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Fire scars begin to disappear as Colorado Springs neighborhood returns

September 7, 2013 Updated: September 8, 2013 at 9:54 pm
photo - Sandy and Julian Rivera decided to rebuild on Courtney Dr., but they moved up the hill and bought two lots. They recently moved into their new home in July. Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013 (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
Sandy and Julian Rivera decided to rebuild on Courtney Dr., but they moved up the hill and bought two lots. They recently moved into their new home in July. Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013 (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

It didn't take 20 years of raising children, new neighbors moving in and get-togethers to change the Courtney Drive neighborhood.

In 14 months, the community on the street, one of the most devastated in last summer's Waldo Canyon fire, was destroyed and remade.

On June 26, 2012, the fire incinerated 29 of the 32 homes on the block, dispersed families and neighbors and left the street mostly leveled and ash covered. But by Labor Day a summer later, the street was unrecognizable - in a good way. Fourteen of the destroyed homes have been rebuilt, and the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department has issued 22 permits for construction on the street.

A few homes are under construction, and a few lots remain vacant.

"It's looking great; I'd say that we are about 60 percent rebuilt," said Jonni McCoy, whose family moved back to the street in February. "It's looking like a neighborhood again, you're hearing kids playing, dogs barking. You just realize how happy you are to hear those sounds again."

For those who decided to move back, it was not an easy, or even logical, decision. Julian and Sandy Rivera, who lost their home at 2235, had to go through a grieving period of a few months before they could decide what to do. They eventually rebuilt, at 2390, and their new home now sits on two lots, one of which belonged to Michael and Gail Estes, who decided to move away.

Kerry Ann George, whose home at 2270 also burned, guessed that four to six families moved from Courtney Drive, never to return. Some changed cities; others just moved around the corner, where they could get bigger lots. At least three of the neighbors did what the Riveras did - bought lots of their absent neighbors to give themselves more room.

Lee and Betsy Benson and their daughters were the first to move back in early February, followed by the Georges and the McCoys, who moved back on the same day later that month. For months, living on Courtney Drive was a lonely existence, McCoy recalled - her neighbors on both sides were gone, and the only bustle on the street came from construction workers.

Moving back didn't mean that their troubles were entirely over, either.

"We are not totally broken," George said. "But it was not a fun process."

After a year recalling the trauma of a wildfire, grappling with insurance and making decisions on whether to rebuild, some people were pushed to the breaking point. For the McCoys, it was a robbery and vandalism of their unfinished home, which forced them to replace $2,000 of uninsured equipment. Throughout the winter, the McCoys were trying to get details of their house finished, a process that, "after 500 other problems," was frustrating to say the least, McCoy said.

"I tend to get really upset" by small things, McCoy said. Especially when she thinks, "Oh, my gosh, I can't believe one more thing went wrong!"

McCoy's neighbors, Julian and Sandy Rivera, who moved into their new home July 31, are in the same position. Life in their new home has been complicated by insurance deadlines, a late finish of their home and details that the builder, Majestic Custom Homes, has yet to attend to, they say. They are living in their new ranch-style home on a temporary certificate of occupancy - for how long, they are not sure.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Julian Rivera said.

Majestic Homes explained in an email to the Riveras that some items missing from the home were back-ordered, something that was out of its control.

The email also noted that the Riveras changed their minds about a few things and made several special requests.

The Riveras bought the Esteses' lot and as a tribute promised to build a gable of burned bricks taken from their and the Esteses' old homes. More than a year after the fire, the gable remains on the floor of the Riveras' garage, waiting for the builder to attach it to the front of the house.

When the year anniversary of the destruction of Waldo Canyon fire arrived June 26, time had run out for the Riveras.

They had been living on additional living expenses provided by their insurance company, Liberty Mutual. But, as with most insurance companies, those expenses expired one year to the day after the Riveras lost their home; the problem was, they had nowhere to go; their new home was not done, Rivera said.

"From the first part of June, they weren't halfway there," Rivera said of the builders. Construction began in fall 2012.

Through the charity Mercy's Gate, the family got enough money to live in a rental for another month, but by the end of July, they had to move into their unfinished home.

The Riveras' situation was anticipated by insurance advocates after the fire, and a new law, the Colorado Insurance Reform Act of 2013, was passed this spring that would extend the deadline for additional living expenses.

Now, under Colorado law, insurance companies are required to offer homeowners up to 24 months of additional living expenses if they want it, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

But like the Riveras, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fire survivors cannot reap that benefit of law - it is not retroactive, and it did not go into effect until July, after the Black Forest fire started. Walker suggests that homeowners appeal to insurance companies for extensions if they need them.

Regardless of their disparate experiences and frustrations, the neighbors who have returned to Courtney Drive are delighted to be back in their mostly rebuilt neighborhood. They continue to host monthly potlucks, where they swap rebuilding stories and enjoy seeing some neighbors who have moved away. Mountain Shadows no longer looks like the wasteland that it was last summer; for George, because of the direction her house faces, it's easy to ignore the charred hillsides to the west.

"We are not looking at the burn area all the time," she said.

The Georges have an open space behind their house that wasn't burned by the fire. "We have an advantage in that we are not constantly reminded."

Anticipating that most of the old neighborhood will be back by Christmas, the Courtney Drive neighbors are planning a holiday progressive dinner, and some of their children are planning to go caroling through the neighborhood.

"I think the holiday season this year will be really nice. Because last year we were all displaced," George said.

But this year, most of Courtney Drive will be back.

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