Hundreds gather to commemorate first anniversary of firestorm in Mountain Shadows

By Ryan Handy Published: June 26, 2013 | 10:25 pm 0

If you closed your eyes in Mountain Shadows on Wednesday night, it was just like old times: The faint rhythms of the Flying W Wranglers drifted through the summer night, and the smell of barbeque wafted through the air.

But, once you opened your eyes the transformation of Mountain Shadows one year after the devastating Waldo Canyon fire was unmistakable. Row upon row of partially-built homes and burned trees silhouetted the horizon. Hundreds of residents gathered in Mountain Shadows Park to commemorate the passage of one year since the fire burned 347 homes and killed two people in the neighborhood. The Flying W Wranglers, now homeless, sang to the crowd, while Flying W Ranch owner Russ Wolfe sat in a foldout lawn chair in the front row. Last summer his family ranch was destroyed, and the forest around it burned beyond recognition. Joining the Wranglers to provide entertainment was the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, The Children's Chorale, and Mango Fan Django. Numerous local officials attended the event, as well as Jerri Marr, supervisor of the Pike and San Isabel National Forest, Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands. Marr and first responders received standing ovations.

The one year anniversary celebration, hosted by the non-profit Colorado Springs Together, was to be a celebration of the rebirth of Mountain Shadows, commemorating a year of success and strife for homeowners after the Waldo Canyon fire, the state's most destructive fire until three weeks ago. Instead, the Black Forest fire, which destroyed at least 511 homes and killed two people, has become a part of the recovery of Mountain Shadows, as those fire veterans begin to reach out to the newest fire victims. The mixing of the two was obvious on Wednesday night, with countless Black Forest fire t-shirts on the backs of many Mountain Shadows residents.

Mountain Shadows survivors from across the hillside neighborhood have struggled with how to recognize the anniversary, if at all. Some neighborhoods planned potlucks or barbeques; others attended the four-hour long celebration of Mountain Shadows' rebirth to get a taste of the pre-fire days, with a Flying W Ranch chuckwagon dinner and Flying W Wranglers songs.

The year anniversary offers plenty to celebrate; of the 347 homes destroyed by the fire, half are on track to be rebuilt. Many residents are moving back, into newly built homes, and are connecting deeply with their neighbors. But for some homeowners, the anniversary is a reminder of heartbreak.

For Barb Nickless, who lost her home in Parkside, Wednesday night's homecoming was bittersweet. Nickless and her family couldn't handle moving back to Mountain Shadows, and their old lot remains vacant. But the fire pulled her neighborhood together, and she still considers herself part of Mountain Shadows. But the neighborhood is "just not what it used to be," she said.

Fellow Parkside neighbors Roger and Elizabeth Ross felt a similar sentimental pang as they strolled through the crowd; their home survived, but their neighborhood was destroyed, and the year after the fire was hard for them, too.

"It's been a journey," Roger Ross said. The evening of was one of "mixed emotions," Elizabeth Ross added - there was much relief that things have changed, but the struggles of the previous year still cause pain.

For those who lost homes, Wednesday was a hard day, said Eddie Hurt, president of the Mountain Shadows Community Association. Carol Lyn Lucas, who lost her home on Wilson Road, woke up Wednesday morning knowing that she wouldn't make it through the day without crying. Nor could she make it to the commemoration event.

"I just don't feel like going. I knew a month ago that I wasn't gong to go to that," she said on Wednesday morning. "I just don't feel like being around community."

Lucas and her family are not returning to the neighborhood, although she, too, still feels a part of it. She has her own ways of coping - she helped created a woman's support group, and has even helped friends who lost their homes in the Black Forest fire. She planned to spend Wednesday night with family friends who also lost their home on Wilson Road; that family is moving back.

By noon on Wednesday, Lucas couldn't help but think of where she was a year ago. She was shopping, utterly ignorant that several hours later her house would be on fire.

"I had some tears this morning," she said. "I've never had anything where it's the one year anniversary of something traumatic, I'm reliving it."

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