COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – With remarkable speed, new homes are springing up among the charred and misshapen trees that dot hillsides and cul-de-sacs ravaged by the Waldo Canyon Fire one year ago.
Flames swooped from the foothills into the northwestern Colorado Springs subdivision of Mountain Shadows on June 26, 2012, destroying 347 homes and killing two people.
It was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history at the time, causing nearly $454 million in damage.
“Red like you have never seen before, hot like you have never felt before, and a sound like you have never heard before,” recalled Karla Heard-Price, whose home burned to the ground after her family and houseguests fled approaching flames.
Heard-Price and her husband didn’t return. But most of their former neighbors are rebuilding Mountain Shadows, determined to recreate their community, one nurtured by bonds strengthened by the disaster they endured together. They’re also reaching out to residents of nearby Black Forest, where a wildfire destroyed more than 500 homes and killed two people two weeks ago.
Nationwide statistics on how many people rebuild after a disaster are hard to come by. But the rate in Mountain Shadows appears to be high.
Seventy homes have been rebuilt and reoccupied, said Bob Cutter, president of Colorado Springs Together, a nonprofit formed to help Waldo victims recover. About 130 more are under construction.
“To have over 200 building permits – that is, in my experience, pretty amazing,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
One possible reason: Mountain Shadows is a traditional neighborhood of landscaped lawns and closely spaced homes that can be re-created relatively quickly.
Black Forest, a rural neighborhood several miles east of Mountain Shadows, will take much longer to recover. Its homes were scattered on large lots, and the fire turned broad expanses of forest into an other-worldly scene of ash and dead, blackened trees.
“People moved there for the view, for the trees,” Walker said.
Cutter and others estimate 20 to 25 percent of Mountain Shadows residents whose homes were destroyed won’t return.
“I just physically could not go back to that lot,” Heard-Price said. “You have experienced the goodness and the joy, and now it’s gone. A new season has begun.”
Returning residents are optimistic, even buoyant, as they talk about the reemergence of Mountain Shadows, spread across a rolling hillside overlooking Colorado Springs.
“I love living there,” said Debbie Zawacky, who is rebuilding her home after fire leveled it. “I’ve had that house over 20 years. I have a lot of good neighbors.”
Those neighbors pitched in to decide such details as where utilities will be laid. They got help from government officials who quickly approved permits to remove debris and rebuild. Colorado Springs Together made counselors available. Strangers helped residents sift through the ashes for remnants of possessions.
Without that help, “We wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are,” said Eddie Hurt, president of the Mountain Shadows Community Association. “This would be a blighted neighborhood.”
Heard-Price remains close friends with her former neighbors. She is a member of a group called the Wonderful Waldo Women, who meet for everything from grief counseling to tips on the best place to buy carpet.
“Food and drink and laugh and cry,” Heard-Price said. “No one can really understand that sense of emotion except for the people who have walked it with you.”
Hurt formed a men’s group, the Mountain Shadows Fighting & Drinking Club, which gathers at a local brewpub to talk – no agenda, and no formality.
“It’s being able to tell my story and having guys there who’ve been through the same thing,” Hurt said. The camaraderie makes it easier for men whose houses suffered relatively minor damage to talk with those who lost everything, without awkwardness or survivor’s guilt.
Authorities say the Waldo Canyon Fire was human-caused but have not concluded whether it was accidental.
The Black Forest Fire, which erupted June 18, has surpassed Waldo Canyon as the most destructive in state history, though the dollar damage hasn’t been calculated. Authorities believe it also was human-caused but are still investigating.
Mountain Shadows residents offered to guide Black Forest victims through the process. Colorado Springs Together wants to match mentors with Black Forest residents who request them. The Wonderful Waldo Women are offering support to Black Forest women.
“We’re sisters of the fire,” Heard-Price said.
A long-planned commemoration of the Waldo Canyon Fire anniversary at a Mountain Shadows park Wednesday was broadened to include the Black Forest Fire and a remembrance of the victims from each blaze.
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– By Dan Elliott, AP Writer
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