worth something.

El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey expects a few homeowners to walk away from those totally burned parcels of land, rather than rebuild amid a literally black forest.

"We are worried about a lot of abandoned property," Hisey said last week. "We would probably just put a lien on the property and let it work its way through the regular tax and sale process."

But Hisey doesn't expect many of those scenarios; even if homeowners abandon their land, it will be of value to someone, he said.

"That property out there still has value. Even if it ends up in bank ownership, eventually someone will buy it," he added.

Since the fire's start, the estimates of homes destroyed have been in constant flux. Last week, the official El Paso County Sheriff's Office number of 511 was adjusted to 486 homes, a number that the assessor's office came up with using parcel data. On Tuesday, Lowderman updated that number to 488, issued with the caveat that it too could change over the coming months.

Unlike the Waldo Canyon fire, which destroyed 347 homes, the Black Forest fire raged through an eclectic, old community, a mixture of newer developments and older homes, some of which were simple homesteading cabins built nearly a century ago. The fire destroyed 464 single-family homes or duplexes, according to the assessor's office. It melted 24 mobile homes, and damaged one; it destroyed eight garages, destroyed one commercial building, the Black Forest Veterinary Clinic.

Many properties that were spared lost outbuildings; in many cases these were more than sheds. Homeowners lost historic barns, sheds, and some homes that had been sitting on their properties for decades, filled with antiques and family treasured collected over the years. Lowderman counted 188 destroyed outbuildings.

Although the Black Forest fire destroyed more homes than last summer's Waldo Canyon fire, the damage to Mountain Shadows was greater because the median home values were higher, Lowderman said.

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Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

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