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5:51 pm
Mon August 13, 2012

In Colorado Wildfires' Wake, Survivors Live In Limbo

Originally published on Mon July 1, 2013 4:10 pm

When the Waldo Canyon Fire roared over the hill behind the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colo., in June, nearly 350 homes were destroyed. The blaze reduced this affluent neighborhood at the foot of the mountains to rubble.

C.J. Moore's home on Mirror Lake Court was among the casualties. The inferno was so hot, her stone driveway exploded. Only a few blackened trees sway eerily in the wind where her home used to stand.

"That's my freezer curled up over there," Moore gestures. "Looks like it's just curled up. Under here is a furnace ... front door, completely melted."

Moore and her late husband built their home here in 1985 when he retired from the Fort Carson U.S. Army base. The fire also destroyed another home nearby that Moore inherited from her father-in-law.

And Moore is not alone. This summer, Colorado has found itself in the midst of its most destructive and expensive wildfire season in history. Large blazes have killed six people and destroyed more than 600 homes, and the property damage estimate is approaching $500 million. Many of the victims of the wildfire continue to live in limbo.

Picking Up, Finding Help

For her part, Moore plans to rebuild both houses. Even so, she says some things are simply irreplaceable.

"One of the things I thought about the other day was the flag that was over my late husband's casket," Moore says. "And I'm going, 'I can't replace that.' I mean, yeah, I can get another flag, but it wouldn't have served the same purpose. And you [think about it], and then tears well up."

Moore's insurance company is already replacing what can be replaced. Friends have given her dish towels and silverware. And she's slowly getting used to accepting the kindness of strangers.

"Most of us are the givers, you know?" Moore says. "We're big supporters of United Way, we're big supporters of different charities ... It's been real hard to accept charity."

Local nonprofits have stepped up to help, and many businesses are offering discounts for victims. All the replacing and rebuilding could actually create a mini-stimulus for local economies. But those gains might be tempered by the anticipated fallout the wildfires will have on Colorado tourism, an industry that brings in around $8 billion annually.

'Every Headwind,' Hitting At Once

The rafting and guiding company Rocky Mountain Adventures is based two hours north of Colorado Springs. Owner Ryan Barwick had to suspend rafting trips on the nearby Poudre River during the peak season in June, when the High Park Fire blackened more than 135 square miles in the region.

"A lot of us do live paycheck to paycheck," Barwick says. "And you know, when you're shut down for three weeks, you're a small business — we don't have that cushion to fall back on."

Even before the fire, Barwick says it was hard enough to sell whitewater trips, given the ongoing drought. But it's even harder now, he says, with the river a trickle of black sediment running off the canyons above.

"We've had rock slides, we've had mudslides, we've had black water — I mean, you name it, we've encountered it this year," he says. "It's pretty much every headwind that you fear at the beginning of each season, compiled all into one season."

Not Afraid To Move Back

Near Fort Collins, Colo., the High Park Fire destroyed 259 homes. At a recent meeting for victims of the fire, an organizer asked how many attendees were "feeling a sense of extreme hopelessness." Almost everyone in the room raised their hands.

Teresa Brown's rental house was destroyed in the fire. She didn't have renters' insurance, and says one of her biggest problems now is that she's not considered sufficiently low income to qualify for some kinds of aid.

So Brown has been hitting the local Salvation Army and every yard sale she can find. She may have even found a new rental, in the very same mountain canyon where her old house stood. Brown says she's not afraid to move back, despite what she's experienced.

"I feel like each part of the country really does have its own weather hazard," she says. "And you just choose which ones you like, and where you love to be."

To make it easier for fire victims to rebuild, at least one Colorado county has already begun waiving certain permits and fees. The federal government is also making loans available to those who lost everything.

Another federal disaster declaration is currently in the works. It would free up funds for wildfire mitigation in areas like the Colorado foothills, where new homes and cabins have proliferated in recent years.

Copyright 2013 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kunc.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to Colorado, which this summer has endured the most destructive and expensive wildfire season in history. Large blazes this year have destroyed more than 600 homes and killed six people. Property damage is approaching half a billion dollars. And many people are living in limbo as Kirk Siegler reports from member station KUNC.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A bulldozer scoops up ash and debris in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in Colorado Springs. When the Waldo Canyon fire roared over the hill behind it in June, nearly 350 houses were destroyed here, reducing this affluent neighborhood at the foot of the mountains to rubble.

C.J. MOORE: We're walking on the disintegrated driveway right now.

SIEGLER: The inferno was so hot, it exploded C.J. Moore's stone driveway. Today, only a few blackened trees sway eerily in the wind where her home used to stand on Mirror Lake Court.

MOORE: That's my freezer curled up over there. It looks like it's just curled up. Under here are furnace and things like that. Front door completely melted.

SIEGLER: Moore and her late husband built here in 1985 when he retired from the Fort Carson Army base. The fire also destroyed another home nearby she inherited from her father-in-law. Moore plans to rebuild both, but some things she'll never be able to replace.

MOORE: You know, one of the things I thought about the other day was the flag that was over my late husband's casket and I can't replace that. I mean, yeah. I can get another flag, but it wouldn't have served the same purpose and you go - and then tears well up.

SIEGLER: Moore's insurance company is already replacing what's replaceable. Friends have given her dish towels and silverware and she's getting used to accepting charity.

MOORE: Most of us are the givers. You know, we're big supporters of the United Way. We're big supporters of different charities and it's been real hard to accept charity.

SIEGLER: The local nonprofits have stepped up and many businesses are offering discounts for victims. All the replacing and rebuilding could create a mini stimulus to local economies, but that might be tampered by the expected fallout the wildfires will have on Colorado's $8 billion a year tourism industry.

RYAN BARWICK: And then we have that yellow...

SIEGLER: Two hours north of Colorado Springs is Rocky Mountain Adventures, a rafting and guiding company. During the peak season in June, owner Ryan Barwick had to suspend rafting trips on the nearby Poudre River when the high park fire blackened more than 135 square miles.

BARWICK: A lot of us deal with paycheck-to-paycheck and, you know, when you're shut down for three weeks, you know, your small businesses don't have that cushion to fall back on.

SIEGLER: Even before the fire, it was hard to sell white water trips during the drought. Barwick says it's even harder now when the river is a trickle of black sediment running off the canyons above.

BARWICK: We've had rock slides, we've had mud slides, we've had black water. I mean, you name it. We've encountered it this year. It's pretty much every headwind that you fear at the beginning of each season compiled all into one season.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'd like to see a show of hands. How many of you in this room are feeling extreme hopelessness?

SIEGLER: In this crowd at a recent Fort Collins meeting for fire victims is Teresa Brown. Her rental house was among the 259 homes destroyed. She didn't have renter's insurance.

TERESA BROWN: And the problem with me is that I'm not considered low enough income to get aid.

SIEGLER: So Brown has been hitting every yard sale she can find and the local Salvation Army. She may have even found a new rental in the very same mountain canyon where her old house stood. Moore isn't afraid to move back.

BROWN: Well, I feel like each part of the country really does have its own weather hazard and you just choose which ones you like and where you love to be.

SIEGLER: At least one county has already begun waiving certain permits and fees to make it easier for fire victims to rebuild. The federal government is also making loans available to those who lost everything. Another disaster declaration will free up funds for wildfire mitigation in areas such as the Colorado foothills, where new homes and cabins have proliferated in recent years.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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