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Fire victims hear from El Paso County officials about recovery

May 14, 2018 Updated: May 15, 2018 at 4:24 pm
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Tom Humiston (left) and others affected by Fire 117 attended an informational meeting with El Paso County Officials at Hanover Junior-Senior High School on Monday, May 14, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

TJ Lippert has spent $4,500 on hay for his cattle since the 117 fire destroyed about 95 percent of his ranch pasture about a month ago.

The fire also consumed about 3½ miles of his fence - worth $8,000 - and a pole barn on his 640-acre property off of Demmler Road, Lippert said.

But he considers himself lucky. He has insurance.

Lippert, 49, has spent nearly every day since the April 17-19 blaze trying to rebuild.

"My daughter graduated Friday from (the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs). Half the day I was fencing; the other half I went out to her graduation," he said Monday night, sitting in Hanover Junior-Senior High School after a meeting on fire recovery by El Paso County officials. "Saturday, all the family was in town. I spent half the day with the family, the other half fencing."

Dozens of people came to the meeting to hear from Assessor Steve Schleiker, commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. and Craig Dossey, executive director of planning and community development.

Lippert, like several others, planned to gather information at the meeting to bring back to friends and neighbors.

"A lot of the people that are gonna need this info, they're not gonna come to this meeting," he said.

The 117 fire in southern El Paso County caused $1.3 million in losses in the Hanover area, burning 18 homes and 21 barns, sheds and other buildings, Schleiker said in late April.

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Jake Bywater, left, with the help of friend Leonard Lasco, right, knocks down hot spots Wednesday, April 18, 2018, in the remains of his 30-foot by 60-foot pole barn that burned in the 117 Fire. Bywater spent the night and day fighting the fire and putting out hot spots. Bywater saved his home but lost the barn, school bus, four boats and the 100-year-old homestead that he and his wife, Kim, had restored. The fire burned 23 homes and about 41,000 acres. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

The fire burned about 42,795 acres - the county's most to date - but caused no deaths or severe injuries.

During the meeting, officials went over county regulations and tax information relevant to people whose properties burned.

County commissioners voted May 1 to suspend some provisions of its land use code to make rebuilding easier for people who lost structures in the 117 fire and the Carson Midway fire in March.

The temporary tweaks let residents live in recreational vehicles while they rebuild and let staff waive or reduce development application fees.

Residents also can rebuild "accessory structures," such as guest houses or sheds, before rebuilding their main homes.

Schleiker said his office sent a special notice of value last week to affected property owners. As he said earlier, they won't have to appeal their assessments by June 1, as they otherwise would.

Those affected by Fire 117 attended an informational meeting with El Paso County Officials on Monday, May 14, 2018. El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker talks to the residents during the meeting at Hanover Junior-Senior High School. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

And residents don't have to worry about their property being re-classified from residential to non-residential over the next few years, he said. The tax rate for vacant land is several times the tax rate for occupied land, he said.

Owners of agricultural land also won't lose that classification, he said.

"Guys, our thoughts and prayers have been with you ever since the middle of April when this fire started. And unfortunately, I have to say my office has gotten pretty good at damage assessment, which is nothing to brag about," Schleiker said.

He told the crowd he plans to work with property owners case by case.

"I'm still working with folks in Black Forest ..." he said, referring to the 14,280-acre blaze that burned nearly 500 homes in 2013.

Dale Oliver, 63, said he had hoped the information provided at the meeting would be more specific.

"They answered some of the questions we had," he said. "The problem was, it was just too much of a generalized meeting."

He lost a barn at his property off of Milne Road, and said he expects the recovery process to be slow.

His primary residence is in the Security-Widefield area.

"Right now, I don't know," he said. "I might just have to clear the property and leave the barn for years later when I’ve got the money to rebuild it, because I’ve got no insurance to cover it."

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Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198

Twitter: @lemarie

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