Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Personal stories from the Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs

The Gazette - Published: June 13, 2013

Concern, fear, helplessness

They came to take a look, and what they saw just confirmed their fears - the fire had no intention of letting up

At the intersection of Route 83 and Old North Gate Road just after 7 a.m. Thursday, Steve and Sara Rempelos surveyed the heavy smoke wafting out of the burn zone. The Rempeloses were evacuated from a house near the intersection of Hogden Road and Steppler Road in Black Forest Wednesday evening.

Before they left, Steve Rempelos carved his own fire line with a tractor.

"I've lived here for 25 years and that spot up there is our community, our neighbors," he said. It wasn't until he saw fire coming over the hills that Rempelos decided it was time to leave.

As of Thursday morning, the two weren't sure what had happened to their home. What they did know, however, was that their expansive Black Forest property was in deep trouble. After an El Paso County deputy offered to escort them to their home to check on things, they figured it must be safe, for now.

For Sara Rempelos, the frustration was in feeling helpless.

"We are used to taking care of ourselves and taking care of our family," she said. "Having someone take of us is just - it's just not cool."

Mitigation work was futile

Janet Kuns Zimmerman and her husband, Mark, did everything they could to protect their Black Forest home of 20 years.

They belonged to a wildfire mitigation and recycling effort, the Black Forest Slash-Mulch Program. They removed trees and debris around their home to create a defensible space. They used mulch to stop erosion on their five acres of land.

An insurance company representative inspected the property and was impressed by their work.

During last summer's Waldo Canyon fire and the Hayman fire of 2002, they relocated valuables to a storage unit, just in case.

But Murphy's Law didn't care.

On Thursday morning, when the El Paso County Sheriff's Office released an update of properties affected by the Black Forest fire, the Zimmermans learned their house and most of their belongings, including thousands of dollars worth of artwork, were on the "total loss" list.

A few hours later, Janet Kuns Zimmerman said she was "bitter."

"We worked hard to mitigate our property, in a picture-perfect ponderosa pine forest. We should not have lost our property. It's gone because other people chose to not be responsible. The people around us wanted to leave their property natural. Part of being natural is a fire, and it happened," she said. "I'm very upset about it."

The Zimmermans may or may not rebuild.

"If our property is nothing but ash, we probably won't - we'll take the money to rebuild or buy elsewhere. It will never be the same, no matter what," Zimmerman said.

A neighborly parking lot

An entire parking lot filled with RVs. People sitting on lawn chairs in make-shift rest areas. Dogs pacing in cages covered with tarps to shade them. Countless drivers circling the parking lot, offering Black Forest evacuees water, food and words of encouragement.

That was the scene Thursday afternoon at the Falcon Walmart store.

Margie Burden, a Falcon resident, handed out water bottles from the bed of her truck.

"I just want to help out, it's the least I can do," she said.

The aisles between parked RVs were lined with drivers giving away bags of popcorn, homemade cookies and donuts.

Mark Kinner, whose house on Eastonville Road and Lariat Circle was intact to the best of his knowledge, is a retired Black Forest firefighter.

"People around here have been amazing, the restaurants nearby gave away free food, the community is really coming together," Kinner said.

He and his wife parked three RVs and four cages to hold their three German shepherds and four Japanese pinchers. A woman stopped to offer her 100-acre property south of town so his dogs could run free and play.

Accompanied by their moms, Kathy Dettman and Amanda Thibault, Jaiden, 8, Faith, 7, and Devin, 5, pushed a rolling cooler filled with frozen popsicles and water bottles.

"They're for kids like us because it's so hot," red-haired Devin said.

"We weren't evacuated," Dettman said. "But the kids learn how important it is to help others."

Kinner said he and his family planned to stay at the Walmart parking lot as long as necessary - that they felt comfortable and welcomed by everyone.

"Hopefully my house will be standing when I go back, but I have met so many people who have nothing left. My heart really goes out to them."

- By Debbie Kelley, Andrea Sinclair and Jesse Paul

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