COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — When your world turns to ash in the blink of an eye, you can still find hope. That’s the message survivors of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire northwest of Colorado Springs have for those recently impacted by the Marshall Fire.
Carla Albers knows from experience. She lost her home in the Waldo Canyon Fire and still remembers the pain and fear of that day.
It was June 26, 2012, she said, and she was watching a fire briefing when an official interrupted the stream and explained that some residents were now under mandatory evacuation orders. The order included Albers' home. Along with her son — her daughter and husband were both away from the home at the time — she fled from their home.
“(It was) similar to what we saw up in Marshall, at least the coverage I've seen. It's a scary thing — they didn't know to get out,” she said. “We were luckier because we at least had a little bit of advanced notice. Not that we thought the fire would come over. But compared to what happened to them (at the Marshall Fire) and the same thing in the Black Forest Fire. Very sudden. Middle of the day. A lot of people aren't home.”
She learned in the days afterward that their home was gone. Her house was one of 347 homes destroyed in the Waldo Canyon Fire, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We lost 347 homes in five hours," said Colorado Springs fire marshal Brett Lacey.
Today, Carla Albers' home is quiet and peaceful — much different than what her neighborhood looked like those 10 years ago. But memories of the fire are scattered across her wall.
“Some people say, ‘Well, why would you want something about the fire on your wall? Doesn't that bring back … bad memories?’” Albers said. “You survive something and something beautiful … can come out of it.”
In this Denver7 360, we will look at the many lessons learned from the Waldo Canyon Fire as residents in Boulder County begin their own journeys toward recovery.
Leadership worked quickly to devise a plan
The Waldo Canyon Fire and Marshall Fire share many similarities. Both were urban interface fires. The Marshall Fire was a grassland urban interface fire, while the Waldo Canyon Fire was a wildland urban interface fire. Two people died in each fire.
The stark differences between the two fires came in the wake of each blaze: the recovery.
In suburban Colorado Springs, debris removal started just two weeks after the fire. New homes were move-in ready after 11 months. Meanwhile, Boulder County residents are still waiting — seven weeks after the Marshall Fire — for help removing debris.
And rebuilding seems even further away, though the county says debris removal should start by March 1 and the company contracted has promised it can complete the cleanup by July 1, weather permitting.
“I'm so grateful that Mayor (Steve) Bach contacted Bob Cutter to get that process rolling for Colorado Springs Together because they worked so hard to make it easier for us,” Albers said.
Bach was the mayor of Colorado Springs from 2011 through 2015.
He called his long-time friend, Cutter, who is a retired C-level executive, and the two had lunch to talk about ideas.
“I said, ‘OK, look, you need to head this up. We're going to get out of your way. We're going to be here to help you - to support you every way we can,’” Bach said.
Plans were in motion by the very next day, he said. Shortly afterward, "Colorado Springs Together" was created.
“If you don’t get going right away, people get discouraged,” Bach said. “And they don’t come back, and you lose your sense of neighborhood.”
Cutter brought together a group of people with expertise in insurance and home building, plus finding temporary housing, to help those in need in the wake of the Waldo Canyon Fire. Residents were welcome to visit a help center for a variety for resources.
Colorado Springs Together served as a central database and a physical building – a hub where fire victims could gather, get information and help with building permits, fire mitigation strategies, and more. Cutter was the founder and president of the organization.
He said he knew it was critical to accelerate the rate of debris removal, so that became an immediate priority. That started within a couple weeks, he said.
He acknowledged that those efforts in the wake of the Marshall Fire have yet to truly start.
“It just perpetuates the agony,” he said.
Mayor Bach credits his entrepreneurial background with helping him move quickly after the fire.
“We just we had a businesslike approach and I had great compatriots helping me,” he said. “I think first and foremost is you can't expect government to get it done, at least not expeditiously. Government is not organized that way. And if you're dealing with multiple jurisdictions, that makes it even more challenging.”
Colorado Springs Together gets to work
Building permit experts like Roger Lovell slashed red tape and bureaucracy so homeowners could start quickly. As Lovell puts it, he and his team developed a way to get out of the way as a government to make the process as simple as possible.
“And the process worked,” Lovell said. “Within 14 calendar days of the fire being fully contained, we issued our first building permit for a new home.”
And within a year of the fire, a total of 202 permits had been issued for the 347 homes lost.
On the insurance side, navigating the claims process was critical early on, too. John Putnam took the reins for the many underinsured homeowners in Waldo Canyon.
Many overcame those difficulties by finding pots of money elsewhere in homeowners’ insurance policies. Putnam and his team are credited with saving homeowners millions of dollars.
“Buried in the policy, there’s 5% debris removal. There’s 10% law and ordinance, which are basically the building codes. There’s another 25 [percent] to extend replacements costs,” Putnam said, describing how he identified that money.
“I don’t encourage them; I help them find it,” he said. “That’s my role for this whole process.”
Community moves on to fire mitigation
Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey says rebuilding in Waldo Canyon meant fire-hardening structures through reasonable, inexpensive materials and codes.
“It’s not good to have things that are too restrictive,” Lacey said. “What we were after was just changing the materials of the homes, changing the materials of the decks, so that they resist that initial ignition point by having either stucco, or brick, or cementitious siding.”
The Mountain Shadows neighborhood was hit hardest by the fire. Eddie Hurt was the community association president at the time. He says around 160 out of 190 homes in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood burned in the fire. He still tears up thinking about it.
"This is one of the first times I haven't cried by just being here," Hurt said while walking through the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.
People who worked on the recovery said the communication after the fire on June 26 was nearly perfect.
“The key to post-disaster recovery is consistent, timely, and accurate communications,” said John Henry, who was in charge of communications during the recovery. “It is absolutely essential to the process.”
Mayor Bach was determined to get the area rebuilt quickly. He said he tried to keep the city council informed.
“But I didn’t ask for permission, and I didn’t expect it,” he said. “They were great. They just let me do what I felt I had to do.”
Money magazine featured Colorado Springs Together as runner-up for the best nonprofit money heroes in America – second only to the Hurricane Sandy recovery nonprofit.
Superior Rising has now met with Bach, Albers and Cutter and is forming a similar group because of how well Colorado Springs Together performed.
Bach said he is happy to have other cities and towns copy the format like Superior is doing.
"By all means, copy shamelessly," Cutter said.
“If I could send a message to the people up there … you’re not going to get that community rebuilt if you’re going to just insist on these things that are a lot different than what they lost,” Albers said. “Please don't do that."
What Colorado Springs can provide is hope that rebuilding can happen – and quickly – with the right organizational efforts like what Colorado Springs Together brought after the Waldo Canyon Fire.
“You have to be in it for the long haul,” said Cutter. “You have to have at least a 24-month focus.”
“It’s not going to be fun,” added Albers, “but we can make it a little easier.”
Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.