Three years after the Black Forest fire burned more than 14,000 acres and destroyed nearly 500 homes, the skeletons of charred trees are a constant danger amidst a massive cleanup and mitigation effort aimed at being better prepared for the next wildfire.
"(The burn zone) still looks very much the same - a lot of burned, blackened trees still standing," said Donna Arkowski, the volunteer coordinator for Black Forest Together, a nonprofit created shortly after the August 2013 fire. "Many of them are starting to break off at the top if there's a lot of wind ... they're fracturing easily, which makes it dangerous for anybody who goes up and tries to cut a tree. You put a saw on the tree, and the vibrations may cause parts of the tree to come hurtling down on you."
Lori Trechter, a grant writer for Black Forest Together, recently had three blackened trees fall on her property in the Black Forest area. In the years since the fire, some of the burned trees have become fragile, she said - now, "they're just kind of snapping in half."
"They really do pose a danger," Trechter said, adding that not only do blackened trees fall, but they can burn again.
This year, more than 1,000 Black Forest Together volunteers worked on more than 70 projects for a total of more than 4,000 hours, which included clearing more than 170 acres of land, Trechter said.
Since the organization's inception, volunteers have put in more than 40,000 hours.
The volunteers' duties include cutting down trees or sawing off limbs, chipping the wood and hauling it all away.
But in addition to cleanup, the volunteers work on erosion problems that come with clearing away trees and shrubbery, Arkowski said. They also plant seedlings "to help green up the forest," Trechter said.
Since 2014, the organization has offered more than 22,000 seedlings for reforestation efforts, co-founder Eddie Bracken told The Gazette in August.
"Even three years after the fire, there's still a lot of work that is being done here in the community," Trechter said. But volunteer interest has been declining, Arkowski said.
"A lot of the volunteers are not that interested anymore, or they've got other things to do," she said. "It's kind of slowed down the progress."
The greatest impact is made when large groups, like the Air Force Academy cadets, come out for recurring volunteer opportunities, she said.
"Those are good days when we can get those groups of young people in here, because they are so strong and energetic," Arkowski said.
As the work continues, the organization's funding comes from a variety of sources, including state grants.
In January 2016, the nonprofit received more than $30,000 from the Pikes Peak Community Foundation's emergency relief fund, which Trechter said helped "keep our doors open and keep (up) this good work that we've been able to accomplish in the forest this year."
The fund was created in 2013 "specifically in reaction to the Black Forest fire," said Nikki McComsey, the foundation's director of donor services and community leadership. In the future, it may be used to respond to other disasters in the Pikes Peak region.
The emergency fund isn't awarding as many grants as it did immediately after the fire, McComsey said. The largest number of grants were awarded in 2013 and 2014, when there were also more donations coming in from the community.
As volunteers and nonprofit leaders continue to work in the Black Forest community, Arkowski emphasized the enormous task they're faced with.
"There's the continuing disaster relief from the fire itself - there's still a lot of fire cleanup, and I would expect that would still go on for many, many years - but we have another ancillary type of activity, which is mitigation," Arkowski said. "And that type of work, essentially, can go on forever, because the forest always continues to grow and propagate new trees, and is always in need of mitigation somewhere to prevent the future fire."
For more information about Black Forest Together, visit blackforesttogether.org.
Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198
Facebook: Ellie Mulder