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Wildfire

Amid the charred ruins of Colorado wildfires, a sense of community evolves with the rebuild

While those touched by the Marshall fire regroup and reimagine their future, previous disasters reveal how fire reshapes the natural and human landscapes

Carolyn Brown stands on the dock she built herself on a pond on her Black Forest property. Brown lost her home to the 2013 Black Forest fire but rebuilt in the same spot where she has lived since 1978. The pond is on adjacent property that she purchased from her previous neighbors who also lost their home in the fire. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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About this story: Sun staff writer Kevin Simpson wrote and compiled this account with contributions from Jason Blevins, Jennifer Brown, Tamara Chuang, Shannon Najmabadi and Olivia Prentzel.

Kiki Turner stood in front of the house where she grew up, now a pile of ashes in a scorched and flattened neighborhood. She could see for miles, past the foothills to majestic, snowcapped peaks. 

For a moment, the view filled her with awe — the neighborhood south of Harper Lake in Louisville, enclosed by mostly two-story homes, had never faced such a magnificent vista. But the sensation quickly subsided, leaving Turner feeling vulnerable and exposed. 

Her childhood home, now her mother’s house, had always been a protective place, surrounded by neighbors who watched out for each other’s children and even shared the pears that dropped from their trees. Neighbors planted tulips and poppies and sunflowers, and the oak tree in the Turners’ front yard had finally matured. Most of the neighborhood kids learned to ride their bikes in one quiet cul-de-sac, and garage doors left open signified an invitation for kids to come over and play. 

Together, Turner felt, they shared a pocket of splendid isolation from the world.

That’s all gone. The same flames that obliterated the Turners’ house also torched the tight sense of community that tied together residents as surely as the meandering streets and cul-de-sacs, the adjacent open space and trails where they mingled.

The Turners’ home in Louisville, before the Marshall fire and after, when their address was spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of a pile of ashes. (Provided by Kiki Turner)

Residents already have begun the process of determining what to rebuild and replace in the wake of last month’s Marshall fire, now officially the most destructive in the state’s history. But that intangible element  — community — that defined the neighborhood through a million shared experiences, large and small, doesn’t show up on the insurance inventories. 

As people sift through what’s left of their material possessions, they also face the uncertainty of wondering whether they can reclaim the essence of what they had before the flames destroyed their neighborhood. Survivors of other Colorado wildfires have found that the answer involves who stays, who leaves and who takes their place, but also that the calculus can be intertwined with the surroundings that give a community its sense of place.

The shared experience of a devastating wildfire can bind a community back together or even create community where it didn’t exist. 

Turner, 29, and her mother, Shelagh Turner, found a small, ceramic swan in their home’s sooty wreckage, a souvenir Shelagh bought in Nicaragua while she was in the Peace Corps in the 1980s. Its head was broken off. 

“We’re going to glue it together,” Kiki says. “Like that swan, we will glue our little neighborhood back together. We are all hoping to fill it up with life again.”

A swan with its head broken off lies in the ashes of what was the home of Louisville resident Shelagh Turner. The retired school teacher bought the swan in the 1980s while she was in the Peace Corps. (Provided by Kiki Turner)

For many who lost homes in the Marshall fire, that is their deepest wish — to rebuild their communities just as they were, with the same friends, dogs and kids on bicycles. Shelagh Turner, who is 64 and a retired middle school teacher, will rebuild on the same lot, even if it takes years, she says. She’s one of about 15 families in her section of the neighborhood who are part of a text group discussing how to rebuild their homes and contacting builders.

“Louisville is one of those towns where I can hardly go anywhere without running into somebody that I know, especially in my neighborhood,” she says. “How great is that? I see people and chat it up. It’s the relationships.”

Even on the day of the fire, it was community that saved her. Shelagh, who at first thought the brown cloud in the sky was a dust storm, hadn’t gotten an evacuation notice. Her neighbor phoned her: “We’ve got to get out of here! We’ve got 15 minutes!”

It took days to wash the fire smell out of her hair. She has stopped crying, or at least hopes she’s “finally run out of tears.” Now it’s time to get to work.

“I will not let the fire consume me,” she says.

“It was just too much”

Sometimes, the fire consumes you before you even realize it.

Schelly Olson, the assistant fire chief for the Grand Fire Protection District No. 1, could not watch the television Dec. 30 as news stations showed hundreds of homes engulfed by the Marshall fire. 

“It was just too much,” she says as she prepares to shut down her phone for an extended stay at a Florida program for first responders enduring post-traumatic stress disorder — the result of her brush with an earlier disaster. “Here it is a year later and I have got to get away and get some help. My entire life has been upside down for a year. It’s been so traumatic I can’t even explain it.”

Olson lost her Grand Lake home in the East Troublesome fire in late October 2020. Until the Marshall fire, East Troublesome ranked as the most destructive in state history. After a week of slow, smoldering movement through the Arapaho National Forest, high winds roused East Troublesome into an inferno that raced 20 miles in two days, charring 193,892 acres, destroying 589 homes and killing two residents. 

Olson and her husband did not rebuild. She’s still struggling with the loss, in part because it took so long for her to realize she was suffering from PTSD after spending months focused on helping her neighbors and community. She’s hoping that her time with the Shatterproof First Responders Program will help. 

“There is something about all the loss. It feels like I’ve suffered the death of a lifetime. It’s truly devastating,” she says. “So make sure people realize that and take care of each other, take care of yourselves and be patient with each other.”

Candace Cole and her husband lived in their 3-year-old dream home on five acres bordering national forest on the edge of Grand Lake. The glass artist had kilns in the garage and artwork framing glorious views. 

Grand Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Schelly Olson carries what was left of her Toyota Tundra truck — melted aluminum — at the site of her former home on May 13, 2021, in Grand Lake. The East Troublesome fire burned her truck, the two Jeeps inside the garage and her home in October 2020. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“It was spectacular,” she says, “and now it looks like the moon.” 

After the East Troublesome fire destroyed their property, contractors estimated it would cost at least $400,000 more than they spent in 2017 to rebuild. “Between the ugly and the cost, we just couldn’t do it,” says Cole, who now lives on “a wonderfully treeless lot” near Fort Collins “only 25 minutes from our grandbabies.”

While they lived in the high country, Cole and her husband developed close ties with about 10 couples. Seven of them moved away after the fire. Cole still feels the ache of that loss — the sense of a community dissolving.

“It’s different in Grand County than Boulder County, I think, because we didn’t live in that kind of dense neighborhood,” Cole says. “It’s so true for so many mountain communities. The community is the friendships you build and those connections.”

Cole sometimes wishes she had had the fortitude to sift through the ashes of her home. Maybe she could have saved the shelves from her kilns or the concrete statue that was next to her fireplace. She misses some stuff, but mostly she misses her groups of friends, which unwound after the fire. 

But when she goes back and visits Grand Lake, those remaining friends have built new connections. 

“It’s been hard for us not having that group but it’s been hard for people who decided to stay and rebuild,” she says. “What I saw is the camaraderie that comes with a disaster like that really helps rebuild that sense of community.”

Cash out or rebuild?

Just north of U.S. 36, the residents on West Enclave Circle in Louisville have grown close, says homeowner Christina Howe, who counts the neighbors on either side of her house and a few doors down as friends for more than 20 years. But all communities evolve, and this area was just starting to turn over with younger families moving in, she says. 

“Many of us raised their children together and have been going to Christmas parties together for years. And Easter — we always had an annual Easter egg hunt in the park,” Howe says. “I had pictures of my daughter or son (there) when they were young, and they’re off, married and gone.”

Christina Howe surveys the wreckage from the Marshall fire on Dec. 31, 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The relationships forged in the child-rearing years have held firm, and neighbors have been rallying, trying to support each other. In the immediate aftermath of wildfire destruction, survivors often bond amid the chaos, and that’s evident across the footprint of the Marshall fire. There’s a neighborhood email group where everyone compares notes as they confront the inevitable conundrum: Cash out or rebuild? 

In their 60s and 70s, Howe and her husband, David, are looking at their retirement years, and it would be understandable if they wanted to leave for an existing home rather than slog through the process of reconstructing one on the lot where they accrued so many fond memories. Sometimes financial considerations make the decision for you — “cashing out is a huge loss,” Howe says.

But she’s determined to rebuild, despite the time it will take.

“Home is people, and it’s place,” she says. “That’s our people and that’s our place.” 

She found a general contractor, Tom Wilpolt, with 30 years experience working in the area — in fact, a home he was building for someone else was burned in the fire. He’d been planning to decrease his workload, but instead agreed to help rebuild 10 of the lost homes in the area. 

Howe was caller No. 8. 

“It’s that type of community support,” she says. “This is a case where I don’t care how self-reliant you are. You have to depend on the community to support you.”

Bound by ponderosa pine

While people form the foundation of community, the landscape can provide the adhesive that binds them together. From the beginning, trees bound those who live in the Black Forest. 

The residents could be gregarious or reclusive or anywhere in between, but the rolling hills blanketed with thick ponderosa pine gave the area its distinct character and, for many, provided the foundation for a lifestyle. 

Then, in the summer of 2013, Black Forest burned. The fire consumed nearly 500 homes and more than 14,000 densely treed acres near Colorado Springs. In a note that with each new wildfire sounds more like a mantra, it ranked at the time as the most destructive wildfire in state history — supplanting the Waldo Canyon fire of a year earlier. 

The difference between a traditional subdivision — like those that burned in the Waldo Canyon and Marshall fires — and a forested area is reflected in a different mindset, says Bill Mantia, a 75-year-old resident who had lived in Black Forest for 23 years when wildfire consumed his home and stripped away the property’s peace and privacy. 

“What troubled me more than anything was the loss of the trees,” he explains. “But I think one of the reasons I stayed was because I was attached to the land.”

The fire destroyed the Mantia home within the first hour, and he and his wife escaped with the clothes on their backs plus a computer and a two-drawer file cabinet full of critical documents. Although they’d compiled a list of essentials as a lesson from Waldo Canyon, these flames chewed up the landscape too quickly for them to put it to use. Jewelry, photos, heirlooms — all gone.

Bill Mantia’s home stands in the background as he poses for a portrait on his 20-acre property in Black Forest north of Colorado Springs on Jan. 13. Mantia lost his home and thousands of trees in the 2013 Black Forest fire. Since rebuilding on the same site he has planted hundreds of pine trees that he has watered by hand. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On the same site, they rebuilt virtually the same 3,200-square-foot house. But the wooded acreage reduced to scattered, blackened matchsticks offered none of the natural beauty that had encouraged therapeutic dog walks through the forest. “Living in the black,” as some residents referred to living on this charred ground, Mantia felt suddenly naked and exposed.

Elements of community remained, but were transformed by the fire, for better or worse. To Mantia, the old community was a “funky area where you could have a really nice house and the property right next door might have a double-wide on it.” Strong threads of blue-collar America were woven through the forest.

But many people didn’t just build replacement homes. If insurance and personal finances permitted, they built bigger. Others sold, and the newcomers constructed places like the neighboring home Mantia calls a “hotel” — 10,000 square feet with an indoor pool and a six-car garage. He figures his place is now the smallest on his street.

“I mean, it’s money coming in here,” he says. “It’s more gentrified. Obviously, it’s not the forest anymore. We’ve got views of (Pikes) Peak that we never had because of the trees. People who come on the property say, ‘Well, what a great view.’ 

“And I say, ‘No, that’s unfortunate.’”

He has struggled with second-guessing about his efforts to restore trees lost to the fire, a never-ending task that, even in the best-case scenario, he could never live to fully appreciate.The mature ponderosa pine are gone, like old friends.

 If he had it all to do over again, would he still rebuild?

“At this point in time, I think I made the wrong call,” he says. “It’s just taking too much work. I mean, I’m 75 years old and I’m still dragging the hose up and down a hill to water the trees, eight years after the fire. And you know, I’ve only got so many years left.”

Patrick and Sue Hoeffel moved with their two boys to another nearby Black Forest enclave from the foothills town of Chapita Park because they needed more space and, as Sue notes, “we’re a bunch of introverts.” Before the fire, they didn’t even know the names of all their neighbors along the stretch of Wyandott Drive.

Sue and Patrick Hoeffel pose in their Black Forest home north of Colorado Springs on Jan. 13. The Hoeffels lost hundreds of trees and their home on five acres in the 2013 Black Forest fire. Once tucked in a dense forest, the Hoeffels now have a view of Pikes Peak. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Their experience with community expanded after — and largely as a result of — the trauma the family experienced. As the Hoeffels’ younger son, Sam, told his family recently, they were all thrust into a community they never wanted to be a part of.

“So I feel like what happened was there is now this community of people who understand, without having to speak a lot of words, what you’re going through and what you felt,” Sue says. “We did not have the experience of people moving in with a bunch of money and changing the tenor of the neighborhood. 

“We had some people leave, to be sure. But most of the neighbors stayed and rebuilt. And we have since actually gained some community that we didn’t have before.” 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Seventy-nine-year-old Carolyn Brown began thinning trees on the property she shared with her husband as a stress reducer while he was in treatment for cancer. She remained in their house after his death in 2010 and, when it burned to the ground three years later, never hesitated in her resolve to rebuild — and even used insurance money left over from construction to purchase 5 acres from a neighbor who left.

Unlike some others, she found that the wildfire experience revealed community almost immediately, as one couple that had been spared from the destruction quickly created a nonprofit, Black Forest Together, to help residents with a variety of needs. Volunteers stepped up with chippers and chain saws to clear charred trees. Brown, who continues to work on her property, also has become well known for her communitywide effort to dispose of slash from ongoing cleanup and fire mitigation. 

Carolyn Brown moves logs from felled trees on her Black Forest property on Jan. 12. Brown lost her home to the 2013 Black Forest fire but rebuilt in the same spot where she has lived since 1978. Brown cuts and hauls her firewood herself. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Some move out here because they like privacy,” she says. “I like privacy to some degree, but when you’re active, people know you. In that sense, the community has come back. Some were gone a year or two while their house was rebuilt, but I’m glad we’re back together to have our community continue.”

Pat and Sue Hoeffel built back smaller — part of what Pat describes as a decision, sparked by the fire experience, to substitute quality for quantity in every aspect of their lives. The day they were marking out the foundation for their new house, Pat suggested repositioning the footprint and angling it slightly.

The result was that, once they’d removed the charred trees, they could gaze out their windows at Pikes Peak. They counted themselves among the residents who chose to look at the new vista with grateful eyes.

“If you come to our neighborhood,” Sue Hoeffel says, “it looks like the houses are all genuflecting to Pikes Peak.”

From Mantia’s vantage point a short distance to the west on Holmes Road, the suddenly more expansive view may be similar, but the frame of reference differs. He was among the leaders of Black Forest Together and has worked with more than 500 families in the community — an effort that encompassed everything from financial assistance to putting up fencing to creating a low-cost program that transplanted healthy trees to properties within the burn scar.

Along the way, Mantia compiled a practical guide gleaned from the Black Forest experience that he has offered to other communities looking to organize a long-term response to wildfire. 

But after the tree transplant program ran out of donors and inventory, Black Forest Together held its board meeting in September and realized it had done just about everything it could. On the last day of 2021, Mantia sent in the paperwork to dissolve the nonprofit. 

“It’s probably time, eight years after the fire,” he says. “It’s probably time to close up shop.”

Burned trees remain standing on a property in Black Forest on Jan. 12, eight years after a wildfire tore through the area north of Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Drawn back to the community

Survivors of the Marshall fire have found that the community’s reflex to lend support can remain strong — even after some have moved away.

Dina Aweida spent 20 years living in the area that burned before moving to Broomfield recently. And there she was, just days after the fire, helping coordinate a donation site at Mudrock’s Tap and Tavern, a sports bar and restaurant in Louisville. 

Bar tables were filled with residents who had lost homes or come to extend help. A volunteer called out to the group at one point, telling them to listen up to get information about insurance and answers to “all those crazy weird things that everyone’s going through.”

Cases of water and boxes of Pampers were piled on the sidewalk outside Mudrock’s. A vacant store next door quickly became jammed with new shoes and clothes donated or purchased by volunteers — with beanies piled on one table, jackets hung on racks and splayed across nearly every flat surface.

Aweida, 49, says they used an empty commercial space she leases in Louisville as an overflow site for all the donated goods. 

“It’s a good problem to have,” she says. “We’ve been so blessed. We’ve been so amazingly blessed to have a very strong community.” 

Volunteers arrange donations of water, clothing, and household items on Jan. 3, 2022, at Mudrock’s Tap & Tavern in Louisville. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Aweida’s family has lived in the area since the 1960s, when four brothers — her father and uncles — immigrated from Palestine, promising their mother they’d live close to each other. They did well for themselves — Aweida’s uncle Jesse Aweida founded StorageTek, whose robotic data-storage innovations put Louisville on the high-tech map and for a long time was the city’s largest employer. Aweida remembers how easy it was to go from home to home when she was growing up, visiting cousins and other relatives in the Panorama Park neighborhood where many homes were lost. Each of the four brothers hosted one holiday gathering — Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas — at their home. 

Now, she barely recognizes parts of the community where she lived so much of her life. 

“It’s insane to realize my entire childhood is gone,” Aweida says. “This is my home. It’s my area. I just could not not help.” 

“It was the most valuable thing we had”

Nearly a decade has passed since the Waldo Canyon fire erupted in the foothills northwest of Colorado Springs — ultimately destroying 347 homes after barreling into the city — but Jonni McCoy still can’t light a candle in her house. 

Newscasts about wildfires racing through other parts of Colorado, though many miles from her home, still trigger anxiety and remind her of when she stood in her driveway and saw approaching flames only four houses away. Her house in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood was one of those destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire. 

“It was a matter of, ‘Run for your life!’” McCoy explains. She recalls “mayhem” as she fled toward safety, trying to navigate congested roads with people driving the wrong way as thick back smoke descended. 

It wasn’t until four hours later that she received a reverse 911 call from the county telling her to evacuate. In the days after the fire — which held the dubious title of worst ever for less than a year — McCoy leaned on her neighbors.  

“They were really the only ones who understood what it was like,” she says. “People really tried to be helpful but a lot of the efforts they made or comments they made were counterproductive at times. They want to help but they haven’t been there so they don’t really know what is needed.

“It was the most valuable thing we had — to have each other.”

Almost her entire neighborhood was wiped out by the fire, but nearly all of them rebuilt on their original lot. Through the rebuilding process, about 25 families on her street met regularly in a tradition that would extend for five years.

“It’s really special because during the whole rebuild and the year that we were apart as neighbors, we got together once a month for a potluck, swapped stories on rebuilding issues, insurance issues,” McCoy says. “It was really supportive and helpful.”

The nonprofit Colorado Springs Together opened The Center, a facility located right in the neighborhood where residents could stop in and ask questions, get help with insurance or FEMA, connect with contractors and more. It stayed open for at least a year after the fires. 

“They were constantly sending emails and knocking on doors and were proactive with the neighbors saying ‘Hey, are you OK? What do you need? How can we help?,” said Eddie Hurt, a resident whose home was damaged but not destroyed. He took over the Mountain Shadows Community Association a week after the fires because the president had lost her house.

“You’d be surprised when three weeks after the fire, we’d have somebody walk into the storefront and say, ‘I just heard about you. I lost my house. I don’t know what to do,’” Hurt says. “They’re just in shock. But it was shocking to us at times because how did they not know about it? But you’ve just lost everything so you’re not totally rational.”

Community worth protecting

Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann said she’s compartmentalized her mind to focus on rebuilding and helping people recover from the Marshall fire — or figuring out ways to “keep community members in the community.”  

Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann speaks at a press conference at the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office in Boulder, Colorado, on Jan. 2, 2022. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The impact of wildfire can pull residents in many different directions, and survivors of so many of Colorado’s fires have had to confront tough decisions. Stolzmann’s instinct leans toward restoring what existed before the fire, but she understands the pressures that drive some families to seek a fresh start somewhere new.

Every once in a while it hits her — “I’m standing next to my friend Julie’s house,” she says, as an example, “and it’s gone.” 

It’s hard for her to describe the community spirit in Louisville. It’s a place where people say hi to each other walking down the street, where neighbors brought groceries to each other’s homes during the pandemic. When Stolzmann was a council member, a resident called her — as their elected official — and asked for a ride to their colonoscopy.

That kind of community.

“We rely on each other. We talk to each other and we help each other,” she says. “That community spirit is going to get us through this. And that is also worth protecting and working for.”

Following the Marshall fire, many victims created GoFundMe accounts. The company has a vetted list here.


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