PHOTOS BY JESSE PAUL AND OTHERS COURTESY OF EXTERNAL SOURCES, RELEASED.
Danielle Silva watches the Black Forest community from her perch at Firehouse On The Run, a barbecue joint — which also doubles as a gas station and convenient store — that lies at the intersection of Shoup and Black Forest Roads.
Silva, 19, a resident of the forest who works at the restaurant-shop, has slowly seen her semi-rural home just northeast of the Colorado Springs city limits transform since wildfire scorched 22 square miles of the woods, taking with it nearly 500 homes and two lives.
“There’s a lot of sadness going around,” she said Sunday afternoon. “There’s also a lot of anger.”
Now, about six months after the last embers sizzled out, Black Forest is starting to rebuild. As homeowners with total losses weigh whether or not to rebuild where strong, tall ponderosas once loomed, those who made it out of the fire unscathed have less-fortunate neighbors trying to pick up the pieces.
Streets like Jicarilla Drive, where the two victims of the fire — Marc and Robin Herklotz, a married couple both in their early 50s — perished are now bare. Once thick in vegetation and decadent homes, these places are now charred reminders of Colorado’s most destructive wildfire ever.
On June 11 around 1 p.m., El Paso County dispatchers began receiving frantic reports of a large fire in the vicinity of Shoup Road and Highway 83 in Black Forest. With “red flag conditions,” including high winds, little humidity, and soaring summer heat, the blaze quickly bloomed into and out-of-control monster, consuming thousands of acres.
Hundreds of firefighters from around the west flooded to the Pikes Peak Region to the fight the fire, working around the clock to form fire lines that the relentless firestorm often jumped. After 10 days of thick smoke, tears, tensions, and the frantic evacuation of tens of thousands, the Black Forest fire was finally considered 100 percent contained.
Now, the forest’s more than 13,000 residents are rising from the ashes, struggling together to overcome a devastating, believed to be human-caused, disaster.
Dave Jones, 37, moved to Black Forest with his wife and two children five years ago from Hawaii when a government position opened at Peterson Air Force Base. After looking at homes in eastern Colorado Springs, they finally settled in the forest and never looked back.
“It was kind of a meant-to-be situation,” Jones said.
When flames in the forest came roaring east towards his home last summer — close enough that he could see them from his house — he packed up his family and evacuated. While the fire spared the Jones’ family, their neighbors in the forest weren’t so lucky.
As very involved members of the community — Jones is the local Boy Scout scoutmaster — Jones and his wife decided they had to help.
Jones began a Twitter account, @CommunityofBF, where he helped spread information about events and emergency help in the area. On his personal Twitter feed, Jones posted photos of himself helping neighbors dig through the remains of their homes and working to prevent post-fire flooding.
“I would say for the most part the community as a whole is pushing on,” Jones said, adding that a number of community events are coming through, including dinners and gatherings at the Olympic Training Center.
Others have been struggling with the pain and stress of the wildfire.
A few residents in the forest have resorted to suicide, unable to cope with the devastating loss. Others have fled their lives in Black Forest altogether.
“I would say you have maybe a quarter who are rebuilding, a quarter who are undecided for insurance or whatever reason, and you have a quarter who just kind of bailed,” Jones said. “I know one guy who evacuated, lost his home, got his check, and just never came back. He moved to North Carolina.”
Nearly 100 permits have been filed to rebuild in the forest, a number that Jones says is slowly increasing.
“We want people to come back,” he said.
Immediately after the fire was put out, county code restrictions were eased to allow for the hasty removal of burnt belongings and the option to quickly rebuild.
On Jicarilla Drive, where the fire claimed every house, one new home in an open field is nearly complete. A real estate sign across the way reads “new memories coming soon” before an empty lot surrounded by singed trees.
Silva says an influx of workers has kept Firehouse On The Run busy, replacing the business of those homeowners driven away by the smoke and flames.
Those who stop in for conveniences often talk about how they wonder if the fire could have been stopped. Others just talk about their experience.
“I get it sometimes, most about people’s houses burning down,” Silva said about patrons discussing the fire. “It usually starts out with, ‘Were you affected by the fire?’”
Jones said he has one friend who expects to be in a newly built home that is replacing one scorched in the fire by Christmas.
“It will be interesting to see in a couple of years how things turn out,” Jones said.
Others feel like the devastating fire has been a “forgotten tragedy.”
Amanda Davis, a local who created Crosses for Losses after the fire, an organization that collects clothing and goods for those in need in the forest, says she has been noticing a lot more people needing counseling and help as “the loss is starting to hit people pretty hard right now” with the holiday season around the corner.
Davis and her home were spared in the fire, but her heart still bleeds for others who weren’t as lucky.
“People need to be aware that just because the fire is out in the forest and you can’t see it from the outside, everyone here still really needs some help and support,” Davis said. “This is a community that I guarantee next time something happens to others would be the first reach out to them. They want to know they aren’t forgotten.”
The last few months have offered little respite for the forest, which in recent months has seen a slew of costly floods, a double murder, and now controversy surrounding the investigation into the wildfire’s cause.
Bob Harvey, Black Forest’s fire chief, made remarks last month suggesting the blaze was likely intentionally set. While investigators had previously said that they strongly believed the fire was human-caused, it has yet to be officially ruled accidental or intentional.
“Do not buy into Chief Harvey’s claims until it’s confirmed by the actual agency that has been the lead of the investigation and will base its findings on indisputable scientific evidence that can withstand the scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Right now that isn’t the case,” Terry Maketa, El Paso County Sheriff, said in a press release Nov. 21. “His comments are nothing more than an attempt to mislead the public and a mere witch hunt. Numerous national experts and federal resources have been involved in this investigation and have not and cannot substantiate Chief Harvey’s unqualified knee jerk claims.”
Authorities know the fire began off Falcon Road near Shoup Road in the southwest corner of the forest. It was there that winds quickly pushed the blaze in all directions, immediately incinerating a number of homes and leaving homeowners with only minutes to escape.
On Darr Drive, one man trying to flee the flames was driving an antique convertible and became lost in thick smoke, crashing his car into a tree and forcing him to hike through a growing fire to safety. On that same street, another woman awoke from a nap in her home near where the fire began to find her back porch engulfed in flames.
While first responders were fighting the fire within minutes of it first being reported, Maketa went on to say in that same November press release that Harvey’s leadership was incompetent during the first days of the fire.
“He does not know the point of origin and has been less than truthful about other circumstances with this disaster and just may be merely covering his own mishandling of this event in an attempt to avoid responsibility for allowing the fire to get out of hand,” he said. “Furthermore, this chief didn’t even know homes were burning at a time several were engulfed and never even requested evacuations of nearby households as the fire rapidly grew out of control, clearly placing citizen’s safety in jeopardy. It’s an injustice that he has chosen to jump to these unjustified and inconclusive assumptions without any effort to coordinate with local investigative authorities that have expended extensive resources to identify the cause and manner of this serious tragedy.”
Maketa went on to call Harvey’s comments “reckless,” “irresponsible,” and not in the best interests of the community.
A review of the firefight has been initiated by an independent committee.
Meanwhile, most of the places where homes were destroyed in that section of the forest where the fire began are now just piles of rubble, if not completely empty lots. Scorched trees all over the forest have been shaved to stumps, the wood hauled away for a new purpose.
The sounds of birds and whispering pine needles in the wind are now replaced with the grumble of chainsaws and thwack of hammers. But mostly, the forest is just quiet now.
WILL THE FOREST RETURN?
Experts say that it can take more than 70 years for a forest to recover and return to its normal ecological state after a wildfire.
In Waldo Canyon, where a forest fire in the summer of 2012 scorched tens of thousands of acres and destroyed over 300 homes on the west side of Colorado Springs, some sprouts have begun to poke through the charred ground. However, the burn scar there was behind a series of deadly, devastating floods last summer that decimated parts of Manitou Springs.
The Waldo Canyon fire was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history before the Black Forest fire.
“Nowadays we have too much undergrowth because we have such a history of fire suppression,” said Charlie Landsman, a senior environmental policy major who has been studying forest fires for the last two years, traveling to Australia this fall to compare wildfire management methods abroad with how they are handled in the U.S.
A combinations of increasing temperatures, populations moving closer or into forests, less precipitation, and growing human activity in and around major wooded areas has led to an increase in devastating forest fires in the last few decades, Landsman said.
The natural, lightning-caused burns that once mitigated fire danger in forests — which were before not as dense as wooded areas now are — used to keep wildfires small and contained. Nowadays, a healthy forest is considered one with tightly packed trees and lots of vegetation.
“We have created an idea of what a healthy forest is and have actually made forests unhealthy [in pursuit of this idea],” Landsman said. “In reality, it’s extremely unhealthy for an ecosystem. In trying to protect nature, we’re actually damaging it. We have to let it [forests] go their natural path as shown through fire suppression policies.”
Jesse Paul and Mallory Shipe