Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Residents trying to recover their lives after Waldo Canyon fire

By Ryan Handy Published: June 23, 2013

A year after his home in the Parkside neighborhood was destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire, Jim Rottenborn is doing something he never really thought he'd do again: Relive the three days before his home burned to the ground.

The Black Forest fire has forced many Waldo Canyon fire survivors to think about how far they've come in a year, and what they can do to help. As a teacher, Rottenborn was asked to write a column of advice for the latest group of fire survivors, a larger group, who have months ahead of struggles that Rottenborn is just starting to put behind.

"That's our only fire, we were the victims," he said, of the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes and killed two people. "Now we're suddenly the veterans."

Not every Mountain Shadows resident feels like a veteran; many object to the term victim. What they are, a year later, is all over the map - some have moved on, rebuilt their homes or moved into new ones, while others haven't decided what they want to do. Still, Waldo Canyon fire survivors feel a bit prophetic.

"I think this has been a real hard time, we know what they are going to go through in the next year," said Judy Anderson, who lost her home on Ashton Park Place and later moved to Peregrine. "There are a lot of brave people. Yeah, we used to sound brave like that, too. We used to sound brave like that until we knew what was coming."

It was noon, on an unusually scorching late-June day, when the Waldo Canyon fire erupted in a big, billowing plume that towered over the west side of Colorado Springs.

Three days later thunderstorm winds pushed a shower of embers into Mountain Shadows. From across the city, people watched as the fire roared down the mountainside - some took pictures from Interstate 25, others took pictures from backyards that soon were met by flames. Hundreds of homes burned, and hundreds of others were filled with smoke and exposed to extreme heat for hours.

Bob Cutter, who soon became the president of the recovery nonprofit Colorado Springs Together, spent the next two days scouring the Internet, reading about fire recovery and coming up with a plan. Ultimately he did what he knew how to do - run a business, and create a supply chain and match it with a demand.

He figured Mountain Shadows' recovery would be done by April. They'd rally some builders, "plant some grass, and we'll be done," he thought. Instead, residents came to Cutter needing help with their phone companies, needing grief counseling, needing advice on insurance and smoke damage.

"It's rebuilding homes obviously, but it's also rebuilding community, the human sides of things that have been torn apart," he said. "It wasn't just physical rebuilding of the houses, you're rebuilding your life."

For Joe Boyd and his wife, Trish Nelson-Boyd, rebuilding life happened quickly. In November, the couple became the first to finish a new home in Mountain Shadows, after their Yankton Place home was destroyed. By mid-June, 68 homes had been rebuilt in Mountain Shadows, and many families had moved back. But there are those who couldn't return "home."

After the jarring experience of being displaced, returning to her destroyed home on Wilson Road sounded even more disquieting to Carol Lyn Lucas. The Lucas family's mailbox and two-front yard pine trees survived the fire that obliterated her home. It was like the family was "erased from the neighborhood," she said.

"We're not moving back in Mountain Shadows. It was too traumatic for us," Lucas said in November. "It was almost, how do you take 22 years and ever think that it's going to be whatever it was?"

She prefers to remember the home as it was - the home of her three sons, now young adults in their mid-twenties.

The Lucases bought land on Mesa Road, but things didn't go according to plan. By May, the Lucases were still working through insurance troubles and their new home was months overdue.

Things were different for those who returned home after the fire.

Mary Ann Collins, whose home on Ashton Park Place survived, watched all summer as her neighbors sifted through ashes. The neighborhood was split by the fire into the side of the street that survived the fire, and the side that didn't. A year later, Collins watched as the neighborhood re-emerged, this time in the form of newly stuccoed homes.

Around Christmas, Collins felt the pangs of survivors' guilt, fully aware that she had ornaments to hang while her neighbors did not. But by June, her survivors' guilt had faded, from exhaustion with her insurance, and after she watched her neighbors rebuild homes with the amenities that Collins always wanted.

"I wish the fire hadn't happened. I just feel it brought a lot of weird emotions. You've got certain parts of the neighborhood now that are totally different," she said in June, referring to the new homes. She misses the old Mountain Shadows. "I guess it was quaint before. Now it's so different."

Like the burn scar that provides a backdrop to Mountain Shadows, the neighborhood is growing back at different rates, with different stories.

Some Waldo Canyon survivors, like Kerri Olivier, have launched themselves into the Black Forest fire recovery. Olivier has been volunteering at the Disaster Assistance Center, helping homeowners chart their next steps with insurance. Judy Anderson and other women, who are part of a women's support group, have met to discuss what they can do to help Black Forest residents put together a similar cohort.

But Anderson also knows that some people aren't ready to help others recover, because they are still recovering themselves.

"We are also so spent that we don't have a lot of resiliency," she said. "So many people are still so depleted after going through the Waldo Canyon (fire) ... Some people are so depleted that they could give no hope to people."

The Black Forest fire has put Rottenborn, on the other hand, in a new place, one in which he actually does feel hope.

"We have all the answers to all the questions they have," he said of Waldo Canyon fire survivors. "It's so funny, I felt like I was completely helpless a week ago, now we can help people."

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