Updated: June 21, 2013 at 7:36 am
The monetary toll of the Black Forest fire became apparent Thursday as firefighters fully contained the blaze and homeowners moved back into the ashen Shoup Road corridor - where the fire hit hardest.
About $90 million worth of single-family homes, barns, sheds and other buildings burned to the ground during the Black Forest fire, according to a preliminary estimate Thursday by El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman.
That figure, however, "will rise significantly" in the coming weeks, Lowderman warned. It includes only the assessed value of the incinerated 509 homes and other buildings, but not the surrounding land and trees, which have yet to be assessed.
As a result, the preliminary cost offers just the tip of what could be a "devastating" hit to property values across Black Forest and the lifestyle that the wooded, rural area provided, Lowderman added.
The 14,280-acre blaze eclipsed last year's Waldo Canyon fire as the state's most destructive wildfire.
The toll on property values won't be known for weeks.
During that time, the Assessor's Office plans to evaluate nearly 2,400 parcels in Black Forest, including the 509 destroyed homes and 1,900 additional parcels that extend throughout the fire's burn area and its fringes, Lowderman said.
Based on what he's seen driving through the burn area, tree damage is significant - even on residential lots where houses were untouched, he said.
Trees are one of the major reasons people like living in the forest, along with multi-acre home sites, land zoned for horses and the opportunity to live away from the city in a tight-knit community where many people watch out for each other, Lowderman said.
But he expects to slash 30 percent from the property values of parcels where trees were torched. He'll cut 15 percent of the land value if only the lower portions of the trees were damaged, but the trees survived, he said.
For an area totaling $492.7 million worth of homes and other buildings and $349 million in land, the losses could run deep.
"I would think it stands to reason that if you have a parcel that was fully treed, and the trees were destroyed, that parcel is going to be far less marketable and have a much reduced market value due to the fire," Lowderman said.
Lowderman says trees are such a big part of Black Forest living that significant losses also could harm its character.
Trees weren't as big of a driving factor in drawing residents to Mountain Shadows, where the Waldo Canyon fire destroyed 347 homes in 2012, he said.
The $90 million preliminary figure is about one-fourth lower than the $121.5 million value of structures lost in last year's Waldo Canyon fire, Lowderman said.
Even though more structures burned in the Black Forest fire, the median value of homes in Mountain Shadows was greater than in Black Forest, he said.
Also, Mountain Shadows is a subdivision of suburban-style homes that didn't vary greatly from one lot to another. On the other hand, homes in Black Forest run the gamut from tiny log cabins and mobile homes, to contemporary suburban-style residences to seven-figure upscale properties.
"It's going to have an ongoing, devastating effect on both the lifestyle that was so desirable in the Black Forest as well as the subsequent salability and value of the properties that were affected," he said.
The Fourmile Canyon fire offers precedent for such dramatic drops in property value.
The blaze, which ignited in fall 2010 near Boulder, destroyed 169 houses while blackening 6,181 acres.
One year after the blaze, property values in the burn area dropped 53 percent, said Jerry Roberts, the Boulder County Assessor.
The area's financial recovery depends largely on how quickly the grasses, shrubs and trees return, Roberts said.
"It's amazing how five years later how people forget... and then the market picks up," Roberts said.
Some real estate agents also tempered Lowderman's view of what will happen to property values.
Black Forest areas to the south and west, where homes were relatively unscathed, will remain popular, said Black Forest resident Hank Poburka, a real estate agent with The Platinum Group Realtors and board chairman of the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors.
The fire's effect on property values also will depend on traditional factors: supply and demand, as well as location.
The number of properties listed for sale in recent months around the Pikes Peak region is at a 12-year low, and the area just lost 509 homes, he said.
With supply so tight, and demand strong because of low mortgage rates and an improving economy, many people who desire the Black Forest lifestyle still will want to live there, Poburka said.
"It's about the experience, it's about the wildlife, the trees, it's about the majesty, it's about the quiet, it's about the ability to have horses, it's about the ability to not have a neighbor next to you," he said.
The property values offered by an assessor's office serve only as a marker for property taxes. The price that a buyer pays for a home is usually different - and often higher - than the value that county assessors assign to properties.
Besides homeowner property values, the Black Forest firefighters who first battled the blaze might be among those hit financially.
An assessor's valuation matters most to the budgets of local fire, library and school districts - likely meaning deep cuts for the first fire protection district assigned to the blaze.
Eighty percent of the Black Forest fire burn area rests in the Black Forest Fire Protection District, which culls most of its $1.2 million budget from property taxes. The rest was in the Falcon Fire Protection District.
"Our mill levy will be impacted severely," said Chief Bob Harvey. "Some solution needs to be found."