Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Southern Baptist disaster relief group to help clear debris in Black Forest

By Matt Steiner Published: June 25, 2013

When Dennis Belz got the word that Black Forest was on fire, he and six other Southern Baptist Convention Disaster relief volunteers were in Moore, Okla., helping clean up after a violent tornado.

It didn't take long, however, for the Colorado director for the organization to realize his help was needed at home.

"We were there three days and heard about the fire," said Belz who lives in Longmont. "So we just packed up and came back."

Belz and a growing team of volunteers from all over the country are using the First Baptist Church of Black Forest as a staging area for a relief effort that involves chainsaws, skid steers, backhoes, sifting tools and 150 workers in the coming days.

The Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief was formed in 1967 after hurricane Beulah struck the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas Coast. The organization of more than 90,000 volunteers springs into action to help victims of almost any kind of disaster.

Direct response coordinator Eddie Blackmon, who came from Georgia to help direct the the Black Forest fire operation, said the main goal for then next few weeks is to help landowners clear debris and get ready to rebuild. The focus is on people without insurance, but Blackmon said they will not walk away from the insured unless the insurance company insists.

It's too early to know exactly how many Black Forest residents are uninsured, but Roger Lovell, a deputy building official with the Regional Building Department, said lack of insurance is expected to be a problem within the forest community.

There are a "number of people" who don't have insurance, Lovell said last week during a tour of the burn area. Many Black Forest residents bought their properties or homes, paid off their mortgage or had no loans - all situations that do not require them to have insurance, Lovell said. Others simply couldn't afford insurance on outbuildings or cars, many of which were destroyed in the fire.

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies' Division of Insurance will assess the number of residents with insurance, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. From that list, it might be possible to determine how many Black Forest residents are uninsured, a crucial number when it comes to obtaining federal financial aid, Walker said.

Blackmon and Belz each said the cleanup work got a slow start while they struggled to make fire victims aware that their services were available. Belz and the first workers arrived in northern El Paso County within a week of the June 11 start of the blaze.

Belz initially spent some time at the county's Disaster Assistance Center on Garden of the Gods Road and used breakfasts at the R&R Coffee Cafe near the church to spread the word. Suddenly, jobs began piling up.

"And they're increasing daily," Belz said, noting that by early this week the organization had about 160 jobs ready for assessment.

Blackmon said the disaster relief group expected heavy equipment to arrive by Wednesday; the group also is working with El Paso County officials on guidelines for doing the work.

"There are people in there looking for help and needing help," Blackmon said. "But we really wanted to be respectful of the local government and do what they want us to do."

On Monday, two chainsaw crews began helping landowners clear hazard trees and six assessors were evaluating other homes to see how Belz's and Blackmon's group could help.

All Southern Baptist Convention workers go through rigorous background checks and extensive disaster training. Both Belz and Blackmon said that opened doors to partnerships with relief agencies such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

"We're just trying to show them that we care," Belz said.

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Gazette reporter Ryan Maye Handy contributed to this report.

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