Some High Park Fire residents staying through winter near burned out homes

Some High Park Fire residents staying through winter near burned out homes

18 November 2012

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USA–  LIVERMORE, Colo. — Two days after the High Park Fire roared through the 12th filing in Glacier View Meadows, PJ and Charles Maybury went shopping for a camper. It was Sunday and the RV dealerships were closed. But hunting for a temporary home helped ease the bitter loss the Mayburys suffered when the fire claimed their home on the southern edge of the Livermore subdivision.

Today, that 30-foot travel trailer sits in the middle of the Mayburys’ property, surrounded by blackened trees, flattened ground where neighbors’ homes once stood, and a landscape forever changed by the 87,000-acre lightning-sparked inferno that destroyed 259 homes, innumerable outbuildings and claimed one life.

The Mayburys and many families like them in Glacier View and the Rist and Poudre canyons plan to hunker down in campers, garages and other temporary dwellings on their burned properties to make it through the coming winter.

For those staying in the burn area, frigid temperatures, snow and bone-chilling wind will make an already isolated existence even more challenging.

Fueled by record drought, heat and fierce winds, the wildfire raged through Rist and Poudre canyons overnight June 9, displacing hundreds of canyon residents, killing Old Flowers Road resident Linda Steadman, and wiping out dozens of homes, businesses and a fire station. Unpredictable weather and winds spread the blaze in almost every direction, creating havoc for firefighters and spreading a thick, heavy smoke over Fort Collins.

While many Rist and Poudre canyon residents awaited word on their homes, hundreds more residents in Glacier View’s 9th, 10th and 12th filings were evacuated, but few believed the fire would ever jump the Poudre River and into this mountain subdivision 35 miles northwest of Fort Collins.

On June 22, windblown embers pushed the fire across the Poudre, lighting up the 12th filing and licking parts of the 9th in Glacier View Meadows before the wind changed direction to blow the fire east into the already burned Hewlett Gulch area, stopping the blaze cold. When all was said and done, 259 homes were reduced to rubble.

Some residents will never return; some will wait until spring to return to those subdivisions whose names are etched into our memories: Whale Rock, Stratton Park, Davis Ranch, Paradise Park, Deer Meadows, Redstone Canyon, Rist Canyon, Poudre Canyon, Poudre Park, Glacier View and more.

But as the disaster relief distribution center at Foothills Mall prepares to close Wednesday, there are some signs that life is returning to normal. For

The Mayburys, like many others, were underinsured, and can’t afford to walk away from the money they have invested in the property, PJ Maybury said. those displaced by the fire, it may be a new normal, but the sound of construction is a welcome sign that everything, eventually, will be OK again.

Though they talked about starting over elsewhere, “this is home,” she said. “The view has changed a little bit but the sun still comes up on the same side of the lot and goes down on the same side of the lot. And those mountains are still there.”

The gradual getting use to life on the blackened hillside is now the Mayburys’ lot. Things were going fine when they moved the trailer on to the property, until they tore out the foundation of their former home.

“I had to mourn the loss of that house all over again, PJ Maybury said. “We built the foundation ourselves, we poured the slab … it was like a final goodbye to the house.”

The fire brought neighbors closer as they shared their collective horror even as the loss of homes separated them geographically. “It’s so hard to describe, there is just such a deep, strong feeling that people have for each other that makes you want to stay,” PJ Maybury said. “I really, totally understand why people say they can’t do this again. It’s exhausting and things go wrong all over the place. But we have 10 years of roots in the community and this is where we want to be.”

Life in an RV has already proved challenging. The hot water line and gray water line have both frozen. They skirted the trailer and put a heater under it to keep the water lines thawed and they’ll keep them there until the garage is done and they can move the camper inside to keep it from getting as cold.

PJ isn’t worried about the isolation of living without neighbors for awhile. “If we had our way we would have bought a property way up the Prairie Divide that gets completely isolated. When we get snowed in for a week, it’s wonderful. It will be just more challenging if we’re in the camper.”

Like the Mayburys, Barbara and Leonard Jenkins used insurance money provided for living expenses to buy an RV. The 37-foot Snowbird, with electric fireplace, bedroom, bathroom, small living and dining room is comfortable enough to survive the winter in Glacier View. The DirecTV satellite dish is hooked up and a stereo system and flat-screen TV provide entertainment for the 70-something couple.

Looking out their front door, the Jenkinses see two houses inexplicably still standing near spots where the fire claimed homes in between. The field in front turned from black to iridescent green when the rain finally came, until the change of seasons eventually turned it brown. And the burned trees on their property still stand — they’re waiting to see if they come back by some miracle. “Nature may pull a shrewd one on us,” Leonard Jenkins said.

The Jenkins plan to rebuild, but it won’t be the geodesic dome they’ve lived in part-time for about 30 years. This will be a one-story ranch-style home to accommodate the couple and family that is taking the loss hard. “The loss of the house is in a way more severe for the kids — especially the grandkids and great grandkids — than it is to us,” Barbara Leonard said. “We were here before the house was and we’re here after the house. All the grandkids know is the house up here.”

Before the fire came, the Jenkinses packed up a grandmother’s clock, antique handmade quilts, family pictures and some dolls Barbara had accumulated. “There are a lot of things we wish we had, but we had it in our mind the fire wasn’t going to come. We didn’t think it was possible. We didn’t take a lot of things we would have liked to have had, but we are fine.”

Five months removed from the worst wildland fire in Northern Colorado history, only 17 percent of homeowners have formally begun the rebuilding process. As of Friday, 17 building permits are pending, 26 have been issued and two have received final approval, according to the Larimer County building department.

The low number isn’t unusual after such a disaster like this, said Suzanne Bassinger, Larimer County’s fire recovery manager.

“We’re only coming up on six months, it’s a very short time. People are just starting to take stock of what they want to do next and the insurance process takes awhile,” she said. “Before they know what they want to do they need to know what their resources are. And, many people haven’t gotten their settlements yet.”

Maybury knows some of her neighbors won’t ever come home. One never returned to even see what was left after the fire. It was just too painful, Maybury said.

Based on other wildland fires in Colorado, only about 30 percent of homeowners who lose a property end up rebuilding on the same site. Some buy elsewhere, leave the area or can’t afford to rebuild. “If we get up to 50 percent, that would be a good thing,” Bassinger said.

In the Whale Rock neighborhood in Rist Canyon, Terry Schmitz’s home is almost complete. He hopes to move in early next year. Five other homeowners have broken ground, he said.

Their perseverance and rugged individualism is just who these mountain people are, Schmitz said. “They get up everyday, keep their heads up, keep smiling and keep going. Rule No. 1 is never give up. Rule No. 2 is refer to rule No. 1.”

Mountain dwellers live there for a reason, Schmitz said. They are self-sufficient, like their solitude and won’t let a fire deter them. It will deter some, “but those are the people the mountains would have weeded out anyway,” Schmitz said.

Like Schmitz, Susan and Robert Lehman can’t imagine leaving the mountain and people they love. Their home, just around the corner from the Mayburys, was a complete loss and they had planned to spend the winter in a trailer. Then Susan Lehman started replacing the antiques she lost in the fire. “We couldn’t put all that in a trailer,” she said. So the couple rented a home in Glacier View, just a few miles from their home on Turkey Roost Drive.

This week, they staked out the footprint of their octagonal home — the same style, shape and size as their home of 20 years. Susan won’t be able to replace the 95 trees that burned in her backyard, but she is using some of the cedar trees for towel bars in the new place.

“It was an old-growth forest that burned … I can put in some little ones and then we won’t have to worry about a forest fire again,” said Lehman, an artist and photographer. Exhibiting a resiliency found in most fire victims, Lehman said: “What are you going to do? Go sit on a rock and cry? I would always rather look on the good side of life — I’d rather be happy than sad.”



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