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Black Forest residents return to scenes of destruction

June 19, 2013 Updated: June 19, 2013 at 9:03 am
photo - Bonnie Kruse reacts Tuesday, June 18, 2013 as she views her family's property that was in the path of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Of the six homes that Kruse and her family have in Black Forest, all but one was destroyed. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Bonnie Kruse reacts Tuesday, June 18, 2013 as she views her family's property that was in the path of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Of the six homes that Kruse and her family have in Black Forest, all but one was destroyed. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

One week after the Black Forest fire erupted, residents who knew their homes had been lost in the infamous "Shoup corridor" received what they most wanted - a chance to view the ashen rubble with their own eyes.

Many residents of the Black Forest fire's hardest hit areas returned home Tuesday - some to stay in smoky houses, many to do little more than poke at remnants of the homes.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office lifted mandatory evacuations in the Cathedral Pines neighborhood and everywhere east of Vollmer Road, an area that lost a few dozen homes.

Residents east of Black Forest Road also were allowed back to their properties - though only for a few hours to view the rubble. In doing so, the Pikes Peak region's newest wildfire refugees began to grieve.

"I just want to cry for all my friends and neighbors," said Steve Sullivan, his house intact beside one that burned.

Two groups of people streamed into the Black Forest fire burn scar Tuesday - those who still had homes and those who didn't.

Robby Dale Nelson's dog jumped out of her garage the moment she arrived home on Hardin Road, a street where three of 28 houses burned.

"She still got food; she still got water," Nelson said, smiling wide. "She had it made."

Jeremy Beach returned to a moonscape.

All the houses on his block of Shadow Lawn were gone - just ash and the gray bones of burned cars remain.

"I've never been in a war zone, but I imagine this is what napalm looks like," Beach said. "There is just nothing left."

Wind-whipped ash flurried across the road. The smell of smoke hung in the air.

The fire burned hot in the Brentwood neighborhood. The top floor of Beach's house collapsed into the bottom. The windows melted. Only the concrete walls remained.

In the ash piles lay hunks of metal that, like the neighborhood, were odd and out of place: The coiled tape of a tape measure, the head of a hammer, the barrel of a gun, the frame of a trash can.

The decisions the fire made as it tore through the neighborhood perplexed everyone.

A trash can put out at the curb sat untouched. A nearby "fireproof" gun safe was melted through. An RV was reduced to a stinking metal frame, but the flower pots of cucumber seedlings a few steps away put out their first tender leaves.

"It makes no sense," said Don Burton, who lost the RV that was parked at his son's house.

Rex Wimberly, Beach's father-in-law, squatted in what had been the garage and pulled out a porcelain doll, then another and another. They ranged in age from a cherub-cheeked tot to an elegant woman in a wedding dress.

"We got these for my daughter every year on her birthday," he said. He arranged them in a row, some broken, some melted, one with a graduation gown fine but for a blackened cheek.

Wimberly stood, looking at the dolls and the house in silence.

His daughter, Kelly Beach, was scheduled to be induced to deliver twins Wednesday morning. He clapped the ash off his hands and shook his head.

"I don't know where you even start," Wimberly said.

The newly homeless started slow.

At an American Red Cross center near Vollmer and Hardin roads, Salvation Army volunteers served dinner around 5 p.m. while Red Cross workers offered counseling.

Home Depot employees unloaded residents' first new pieces of property: 1,000 buckets, 2,000 dust masks and 600 sifters, as well as gloves, shovels, rakes and bottles of water.

Before those supplies arrived, the homeowners took more than 75 water quality test kits provided by El Paso County Public Health.

The dangers loomed overhead and below their feet.

Firefighters walked among the returning homeowners, sifting through ash on their property and putting out hot spots.

The recent rain provided a Catch-22 - it has helped to dampen some hot spots, but it also helped to unearth more, said Greg Toll, wildland division chief for Boulder Fire-Rescue, which patrolled Hardin Road.

"If you get enough of it (rain), it's a good thing," Toll said. "If we keep getting five to 10 minutes of it, it knocks off the top layer of ash."

Across this charcoal landscape, subtle signs emerged of neighbors banding together.

And in those moments, homeowners took their first steps to recovering from the state's most destructive wildfire.

On Porcupine Lane, three couples returned home - two to houses, one to rubble. They counted their losses: A hay shed and a machine shop filled with mills, lathes - "you name it."

"I'm retiring," said Paul Van Slyke, who housed his business in that shop. "I was going to retire next year. But now, that's made up my mind for me."

They reveled in the things that survived: 21 chickens, each other.

"It's the spirit of the forest that's going to keep this place alive," said Lisa Sullivan, whose home emerged from the smoke intact.

Ed Dilley began by counting his losses.

He wandered among burned cranes, forklifts and trucks pointing at warped metal, melted plastic and charred pipes. His son estimated losses into six figures.

At least half the machinery, used for his Rapid Erectors business, wasn't insured - with business slow, he decided against paying the premiums.

That lack of business might have saved his house.

He spent more time trimming tree limbs several feet off the ground - creating 30 feet of defensible space around his home.

And on Tuesday, in the middle of the blackness, his house sat untouched by the fire.

"We did that because we were slow and were looking for stuff to do," his son Travis Dilley said.

Dick Hoffmann, 75, grieved without tears.

He stood at a place he'd called home for 36 years, smelling gunpowder in the air. He pointed to a monstrous tree in the front yard - its thick, black tendril limbs now deceivingly brittle. His daughter once used it to anchor a swing.

There, in a crater where his house once stood, were a refrigerator and a stove. A cement block signified all that remained of a deck he built nine days ago.

"I haven't even gotten the bill yet for the lumber," Hoffmann said. Seven days ago, he'd hiked into the evacuation zone to rescue his horses and walked them to safety.

Small puffs of dust rose with each step as a man approached from the west. He wore a blaze-orange vest, and introduced himself as a Red Cross counselor. He came armed with two bottles of water and a Clif Bar.

"Please don't get mad at us," Mike Baker said. "We're going to check on you a bunch of times."

They talked about the basics, the dangers of brittle "widow-maker" branches overhead and the need to stay hydrated, to eat. Baker talked of the need for patience - of the upcoming onslaught of "rubberneckers" and "looky-loos" who will soon roam these roads.

Hoffmann chuckled. He needed a sign reading, "Trespassers will be shot." They laughed.

"I'm just a joker, and I'm just joking a lot more than I did before the whole place burned down," he said. "That's, I guess, my defense - or my age too.

"I joke about everything. And I cry, of course. By myself."

Baker leaned in. Hoffmann wanted to rebuild right here, right on top of that cinder hole in the ground. He wanted to do it soon.

It doesn't work that way, Baker said.

"You gotta pace yourself to do it," Baker said.

All that loss, all that grief. Interrupted at the oddest times by soft laughter.

Two miles to the east, Jeremy Beach also ambled around, shifting the wreckage with his toe and clutching a small ladybug teapot he had rescued.

All across the neighborhood, people did the same shuffle: slow, eyes to the ground, looking for their former things, not finding much.

"People can loot all they want, there is nothing left," said Burton with a hearty laugh. "I salvaged what I could. This is it." He held up two charred monkey wrenches.

Beach's neighbor pulled up. They hugged. There was some talk of rebuilding, but mostly talk of the vast destruction and the small things spared.

"Anything left?" he asked.

"Nothing," Beach said.

"Water beds didn't help, huh?"

Their laughs echoed through the charred trees.


Gazette reporter Matt Steiner contributed to this report.

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