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Rebuilding after disaster takes a community — and a streamlined process — say Coloradans who lost homes in Waldo Canyon fire

Fires destroyed 347 houses in 2012, but the Mountain Shadows community in Colorado Springs found ways to work with city officials, contractors and others to rebuild fast, and now offer help to Marshall fire victims.

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Within 24 hours of the devastating Waldo Canyon fire on a hot June day in 2012, a unique recovery team began to form that included the mayor, builders, contractors, insurers, private businesses, the utility company and residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

The nonprofit known as Colorado Springs Together worked through recovery from a fire that destroyed 347 homes west of the city. The first rebuilding permit was issued in about a month. Debris was cleared by September. And within a year, 90 houses were built, with another 100 under construction. The building process was streamlined, thanks to public and private groups working side by side. 

It was a different economy than today but some residents from Mountain Shadows, one of the most devastated neighborhoods in the Waldo Canyon fire, hope their experience can help victims of the Marshall fire that destroyed houses in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County. 

Carla Albers of Colorado Springs lost her home in the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012, which burned 18,247 acres and destroyed 347 homes. Like many other residents of Mountain Shadows, Albers decided to rebuild. “Initially, we didn’t know what was going to happen because the values of all the houses in the neighborhood were going to go clear down,” Albers said. “You can’t even imagine how horrible it is to do an inventory process. You spend hours and hours thinking about things you don’t have. But the thing that surprised me about the rebuild is how much help we got. It was very, very uplifting.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Carla Albers, who rebuilt her home and still lives in the Mountain Shadow subdivision, met with some residents from the Boulder area last week to share how she and her neighbors managed recovery.

“I have a fire photo album and I wanted to show them the pictures of what our house looked like after the fire before we drove around because what you’re seeing now, you won’t believe it,” Albers said. “Two years after the fire my brother was out here and he was like, ‘Really? There was a fire here?’ … It’s just an absolutely beautiful neighborhood with these new homes. You know, we didn’t have some of the challenges they’re going to have honestly, but hopefully it can come together like ours did.” 

Family members of Carla Albers are pictured inspecting damage and salvaging items from the Waldo Fire in 2012. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

In 2012, Colorado Springs home prices were near the bottom of the market after the Great Recession. Home builders were ready to build. And there wasn’t the same pandemic-related construction materials shortages, supply chain delays or labor scarcity that is battering some industries today. 

Nevertheless, there’s optimism that the more than 1,000 houses lost in the Marshall fire will be rebuilt. Strong housing demand in the Boulder County area means there’s value in housing and land, according to real estate industry watchers. But recovery won’t be as fast as Mountain Shadows. There’s a tangle of permits, codes, plans, building regulations and other steps in development to deal with. Homeowners are still figuring out insurance coverage and will be competing for resources with one other and the regular market. 

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“This is a two or three year process,” said Renee Zentz, CEO of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs. “Most people are grieving for so long before they even start the process. Can the industry handle this? Yes.”

Builders will step up and they must, said George Hess III, founder and chairman of Vantage Homes, which built many of the houses in Mountain Shadows — and rebuilt them again after the fires.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Hess said. “We just needed to figure out a way to make it happen. And that’s what’s been nice about this industry. I do believe you’ll find the builders will pitch in and find ways to help.”

Similar communities but different economic eras

Suburban upper middle-class neighborhoods with houses and cul-de-sacs combined with high winds and fast-moving fires could describe both the Waldo Canyon and Marshall fires.  

“It came in so fast,” said Hess, with Vantage Homes. “People got out of there with their car, maybe? Maybe their laptop or computer? But if you overlay the photos from Mountain Shadows to what happened in Louisville, it would look very similar.” 

A photo of the Waldo Fire of 2012 left a house standing on a block in Carla Albers’ neighborhood in northwest Colorado Springs. Albers documented the destruction and recovery in scrapbooks and uses the photos to show victims that recovery is possible. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Home prices had been declining but leveled off by 2012 so that helped folks have sufficient insurance coverage, recalled Eddie Hurt, who was president of the community association at the time and is a Realtor. But a lot of people went through the emotional process of wondering if they should leave.

“Within a week after the fire, you’re wondering, well, we don’t want to stay here. Everything’s burnt and we’re hearing it’s going to take forever for everything to be rebuilt or restored,” Hurt said. “It was so depressing. But you’re stuck because you can’t really sell your house because no one wants to buy a house in a burn zone. One of the things that was really neat about Colorado Springs Together was they got FEMA funding for mental health so they had psychologists (on-site) full time.”

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Since then, the Colorado real estate market has increased significantly in value. Both Colorado Springs and Boulder County communities saw double-digit housing price increases last year. The median sales price in Boulder County rose 23% by November from a year earlier. El Paso County gained 17.6%, according to Colorado Association of Realtors data.

Louisville was up 21.9%. Superior topped them all with a 45.2% growth in the median sales price, which Boulder Realtor Kelly Moye credits to the enormous popularity of the city and to new construction of townhomes in downtown Superior.

“The problem with the rebuild is that right now we have supply-chain issues and labor shortages. It’s just impossible to get a contractor to even remodel your kitchen, let alone build you a whole house,” said Moye, with Compass Real Estate. “When you look at that scenario, this is going to be a long time before these neighborhoods are going to recover.”

A Boulder Rural Fire Department firefighter approaches a burning home near Trail Ridge Road and Washington Avenue in Louisville, on Dec. 30, 2021. Driven by 110 mph winds, the Marshall fire ripped through Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, consuming 6,200 acres and destroying 991 buildings. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Even so, that’s not stopping the market demand even for this area, she said.

“I’ve already had — and it was (days ago when) the fire was still smoldering — clients calling and say, ‘Hey, we want to buy a lot over there. Is anyone not wanting to build and sell their lot? I’ll build a house there. Maybe I’ll get it cheap,’” Moye said. “I said, ‘Hold on. You’re way too soon.’ But there will be people who decide they don’t want to rebuild there. I’ve already talked to two homeowners who said we don’t plan to rebuild and will pay off the mortgage with the insurance money and take what’s left and do something else.” 

Demand for more housing was already growing before the pandemic even though the number of residential building permits has declined in Boulder County since 2018, said Brian Lewandowski, executive director of University of Colorado’s Business Research Division at the Leeds School of Business. That’s mostly due to limited land left to develop. 

“It felt like we were already operating at capacity,” Lewandowski said. “Wait times for materials, finding a contractor, the timeline has just been increased over the past couple of years as there’s been a shortage of labor and a shortage of materials.”

The number of residential building permits issued in Boulder County has been falling since 2018 as available land becomes scarcer and more expensive to develop. Permits have been around 1,500 though more than half of those are for multifamily projects. The data was provided by Brian R. Lewandowski with the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The value of residential building permits in Boulder County has been falling since 2018. But in 2021, it’s expected to increase even though the number of building permits continues to decline. Less land to develop at greater costs is the cause, according to Brian R. Lewandowski, with the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.

While the number of residential building permits have declined, the total values have grown. The average value of a building permit grew 35% last year to $328,000. Lewandowski said that’s due to the rising costs of construction and increase in materials cost. 

Adding 1,000 new homes in Boulder County is huge because it approves only about 500 a year, unlike in Colorado Springs, which issues about 4,000 to 5,000 single-family building permits a year. The Waldo Canyon fire destroyed about a the homes lost in the Marshall fire. But even in 2012, builders in Colorado Springs were at around 3,000 single-family building permits so building a couple hundred more wasn’t a big stretch. 

Building new houses after the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed 347 homes in 2012 provided business for local builders coming out of the Great Recession. Adding that many new homes in a year was just a small fraction of the number of building permits the city of Colorado Springs issued in those years. Since then, building permits for single family and multifamily dwellings have nearly tripled, according to data provided by Brian R. Lewandowski, with the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Over the past five years, only about 8% of permits in Boulder County, based on Census data, have been in Superior and Louisville,” Lewandowski said. “Most of the growth in Boulder County has been in places like Erie and Longmont, where they have the land to build. Louisville is a place that’s been fairly built out.” 

That’s not to say the houses destroyed by the Marshall fire won’t be built. Lewandowski believes there’ll be a spike in permits in Louisville and Superior this year. But it will take longer. Builders would have to prioritize fire victims over other planned projects. 

“It’s harder because it’s not a (new) development, where you have a single builder coming in and a cookie-cutter process where they have four to six floor plans, and they’re tackling dozens of houses a week,” he said. “These are all individuals and they have their own insurance that they’re working through. They have to find their own builders, their own architects, get their plans approved and then find a contractor.”

A “Faces of the Fire” photo gallery, created by photographer Wendy Pearce Nelson and journalist Liz Cobb in summer 2012, is located at El Paso County Department of Human Services to tell stories of victims affected by the Waldo Fire. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

For Beth Davidson, who also lost her home and decided to rebuild, it all worked out — from her State Farm insurance covering the entire bill of the new house to her family deciding to sell about three years ago.

“We had no financial worries at all. In fact, we almost came out ahead,” Davidson said. “We got what we were hoping for for that house. And when we moved, we were able to buy the house outright. So that was a good thing. No mortgage.”

Streamlining the system

Another difference facing Boulder County is that the Marshall fire was spread across several communities. Superior, Louisville and the county all have their own building requirements. Waldo Canyon homes were in one city.

That’s why it worked to have everyone at the same table in Colorado Springs, said Hurt, an active participant in Colorado Springs Together, which brought together officials, builders and contractors, residents and others.

Eddie Hurt saw damage to his home from the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012, which burned 18,247 acres and destroyed 347 homes near Colorado Springs. “People who had their homes damaged, or that came through fine — a lot of people kind of forget about them,” Hurt said. “There’s debris all around them. I just reached out to those people, needing essentially the mental health services, because you’re going through all the stressors. It’s a tough recovery … It’s a different recovery. It’s not the same recovery as those who lost their houses.” Hurt, who was president of the Mountain Shadow Community Association at the time, took the lead in helping his neighbors recover and rebuild. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“It was pretty amazing to sit at the table and we’d talk about the problems,” Hurt said. “Building (department officials) would say, ‘Well, right now, the way we deal with debris removal is you have to pull a permit for a wrecking permit. It’s a two-step process that typically takes so many days to get the first permit and then we come out and inspect and then it takes so many days before we can issue the next permit.’ And everyone’s like, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do that. We need to make it as easy as possible, but also make sure that the contractors are doing it the way it needs to be done so they don’t pollute the neighborhood and the rest of the city anymore.’”

As someone who decided to rebuild, Albers said that after making the decision, she remembered the permitting process was streamlined for the “fire people,” she said. One of her neighbors got their building permit in about 30 days of the fires.

“When our builder went in with our plans, he was like, ‘Boy, I’ve never had anything go through regional building that easily,’” Albers said.

It also helped to make the decision to rebuild quickly.

“It took us a while to figure it out because the foothills had burned so we were looking out on burn sticks. And (we were thinking) is the neighborhood value going to drop down? I mean, we just didn’t know at that point,” Albers said. “But we got on it really quickly. … Our fire was June 26, our foundation was dug around Thanksgiving. We moved back into our house on May 1.”

Carla Albers’ family and friends etched dozens of scriptures onto the wood framing while rebuilding their house after the Waldo Fire. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

A friend who used the same builder had to wait longer. By the time the builder was bidding on her friend’s project five months later, drywall and lumber prices had gone up. And one of the crews her builder normally uses was working on a different house.

“It helps if you could be at the forefront of all of that stuff,” Albers said. “There’s the actual materials, but then there’s the crews. So I think it’s going to be significantly harder to do that right now just because of those logistical reasons in terms of materials and then can you get the manpower.”

El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker, who worked as a deputy assessor during the Waldo Canyon fires, said his team visited each property and lowered assessed values on damaged homes by 25%, 50% and 75%, more for those destroyed. That helped ease the tax burden for victims waiting on insurance or repairs or what could be a years-long rebuild. 

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The state passed a law two years later that reimburses property taxes on properties damaged by natural causes.

Schleiker reached out to Boulder County Assessor Cynthia Braddock within days of the fire and shared his tips: Wait three weeks to mail information since some folks have not filed a change of address, keep track of properties with senior or disabled veterans property tax exemptions so those owners don’t have to restart the process, and keep track of the state statute that requires homeowners to rebuild destroyed properties within three years.

He had reached out to residents in the Black Forest fires as their three years neared an end and extended the exemption for another year or two by putting a value of $100 for improvements. That showed the property was still a work in progress. 

“You really want to pay attention to that because for a lot of the property owners, three years is not enough,” Schleiker said. “It’s one thing if you’re in a subdivision and you’re rebuilding, but if you’re in rural areas (like Black Forest), it took those folks a long time to rebuild because they had to remove all those burnt trees. And a lot went beyond the statutory requirement. But the last thing you need to do to somebody that lost their property is triple their taxes.”

A memorial is seen in Mountain Shadows Park in Colorado Springs. The Waldo Canyon Fire burned 18,247 acres and destroyed 347 homes. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Hess, with Vantage Homes, estimated that it took at least two months before his company started construction on the first home. He and other builders worked with the city and Colorado Springs Together to adjust to any new code changes. 

“In all probability, there are code changes,” Hess said. “As I recall, there are provisions in insurance policies that take into account code changes but at the end of the day, we found it necessary to work with our local jurisdiction to find compromises.”

Vantage rebuilt about 100 of the houses burned in Waldo and found that some residents just wanted the same exact house. That sped up the process for the builder though he doesn’t recommend it.

“We still had old master plans,” Hess said. “They weren’t current, but they were easy for us to get up to speed for rebuilding. So it wasn’t a redesign. … We had a number of people that wanted the same exact house, which I think is bad. It turns out to be emotionally bad for a few people.”

A memorial at Mountain Shadows Park signifies new beginnings; ‘the heart represents an old growth tree split, blackened and hollowed out by fire, yet, as a symbol of a strong heart, still reaching for the sky with a new growth of green.’ The Waldo Canyon Fire was the most destructive fire in Colorado until the Black Forest Fire in 2013, similarly near Colorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Zentz said this was an emotional lesson for all local home builders who are talking to customers who want to build the same exact house.  “People I talked to later said, ‘Do you know how hard it was to walk into my old house and not have my stuff?’” Zentz said. “I wish I would have recognized that, too.”

Beth Davidson, who lost her house, rebuilt the home though not exactly as before. But her next door neighbor and best friend never rebuilt and moved away after the fire. Her friend still owns the vacant lot next door to Davidson’s new home. Davidson moved away three years ago. 

“That empty lot, it just tore at my heart,” Davidson said.