First home rebuilt, dozens more underway six months after Black Forest fire

By: matt steiner
December 10, 2013 Updated: December 11, 2013 at 4:25 pm
photo - A new home sits among burned trees off Brentwood Drive in Black Forest Tuesday, December 10, 2013, six months after the most destructive fire in Colorado history killed two people and destroyed 488 homes. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
A new home sits among burned trees off Brentwood Drive in Black Forest Tuesday, December 10, 2013, six months after the most destructive fire in Colorado history killed two people and destroyed 488 homes. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette  

Nate Dowden paused for a moment when asked about challenges his family has faced while trying to rebuild its home that was destroyed in the Black Forest fire.

Dowden almost answered the question but, overcome by emotion, had to pause one more time. He swallowed hard and gave his answer.

"The biggest challenge has been coming to terms with the loss and the radical change," said the 51-year-old engineer. "Everything that our kids knew was ripped to cinder."

Dowden, his wife Kim and their three children - Aidan, 13, Taryn, 11 and Brenna, 9 - were able to get only the foundation poured on their new home at 12850 Rusk Lane before cold weather and snow delayed their rebuilding.

Wednesday marks six months since the fire erupted in the forested community north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County. Before the fire was fully contained nine days later on June 20, more than 14,000 acres burned, two people died and 488 homes were destroyed.

This week, one family will move into the first rebuilt home as work on dozens of others proceed. Also, El Paso County commissioners on Tuesday adopted new fire codes, although they are not expected to have a significant impact on those rebuilding homes in Black Forest. Most of the changes were updates to outdated regulations.

Dowden's and his family's first task after clearing away the charred remains of the house they've called home since 2004 was to "reconcile loss and try to figure the vision moving forward," he said. Dowden said the goal was to figure out just how to plan their new home on their blackened 5-acre lot and "achieve an ascetic that we love."

"We believe we achieved that," he said.

The family meticulously oriented the new view to focus on what's left of the living forest.

"You can't avoid it," Dowden said of the burned trees that make up 80 percent of the woods on his land. "It took a lot of time."

Dowden is one of 90 property owners who have been issued permits to rebuild.

The first rebuilt home for a Black Forest fire victim was completed last week, Roger Lovell of the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department said. The homeowner did not want to be interviewed by The Gazette, but did say she planned to move in on Friday.

Lovell said he has been impressed with how fast homeowners have moved to rebuild after the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon fires.

"I think everybody has been aggressive about it," Lovell said. "From that standpoint, I think it's a success. It shows the tenacity of the people here."

During the first six months after the June 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, 80 permits were issued for rebuilds. There were 347 homes destroyed in that blaze, which burned more than 18,000 acres of public and private land in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. In the almost 18 months since that fire, 242 construction permits have been issued.

In contrast, only 29 construction permits were issued within six months of the 2012 High Park fire near Fort Collins.

The Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires are among the most costly disasters in the Rocky Mountain region. According to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, the Waldo Canyon fire is the third costliest with more than $453 million of insured loss. The Black Forest fire ranks sixth with just under $293 million in loss.

While winter weather slowed the Dowden family's reconstruction progress, the heated debate over proposed fire code changes in El Paso County over the last six months ended Tuesday. The Board of County Commissioners voted 5-0 to adopt the 2009 International Fire Code along with several amendments and resolutions suggested by multiple fire districts in the county. Among those submitting amendments were the Black Forest, Falcon, Tri-Lakes and Westcott departments.

County fire officials have pushed for updated codes for at least two years, but the drive picked up steam after June's catastrophic fire. The county was using guidelines from the 2003 International Fire Code.

Dowden was among multiple Black Forest residents who voiced their concerns at El Paso County commissioners work sessions over the last few months. They were worried about amendments that would have required costly restrictions on building materials, water flow rates and access for emergency responders.

Dowden and others said those requirements are needed in publicly accessed commercial buildings, but forcing private homeowners to adhere to such measures is a violation of private-property rights.

Dowden pointed to restrictions on exterior siding that would have eliminated the use of wood. His destroyed home was stucco, one of the proposed siding materials. His wood panel "tough shed," however, survived the blaze virtually untouched amid burning trees.

David Tyree spoke at the commissioners' meeting Tuesday. Tyree represented the American Wood Council, which advocates for the use of wood in construction projects. According to Tyree, the fire codes need to reflect performance standards and not specific materials. He said there are types of wood that outperform man "hardened" materials when it comes to flammability.

The final draft of the new fire code that the commissioners adopted eliminated an appendix that contained the restrictions in question on single-family homes. The board reserved the right, however, to establish Wildland Urban Interface codes for the county in the months to come. The commissioners aim to address that on March 20.

"We can't eliminate risk," Dowden said. "Nature will always say, 'I've got a different scenario for you."

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