It has been nearly six months since the Waldo Canyon Fire ripped through a neighborhood on the west side of Colorado Springs, destroying more than 300 homes. Today those foothills are abuzz with new construction. Many of the former residents have resolved to rebuild their lives there, but not Janet Wilson, who has been checking in with us since the fire. She and her partner, Stephen Gandy, are moving into a new home 13 miles away. Ryan Warner talks with Wilson about how she's moving on. [Photos: Stephen Gandy, fire and flag; Megan Verlee, photo of Jan Wilson]
You can also listen a feature by CPR's Megan Verlee about Jan Wilson's move to a new home, and a gathering there of neighbors transformed into a community by the fire. The following is a transcript of that feature.
Mountain Shadows, the Colorado Springs neighborhood devastated by this summer’s Waldo Canyon Fire, is coming back to life. Workers swarm over homes in various stages of completion. Except for the skeletons of a few charred trees, you could easily mistake this for a new subdivision under construction. But as Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports, while some want to move back, others are ready to move on.
Janet Wilson and Stephen Gandy’s old house was right in the foothills on the west side of Colorado Springs, tucked into the first slopes of the Rampart Range. But as she shows me around their new place, northeast in Gleneagle, Wilson says she she’s come to really like living on the other side of I-25.
JW: "The view in the back is exquisite. See, we see the mountains now. So the next fire, we’ll watch, we won’t be in it. We’ll watch it come down the mountain.
Getting out of the fire zone isn’t the only reason Wilson isn’t rebuilding in Mountain Shadows. The whole reconstruction process looked overwhelming. And then there was the emotional toll of returning. Every glance at the once-forested hills is a reminder of the fire.
JW: "It's a little sad. As weeks and weeks and weeks have gone by, all the needles and leaves are off the branches now and it looks like a vast area of toothpicks."
But starting over has its own difficulties. Wilson says even once she’s moved in, her new house will still feel a bit like a stranger’s, filled with unfamiliar furniture.
JW: "Because it’s not my stuff. I haven’t sat on that couch for years, and cradled my boys on that couch. So I look at the couch and say, ‘oh that’s nice, but who’s couch is that?’"
She does still have a few things from her old life, though -- art grabbed from the walls as they were fleeing, a handmade doll, and a few scarred relics salvaged from the ruins of the old house after the fire. In the garage sit blackened pots of twisted metal. They look like things you might unearth in an old mining cabin.
Megan Verlee: “What is that?” JW: “It is a kettle... Of course, knives. That’s one of my favorite knives... And just pieces of pottery. And you look at that and say ‘what is that?’ Well I know I’ll get rid of it. But right now it’s not quite time to get rid of it. I still have to look at it and touch it and go, ‘wow, 2000 degrees. Wow.’”
That’s something Wilson and her neighbors say is the hardest for other people to understand -- the possessions they lost weren't just things. They were tangible links to memories. Without them, those associations, those serendipitous reminders, fade. After the fire, Wilson was frantic to find just one Christmas ornament from the dozens her family had collected over the years. In the end, they uncovered a single crystal ball, charred black by the fire.
JW: "So we’re going to put that right in the front part of the tree. We’re doing our tree in white and red -- fire and ice -- and that will be our only non-white and red ornament on the tree, a black ball. But it holds a lot of significance now for us."
Just one day after Wilson and Gandy move into their new home, that fire-and-ice tree is up and decorated. Just in time for them to host a party for residents of their old street in Mountain Shadows.
“C’mon, c’mon up here.” “Oh yeah, I’m going up to the tour.” “I want to get the rest of the tour too.”
These former neighbors have gathered at one rented house or another every month since the fire. Before the disaster, people on the block didn’t really socialize much. But even though the fire physically destroyed the neighborhood, it brought them together as neighbors, says resident James MacKenzie.
James MacKenzie: "I think in the first two weeks I spoke to my neighbors more than I had in the past six years, because we’d just had this big, unifying experience. And we needed the community that had been there.”
And they still need it. Holding bowls of chili, Wilson’s guests commiserate about the terrible days just after the fire. But it’s construction talk that now dominates the conversation -- who’s rebuilding and how it’s going.
Party guests: “It’s so nice to see the neighborhood look like a new development and construction, instead of a war zone, you know?”
Even though Jan Wilson has decided not to return to Mountain Shadows, it’s clear she’ll remain a part of the neighborhood. The couple that bought her lot want her to autograph their new foundation. And the whole group is already planning a block party, for the one year anniversary of the fire.
Listen to earlier conversations with Jan Wilson:
Lessons in Loss - Six weeks after the fire, Wilson reflects on what she's learned
Sifting Through the Ashes - Wilson tells Ryan Warner how it felt to return to her homesite for the first time after the fire.
CO Fire Victims Enter Recovery Mode (NPR) - We first met Janet Wilson at a recovery center, as she tried to figure out what to do next.