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Wildfire

Black Forest has rebuilt after the fire that gutted it. But is it at risk of being destroyed again?

After another brutal fire season, more Colorado communities are discovering the long road to recovery

A newly built home is visible behind burnt trees that have yet to be removed in Black Forest, on Aug. 8, 2018. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)
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BLACK FOREST — For more than five years after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, Bill Mantia methodically cleared the charred skeleton of a forest from what once was his 20-acre parcel of paradise.

Every day it went like this: Cut down a dead tree, saw it into smaller pieces, stack the wood, haul the pile away. Plant new seedlings that stand only half a chance of survival, sow wild grasses to thwart erosion, buy and install a smattering of larger trees to punctuate former woodlands turned into a denuded meadow.

Sometimes he hired people to help, but clearing burnt timber can cost as much as $10,000 an acre. So Mantia, 72 and a retired health care executive, mostly did the work himself. Even now, he still has one more acre to clear.

This is the firefighting that most people never see, the work that goes on long after flames go cold and slurry bombers return to their hangars — the work of making a scorched community home again. With more than 450,000 acres and hundreds of homes burned so far this year in Colorado, it is work that many across the state are only just beginning.

Bill Mantia, whose house burned in the Black Forest fire, has put together a template for disaster-struck communities that leads to a sustainable recovery effort.

“Every now and then I wonder whether that was the right decision or not, because there’s so much work involved,” Mantia says of his and his wife’s decision to rebuild after their home burned in the 2013 Black Forest fire. “It’s probably 10 more years of work after the five-year anniversary. You really have to be committed to the land to do something like this.”

The Black Forest fire destroyed nearly 500 homes — still a Colorado record — and forced a community of 13,000 people woven into a thick forest of ponderosa pine northeast of Colorado Springs to confront an existential question: In a state where annual, catastrophic wildfires have become the norm, can a place so dense with trees and homes be rebuilt and made safer at the same time?

Some residents, overwhelmed by the enormity of the loss and the daunting task of renewal, simply moved away after the fire. No, was their heartbroken answer.

But those who remained coalesced around a determined community group called Black Forest Together, which began in the days after the fire, tending to burned-out homeowners’ immediate needs. The group has organized chipper drives and hustled grant money to help homeowners clear dead trees or thin out living ones to guard against a future fire. It coordinated fire-risk assessments and worked with homeowners’ associations in Black Forest on neighborhood-wide mitigation campaigns.

Now it has transitioned into an approach it hopes will ensure the organization is financially viable into the future — taking donated live trees from lots needing to be thinned and selling them, at low cost, to rebuilding homeowners trying to reforest “the black.”

In many ways, the group’s efforts have made Black Forest a model for how to recover after a wildfire — one that Black Forest Together leaders, including Mantia, are working to bring to other fire-scarred communities. And, to experts, that work has undoubtedly made Black Forest much more prepared for a fire today.

“I think we’re better off now than we ever were before,” says Dave Root, a wildfire mitigation expert with the Colorado State Forest Service who has worked in the Black Forest area for decades.

Black Forest, though, is a different place now.

As residents moved out after the fire, newcomers moved in, and today the area is wealthier and has higher property values than before it burned. Large new homes dot the burn scar — making Black Forest Together’s efforts to win grants from charitable foundations for the area’s low-income residents harder because of the perception that Black Forest is a rich person’s community.

Development surrounding the forest has boomed, too, bringing even more density and even more congestion into areas of wildfire risk.

Some homeowners within Black Forest, lacking money or will, have not mitigated their properties. That is, they haven’t thinned trees and other potential fuel, leaving their parcels dangerously fire-prone and placing their neighbors at risk. Money from grants and government agencies has dwindled, with new fires taking precedence for scarce funds. Lots full of the blackened spikes of burned pines trees remain untouched by their owners.

And the land, itself, is different. The fire burned forests that were 150 years old and left behind blank patches hundreds of yards across that have been colonized by invasive weeds. It will take decades for trees to fill in those open spaces; in the meantime, long-time residents still grieve for the forest lost.

It all offers a cautionary note about how far neighborly togetherness and individual pluck can go in lifting a community from the ashes.

“People who are in a better emotional state with it say it’s just the new normal,” says Kenneth Clark, Black Forest Together’s forest director. “You gotta stop thinking about what it was. This is what it is, this is what we have.”

Bill Mantia rebuilt a log cabin-style shed on his property after the fire. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

The air here still smells like pine sap.

That, more than anything, encapsulates Black Forest’s enduring appeal. The office parks and Starbucks and traffic jams of Colorado Springs are just 10 minutes away, but in the forest they seem infinitely distant.

The few commercial strips are filled with quirky, locally owned shops. Every summer there is a community festival with outhouse races. Nowhere else in Colorado is it possible to live so deeply in the woods while being so close to the city.

For generations, Black Forest was the place people came to to escape the city. Homesteaders built honest-to-goodness log cabins. Residents earned a reputation for self-reliance and a strong sense of privacy. Even to this day, Black Forest remains unincorporated.

But, as Colorado Springs’ boundaries swelled, Black Forest found itself pulled into the city’s orbit. And, by the time of the fire, it had essentially become a particularly beautiful satellite community.

“We kind of changed into recreational suburbia,” says the state forest service’s Root.

For someone whose job it is to help homeowners prepare for wildfires, that presented a challenge. Root says residents were reluctant to cut any trees. They wanted thick curtains of timber between their homes and their neighbors’. They didn’t want their homes visible from the road.

The result, Root says, was that trees were so dense in some areas of Black Forest that it could be hard just to walk through them.

Dave Root, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

That’s mostly changed. After the fire, Root says interest in mitigation from homeowners’ associations and individual land owners soared. He spends most of his days now working on paperwork for neighborhoods wanting to earn the declaration of a Firewise community.

But changes in the community since the fire could test whether that interest continues.

Root says there’s no question in his mind that Black Forest and surrounding areas are more crowded now than they were before the fire. Census statistics aren’t conclusive.

In 2012, the year before the fire, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated that 13,607 people lived in Black Forest. That population estimate declined to about 12,900 after the fire, but, in 2016, the same survey estimated 13,506 people. No more recent numbers are available.

The makeup of the community changed dramatically in those roller coaster years. Some longtime residents left.

“If you drive anywhere, there’s a lot of homes they never rebuilt,” says Jim Rebitski, the assistant fire chief of Black Forest Fire Rescue. “We had people coming in (at the fire station) after the fire and saying, ‘I’m out of here, it’s too scary.’ So they packed up and moved into the city.”

The sudden availability in the real estate market, though, seduced newcomers who had always longed to live in the forest and could now snag open property on which to build their dream homes. That trend is evident in economic data.

Black Forest had for awhile been home to wealthy families — the median annual household income had swelled to $103,000 by 2010. But, after a brief downturn in median household income in 2014, following the fire, that figure has continued to rise — now topping $112,000 per year. If Black Forest were its own county, it would be the wealthiest in the state and one of the top-five wealthiest in the country.

A third of the households in Black Forest now make more than $150,000 per year, compared with a little over a quarter of households in the year before the fire. And the percent of Black Forest household making $50,000 per year or less has declined, from about 19 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2016.

The houses in Black Forest have gotten bigger and costlier, too.

The median home value now tops $450,000 — with nearly 40 percent of homes worth more than a half million dollars. (For all of El Paso County, the median home value is $227,000.) About a third of the homes in Black Forest have five or more bedrooms. And rent prices are running on average almost $500 more per month now than they were before the fire.

The trends also seem to be accelerating. More than 200 people moved into Black Forest between 2015 and 2016 alone, according to the American Community Survey estimates. And the influx is only expected to grow. As homes are rebuilt within the forest, Black Forest residents are also waging a legal battle to stop a proposed 212-lot development on the forest’s eastern fringes, something they say will add even more to the community’s crowding and wildfire risk.

“There’s a building boom going on out here,” Root says. “I don’t think memories of the fire — to the extent the new people are even aware of it — are deterring anyone from coming out here.”

The challenge with that, Root says, is that newcomers often don’t understand how much work it takes to maintain several acres of trees. People think that moving to Black Forest means putting away their lawnmower for good. Maybe it does, he says, but it also means picking up a chain saw and getting to work every weekend.

“That makes mowing the lawn look like child’s play,” Root says.

Meanwhile, the real estate listings drawing people to Black Forest barely mention the fire, if at all. Instead, they sell a vision of the forest as a place protected from the bustle of the city, with the trees as its security blanket.

“Nicely updated rancher nestled comfortably in the trees,” one ad for a home sold last year touted.

“Nestled in the trees and privacy of Black Forest,” gushed another, for a home rebuilt since the fire.

“Nestled on two acres,” declares another for a home currently for sale.

Nestled, indeed. In the photos, a tall ponderosa pine juts up through the house’s deck, its branches hanging over the home’s roof — an obvious fire risk.

A sign at the Black Forest slash/mulch pile, where homeowners bring removed trees to be shredded. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

It’s grueling work to reconstruct nirvana, especially when its return to mature beauty lies well beyond your lifetime.

The Black Forest fire, whose origin has never definitively been determined, scorched a relatively small swath — a little over 22 square miles. (By way of comparison, the 2002 Hayman fire burned almost 10 times as much land.) But a way of life changed for those whose properties stood in its path.

Stacks of charred logs appear in grassy meadows that once were thick with pine. Neighbors who lived in seclusion now awaken to shockingly unimpeded sightlines. Trailers, RVs and other temporary living quarters sit on open land, monuments to indecision or inadequate means to rebuild — or just stopgap measures while reconstruction proceeds slowly.

Since the fire, authorities largely have taken a lenient approach to temporary housing parked on burned-out property. Now, El Paso County has moved to take complaint-based enforcement action, though code enforcement supervisor Mindy Madden says her office is handling only six active cases. And half of those, she adds, are just waiting on permits to begin rebuilding.

The landscape now presents multiple challenges: protecting the still extensive, heavily wooded areas through mitigation, improving the community response to any future fires and trying — often in the face of stubborn opposition — to encourage more sustainable stewardship.

But for Linda Rollins, who works as a planning coordinator with Black Forest Together, and others, the fire also created an opportunity to become part of a community they’d long admired. Rollins and her husband bought a property on a once-wooded enclave where the house and about one-third of the trees burned.

“My cul-de-sac is all new folks who moved in,” Rollins says. “Some folks just did not want to (rebuild). My husband has wanted to live out here forever, and I finally caved and here we are.”

And that’s how she added a new word to her vocabulary: mitigation.

“That’s not a word I used to use,” Rollins says. “How to do a firebreak around your house is not something I’d considered. I was used to having a hydrant somewhere on my block.”

She’d never used a chain saw, either. Now, she has not only gained a skill, but an appreciation for the older, long-time residents who have reclaimed the forest themselves.

Take 76-year-old Carolyn Brown. During the stress of her husband’s two-year bout with cancer before his death in 2010, she started thinning the trees on their property, prompting a neighbor to dub her “the Mitigation Queen.”

“That was good therapy for me,” Brown says. “It’s good therapy to have something to keep you busy.”

It also turned out to be good practice. When Brown’s home burned, she never really considered not rebuilding. But there was a massive amount of work to be done, cutting down dead trees, hauling logs and moving slash. She did most of it herself — hundreds of trees on her own property, and then when she bought a departed neighbor’s land, another 500.

“I’m not afraid of work,” she says, “but let me tell you: If you ever have five pounds you just can’t seem to get rid of, you have something like this, and the weight just falls off of you. Last summer, I hauled my last load of slash out about the end of August. It was big celebration time.”

But while some residents doggedly chipped away at their property, others found reasons to leave the forest undisturbed. Some may be financially unable to shoulder the burden —  a problem Black Forest Together has sought to solve over the past five years.

“But there are people here that, for whatever reason, will not participate in mitigation,” says Mantia, vice president for operations on the Black Forest Together board. “Some are dogmatic about their insistence on being, quote-unquote, ‘independent.’ They don’t like direction. You’re just putting people in jeopardy when you don’t mitigate. That’s just selfish.”

Rebitski, of Black Forest Fire Rescue, says they’ve had calls from insurance companies asking if fire officials can force residents to mitigate. Homeowners, frustrated by neighbors who won’t pick up a chain saw, call with the same request. They all get the same response: We can give them recommendations, but we can’t make them do anything.

Those who have lost their trees, and the seclusion and privacy that make Black Forest so desirable, try to put the best face on their new circumstances. Some have adopted a saying: Before we had forest. But now we’ve got vistas!

From left to right, Bill Mantia’s home before, during and then rebuilt after the Black Forest fire.

Mantia is one whose seclusion gave way after the fire to an expansive view of the mountains. When he met with the insurance adjuster to talk about the loss of his house, he was asked a question: Do you want to see photos of your property ?He wasn’t sure he did, but ended up viewing them anyway.

“He showed me the satellite photographs,” Mantia recalls. “It was nothing but gray and black left. Like moonscape. Those were the first images I saw of the property.”

They bore no resemblance to the perfect setting that captivated him and his wife, Terri, when they bought in the early ‘90s, as the market ebbed during the savings and loan scandal. They would walk their dogs through the forest for exercise, but also for something bordering on therapy. For Mantia, a history buff, the surroundings spoke to him through the thick, ancient tree trunks and even a small, turn-of-the-century cabin built by one of the area’s original settlers.

His years-long mitigation efforts left their house well-protected from wildfire that might spread along the ground, as many do. But the structure was no match for what fire officials told him was likely an aerial assault of heavy, wind-blown embers.

“It was much more than losing your house and your possessions,” he says. “It was sort of like losing your identity. You felt naked standing there amongst all the char and ruin. It was an assault on your person. It was a deep wound.”

They were what many here term “living in the black.” Burned-out residents faced a haunting visual reminder every day. The lush green that drew them here had turned as dark as their moods.

Mantia wonders how much the emotional toll of the fire figured in residents’ decision to stay or go. His back-of-the-envelope math lays it out: about 500 homes destroyed, about 320 building permits issued. What about the other 170-odd homes? Why weren’t they rebuilt?

“I’m gonna speculate: No insurance, underinsured, didn’t want to deal with it from a psychological standpoint,” he figures. “But some of the people that had the resources to rebuild didn’t have the resources to deal with the black. So they rebuilt in the black, and every day they wake up and walk out of the house, they’re looking at black. And that’s depressing.”

A property line in Black Forest delineates between a homeowner who removed their blackened trees and one who didn’t. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

It’s also dangerous. Charred trees in their weakened condition have been falling for the past three years or so, nudged by wind and weather or just toppling on their own.

About a year after the fire, once he’d gotten a handle on his own property, Mantia started as a project manager with Black Forest Together, helping others to regain their footing and decide what to do with their property.

The experience has introduced him to hundreds of neighbors he might never have met. One in particular made a deep impression — the widow who buried her husband on the same day the fire reduced her home to ash. But she carried on, and rebuilt.

A spirit of persistence remains, encouraged by locals who have learned the hard lessons of disaster, applied themselves to preserving, protecting and reviving the forest and even passing their solutions on to other Colorado communities.

“After the first year, people forget about it, it’s not in the news cycle anymore, and unless you live in the community, you’re no longer of interest,” Mantia says. “Five years later, the question is: Haven’t you guys finished yet?

“Well, not quite.”

Rising Sun
Birds sit in burnt-out but still-standing trees in Black Forest on Aug. 8, 2018. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)