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Gazette Premium Content Black Forest residents with big losses take first steps toward recovery from wildfire

By Jakob Rodgers Updated: June 20, 2013 at 7:49 am

Eric Olson gazed at a pile of ash, mangled steel and cooled coal, envisioned a beautiful greenhouse and vowed action.

"This is the resurrection," Olson said.

As the somber drumbeat of residents filing into areas worst hit by the Black Forest fire continued Wednesday, homeowners and the newly homeless shifted their focus from viewing the devastation to recovering from it.

Eight Black Forest residents - including Olson's wife, Bonnie Olson - had pulled demolition permits by Wednesday evening to begin clearing their homes' rubbled remains.

The first two permits were issued Monday, six days after the fire erupted, said Bob Croft, with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department. By comparison, two and a half weeks passed before the first $30 permits were issued following the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire.

"There's a rugged individualism that's out there," El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen said. "There's a community, a collective community kind of mentality.

"And a hey - we're not going to wait for you guys, the government or anybody else," mentality as well.

The 2012 blaze previously ranked as the state's most destructive, destroying 347 homes. The Black Forest fire, which started June 11, has topped that figure - leveling 509 homes and partially damaging 18 more.

Officials upped containment of the 14,280-acre Black Forest fire to 95 percent Wednesday as costs for fighting the blaze reached $8.46 million.

Firefighters focused most of their efforts on mop-up work - finding and dousing hot spots across the burn area, often in residents' backyards. And they mingled more and more with returning homeowners.

It was busy day as the shift from firefighting to recovery continued. The last American Red Cross emergency shelter closed shortly after noon Wednesday. A new Public Health Convenience Center was to open Thursday, this one managed by El Paso County Public Health to offer tetanus shots and water quality test kits.

Already, the agency has administered nearly 300 tetanus shots to residents who soon will begin the painstaking process of sifting through rusty, metal-strewn wreckage, said Jill Law, the agency's director.

The last residents of the "Shoup corridor" - that area along and north of Shoup Road that was hit hardest by the blaze - were allowed to visit their homes, albeit for only three hours.

Some entered the burn scar with insurance adjustors by their side to take pictures of the rubble.

By early afternoon Wednesday, residents had filed at least 1,586 insurance claims as a result of the Black Forest fire. USAA registered the most claims, with 690. Farmers Insurance reported 469 claims, while American Family Insurance had 215 and State Farm had 212.

John Anthony walked along his two-and-a-half acre property on Jicarilla Drive, an Allstate agent snapping pictures all the while. He's leaning against rebuilding at that same spot. Who, he wonders, who would want to live in a charred field?

"I don't think there's a pine needle or a blade of grass on my whole 2 + acres," Anthony said. "It's like sand out there."

To help oversee the rebuilding process, El Paso County announced the formation of a Long Range Recovery Planning Committee for Black Forest. Elected officials from Washington D.C. and Denver, as well as seven community members, were invited to participate. An application process will be announced for residents to join, Lathen said. She expected the group to host its first meeting by the weekend.

The committee will look at every aspect of the rebuilding process, including land use codes. On Wednesday, she hesitated against a "knee jerk reaction."

"Let's not overreact in terms of code," Lathen said. "You just can't write policies to protect people in every situation... I don't want to overregulate this."

For his part, Olson vowed to rebuild that greenhouse, a true "piper's hut."

The last one housed plants, colorful horse halters hanging from the walls and a glycol system keeping it cool in the summer, warm in the winter. He wants to bring his grandchildren to that rebuilt shed off Shoup Road, west of Black Forest Road.

But he also voiced hesitation - at moving fast, at even rebuilding his house here. The first step came in simply laying eyes on the debris.

"The truth is my friend," said Olson, standing where one wall crashed onto his front porch. "This is the truth."

His lips pursed into a slight smile and he spoke without pause.

"Hey friend."

His feet sank a couple inches into the rubble filling his garage, each step bringing with it the sound of crunching fine china and glass. To the west lay three graves, each for a dog they once owned. Olson used to sit before those mounds. Now, his white plastic chair lay melted, not more than three inches tall. All that survived was a tent to the east, one filled with hay.

Ever the musician, he wants to host a concert at these ruins before deciding whether to live here again. He threw Uilleann pipes, "a fine fiddle" and speakers into his car before leaving on June 11.

He wants people to come here, to visit his ashen pile and to see what this fire did.

"I don't feel in a rush - I've got the rest of my life," said Olson, shaking his head at the thought of remorse. "I'm so, so fortunate to have lived here."

He turned north, and walked past trees turned charcoal, the ground occasionally sucking his foot into holes where roots burned to ash.

He fixed his eyes at one stump breathing wisps of smoke. He knelt down, placed his hands above it. Smiling, he imagined a campfire.

His wife spoke up.

"Do we tell them that's still burning?" she asked.

He stood up and continued his walk through the ash.

"I don't think that's going to make a difference," he said.

-

Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

Facebook Jakob Rodgers

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