Rebuilding after Colo.’s most destructive wildfire
October 14, 2012
DENVER (AP) — A week after the Waldo Canyon fire roared through their hillside neighborhood, Joseph Boyd and Trish Nelson-Boyd returned to a five-bedroom home reduced to 18 inches of ash. A fireball with temperatures estimated at 2,000 degrees left little more than the twisted motors from their kitchen appliances. On that same spot today on Yankton Place — only three months later — stands a nearly completed stucco home scheduled for move-in Nov. 5, the first rebuilt house in the Waldo Canyon fire zone.
All around the building site, backhoes and other heavy construction equipment buzz and rumble — the stirrings of a community coming back to life much quicker than many might have imagined.
“We saw the horrific loss of the house that had all our memories in it,” said Joseph Boyd, standing in what soon will be his master bedroom. “Now, we’re anxious to start creating new memories here.”
While the Boyds rebuild, other homeowners in the wildfire-scarred Mountain Shadows neighborhood on the city’s west side remain in limbo, bound to the outcome of negotiations with insurance companies and lenders or their own soul-searching about whether to return.
Still, as of Friday, 27 permits had been issued for rebuilt homes.
The precise number of homes destroyed is in dispute because of discrepancies over whether two heavily damaged homes should be included. To date, the official number stands at 347; two people died in the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.
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Other communities, from Southern California to northern Colorado, have taken longer to rebuild.
But for a number of reasons — from sheer gumption and gentle neighborhood peer pressure to a cooperative building department and a history of good relations between building officials and local contractors — Mountain Shadows is rising again.
Contractors have helped devise permit rules and provided feedback on proposed stricter wildfire-mitigation regulations, part of an effort to craft reasonable but not over-burdensome rules, officials say.
“Our main concern was the welfare of our citizens,” said Bob Croft, deputy building official with Pikes Peak Regional Building, a quasi-governmental entity that provides plan review and inspections in El Paso County.
“With this unique tragedy, anything we can do to get lives back to some semblance of normal, we feel we owed that to them. Our main thing was we wanted people to be able to get permits as quickly as possible.”
— A clean start
Cleanup was an immediate concern at Mountain Shadows.
Rumors flew that some residents would walk away and leave their neighbors to live with blowing ash and holes in the ground.
And shellshocked victims — many spending time arguing with insurance companies — didn’t fully grasp the process.
GE Johnson Construction took the lead in educating property owners about debris removal. The local firm worked under the auspices of Colorado Springs Together, a nonprofit formed to help with recovery and financed mostly by local business donations.
Company president Jim Johnson said those involved in the effort pushed the building and health departments to be more flexible, helping develop a slightly modified, quicker debris-removal process.
“The debris-removal permit was kind of an invention of our team,” he said.
GE Johnson also demonstrated proper cleanup on two properties, inviting homeowners, insurance companies and contractors to watch the process. Insurance typically covers the cost, which runs from $3,000 to $20,000, depending on the house.
Not everyone was happy. Competing debris-removal companies protested that GE Johnson — which builds hospitals, schools and commercial buildings — was using political influence to profit.
“The free market is wonderful, but sometimes it’s not real pretty,” Johnson said. “I think people viewed our company as trying to get our way in and profit from this, which was not our intent, obviously. And I can guarantee you, we didn’t.”
Johnson said the company, working with subcontractors, hauled debris off about 80 sites and didn’t charge more than cost.
The city set an aggressive goal of having all debris removal permitted by Sept. 1 — later pushed back to Sept. 30.
Most have complied. Permits for ash and debris have been filed for all but a few of the destroyed properties, officials say. Code-enforcement officials will send additional notices to stragglers.
Other barriers to rebuilding were lowered. The planning department allowed some reviews that typically take two or three days to be done over the counter, said interim city planner Kyle Campbell.
Campbell, a civil engineer, was formerly board president of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, a trade association.
The only upgrades Pikes Peak Regional Building is requiring of rebuilding homeowners involve life-safety issues such as installing smoke detectors, carbon-monoxide detectors and proper handrails on staircases, said Croft, the building official.
No one, however, is exempt from the city’s 2003 ban on wood shingles — ruling out rebuilding with highly flammable cedar-shake roofs.
“Some people will say, ‘I should be able to build what I had before,'” said Colorado Springs City Council president Scott Hente, whose own home in Mountain Shadows was damaged. “But I don’t think that’s being responsible for the neighborhood.”
Croft drew a contrast to the pace of rebuilding at the Fourmile Canyon fire area in Boulder County, where two years later fewer than half of the people who lost their homes have filed permits to rebuild.
If El Paso County has a reputation for resisting constraints on growth, Boulder County is the opposite, with its growth boundary around the city of Boulder and efforts to reduce carbon footprints.
In Boulder County, fire-mitigation plans predated the 2010 wildfire that destroyed 169 homes — including regulations requiring defensible space and ignition-resistant building materials.
Homes rebuilt in the fire zone are required to be more energy-efficient, typically through more insulation, better windows and design, said Garry Sanfacon, the county’s fire-recovery manager.
Boulder County also speeded up the permitting process and waived a site- plan-review hurdle if rebuilt homes are the same size or less and in the same location, Sanfacon said.
Surveys found that insurance problems, including being underinsured, pose the largest obstacle to rebuilding, he said.
Other factors with Fourmile Canyon — steep slopes, remote location, second homes — set it apart from Mountain Shadows, he said.
“It’s apples and oranges,” Sanfacon said. “I don’t think you can compare them.”
Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey has proposed more stringent fire-mitigation rules for hillside neighborhoods. The City Council is scheduled to take up the issue this month.
Under the proposal, homes must be rebuilt with stucco, fiber-cement board or other noncombustible material; wood decks are prohibited; and trees must be planted farther away from homes.
The Fire Department is asking anyone rebuilding to sign a letter pledging to voluntarily follow the proposed standards. So far, everyone has agreed, said department spokeswoman Sunny Smaldino.
Some Mountain Shadows residents oppose the proposal, arguing that surviving homes won’t be held to those standards and nothing would stop an inferno on the scale of the Waldo Canyon fire.
“You hear little pockets of resistance because a lot of people typically don’t like government stepping in and saying, ‘You will do this,'” said Jim Boulton, a vice president with Classic Homes. “But it’s for the good of the masses, I think.”
One potential controversy looms: cedar fences.
Existing city code does not require permitting for fences that are 6 feet tall or shorter. Cedar fences were blamed for spreading the Waldo Canyon destruction, and nothing is stopping new ones from being built in the burn zone.
“I believe we need to do something,” said Hente, the City Council president. “Don’t ask what, because we don’t know the answer now.”
— Small business
On a winding road with sweeping views of the city, Jim Pepper steers his pickup past lots showing signs of life.
Piles of ash and concrete have been hauled away. Foundation holes are filled in with dirt. Landscape paper controls erosion and provides cover for future lawns.
“To me, this is a tribute to the small business,” said Pepper, chief building inspector with Pikes Peak Regional Building. “Small companies did this, all working in a free-market, competitive-bid system.”
Since the fire, Pepper has worked out of a construction trailer adorned with an American flag not far from the burn site, at the ready to answer questions from residents and contractors.
His initial charge was to make sure all contractors were licensed and pulling the proper permits, he said.
“There is always tragedy,” Pepper said. “It happens. But look at what it did, what positive it brought to our community. The construction industry is down. Some of these contractors were hurting. They had no jobs, nothing to do. If you take a positive swing to that, it’s a big boost.”
The Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs has played a central role in the rebuilding effort.
The association brought in an expert from California to help residents navigate insurance and put a moratorium on accepting new unlicensed or out-of-town members to protect consumers, said HBA president John Cassiani.
“I would guess because of HBA’s relationship with regional building, we were able to cut through red tape pretty quickly with the approach of trying to solve things, not, ‘HBA wants this,'” he said.
At the invitation of Lacey, the fire marshal, the HBA provided feedback on the proposed fire-mitigation regulations, said Joe Loidolt, an executive committee member and president of Classic Communities. He said the HBA had some minor complaints.
One proposal to require gutter shields was dropped for less burdensome metal flashing, toward the same goal of trying to keep roof material from igniting, Loidolt said.
Smaldino, the Fire Department spokeswoman, called the discussions a productive, collaborative effort.
Lloyd Burton, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs who studies wildfire mitigation, said it makes sense that different stakeholders would work together on rebuilding.
“When the public starts to get concerned is when they have legitimate reason to wonder who is being protected here,” Burton said. “Is there anything about trying to work proactively and positively with the industry that might be getting in the way of achieving public-safety goals?”
Officials in Colorado Springs say that is not a danger. Their relationship is not a cozy one but one of mutual respect, they say.
“Our buildings are built really, really well,” Pepper said. “We have great contractors and a highly qualified staff. I am not worried one bit about cutting any corners.”
Over on Yankton Place, Joseph Boyd and Trish Nelson-Boyd confess that one reason they moved forward quickly was to avoid any additional restrictions that city officials might impose on rebuilding.
Still, they happily agreed to follow the fire-mitigation standards that aren’t yet mandated.
“We don’t want to have to endure that again,” Nelson-Boyd said of the destruction.
Their close friends and next-door neighbors are selling their lot, too traumatized by television footage showing their home in flames.
“We are in a hurry,” Nelson-Boyd said. “We just want to go home.”