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Close-knit family upbeat despite loss

Among about a hundred people cheering on the shift of firefighters heading in for Sunday night on the Black Forest fire was the Wester family, who joked that their house is probably still burning.

"We had nothing else to do," said Chuck Wester, 52, in good spirits despite losing his home of 21 years in the fire that began Tuesday.

With 1,175 firefighters battling the blaze, a steady flow of personnel in firetrucks and other vehicles streamed in and out of the command center at Pine Creek High School, each one greeted with cheers from grateful area residents. The shift changed around 6 p.m.

The Wester family sported black t-shirts with a Colorado symbol around a flame and waved American flags.

Their home is near the intersection of Shoup and Vollmer roads. When the smoke appeared over the tree line, the family - absent Chuck who was out of town - immediately sprang to action. They saved all 13 of their cashmere goats, important documents, family photos and some mementos.

In all they had three hours of packing before a sheriff's deputy showed up with the "get out now" message.

Karla Wester, 52, said they would have left in good shape if they hadn't turned around to check on neighbors who they hadn't seen evacuate.

"We didn't mean to be late," she said, but in the end they were racing from the fire with their disabled neighbor safely along with them.

Wester's daughter, Sammy Ager, said that ever since the Hayman fire the family has kept important documents away from their Black Forest home and has been prepared for an evacuation - sometimes packing for false alarms.

Ager, 23, and her husband Matt Ager, 23, lost almost everything in the fire, including all of the presents from their recent wedding.

"We all have each other and we're a close family," Karla Wester said.

"And we have these t-shirts," offered Eric Wester, who rushed from his home in Colorado Springs with his wife to help his mother and sister evacuate.

'Concerned about the trees'

Yoli Smith's house on Vessey Circle was first labeled a partial loss but then disappeared from the damage assessment list. But seven other houses on her street are on the destroyed list.

"I don't know if it's because I'm in shock, or if it's because I have my friends and my family but I'm not worried about the house," Smith said as she helped her friend clean up the R&R Coffee Caf?on Black Forest Road. "I don't know if this makes sense but I'm more concerned about the trees."

Smith hasn't attempted to get back into her house since she and her 10-year-old daughter evacuated on Tuesday.

They had 15 minutes to get out and Smith said she managed to grab all the unimportant things and leave critical things like clothes.

From the caf? Smith could see the line of charred black trees on the other side of a valley.

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Cafe owner Ryan Wanner said he hopes to be open Monday to serve as a community center for evacuees. The small restaurant won't have food because almost everything was lost when the power was out for the past week.

In addition to residents waiting outside the restaurant for news of their homes, a steady stream of cars came to the checkpoint at Black Forest and Burgess roads either disappointed they couldn't get through to their homes. Other were simply trying to get a glimpse of the fire and the destruction.

Trying to look forward

The smoke was like fog coming through the trees as Chris Jackson sped out of Black Forest toward safety with two of her neighbor's children in her car.

Jackson lives near the intersection of Swan and Herring and while the map released by the El Paso County Sheriff's office says her house is standing, she isn't sure.

She and her husband have been staying in their RV since the frightful evacuation Tuesday afternoon when they got a reverse 911 call telling them to get out.

"We were running around like crazy," Jackson said. "I had no concept of how much time we had, but I thought their may be time to help someone else."

She drove to her neighbor's house who was rounding up animals for evacuation and offered to take her neighbor's sons out with her.

"You've got your stuff, after that you've got to let it go," she said.

Jackson and her husband couldn't get into their house Sunday but from the checkpoint on Black Forest Road they could see the burn scar of where the fire went through the forest.

Getting tears in her eyes Jackson said she's looking forward to the Black Forest parade and festival in August when the first responders go through and the standing ovation they will receive for all their hard work.

"I think we'll rebuild," Jackson said.

Back of the mind

Donald Spurr said about a third of the houses on his street, Vessey Road, in Black Forest were charred to the ground when he went in two days ago to get medication and find his cat.

"My house and my whole front yard are untouched," Spurr said Sunday while sitting along Black Forest Road at the closest point he could get to his house.

Spurr owns Black Forest Jewelry and has lived in the community for 38 years.

"It was always in the back of someone's mind that if a forest fire went through this area it would be devastating," Spurr said.

He is concerned about the homes of his customers that may not have been as fortunate as his. Spurr's cat was alive and well in the house, although traumatized, he said.

Meanwhile Sunday, areas that had been reopened northeast of the fire were busy with horse trailers snaking their way on dirt roads back to houses that the fire never reached.

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