Mountain Community Takes Stock of Fire’s Toll

April 13, 2012

As of Monday morning, the final residents displaced by the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County had been allowed to go  home, except residents of the more than two dozen buildings that were damaged or destroyed in the blaze, which also left three people dead.  Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee has a report on how the community is coping.

[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report]

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE:  The drive up Pleasant Park Road toward the fire area is marked with thank you signs - handwritten tokens of gratitude for the firefighters who put in grueling days trying to stop the fire’s advance.  By Monday afternoon, the plywood and poster boards were coated in a gritty dusting of snow, an answer to the prayers of residents like Janet Shown.

REPORTER: "Great weather you’re having.” 

JANET SHOWN: “Oh it is, we’re so happy.  Come in. Our dogs will want to say hi.” [Barking]

REPORTER:  Shown, her wife Marsha Petry, and their three extremely friendly dogs live a few miles down the road from the worst of the destruction.  Last Monday, both women were returning from appointments when they saw the smoke plumes.  Their first priority was to grab the pets.  After that, well, Petry says it reminded her of the shopping sprees stores used to have.

MARSHA PETRY:  "You have five minutes to get whatever you can out of the grocery store.  As a kid, I always wanted to be part of that shopping spree.  I never did.  But that’s what it felt like.  It was like, anything within arms reach went with me, and I ended up with 20 dog towels and two T-shirts, because it was there, available."

REPORTER: The couple spent nearly a week in their camper at a regional park Shown manages.  When they were finally allowed to return, their house smelled of wood smoke and spoiled food.  Shown says every surface was cloaked in a fine layer of ash.

SHOWN: "To me, the hard part is thinking the ash represents the forests that we love so much, and some of the animals that died, the wildlife that died, and the people that lost their lives.  So that’s a little hard to think about."

REPORTER: It’s also hard for the couple to think about their friends just up the road.  This is a close-knit community.  Petry is a volunteer firefighter, Shown runs the historical society.  They knew many of the people who lost homes.  And Shown says even if some rebuild, a neighborhood’s been lost.

SHOWN: "Even though we didn’t see them all the time, we all care about each other deeply and have a connection here.  And to lose that entire family of people is really hard."

REPORTER: Those are feelings Sharon Schrage understands well.

SHARON SCHRAGE: "As a community, we rally around, knowing that could have been any of us."

REPORTER: Schrage runs the Mountain Resource Center, which is coordinating services for fire victims.  Sitting in the temporary assistance center at West Jefferson Middle School, Schrage is surrounded by volunteers, but not by people seeking assistance, at least, not yet.  Schrage expects more people will start asking for help once they’ve had time to take stock of things.

SCHRAGE: "It takes a lot of inventory and stepping back and saying, 'Do we contact our insurance company first?' and those sort of things.  We really just want our community to know that the resources are here when they’re ready to talk with us."

REPORTER:  Even as many residents start to figure out how to recover, hundreds of firefighters are still working on the blaze, mopping up hot spots and making sure the containment lines are solid.  The cold, sleety weather is helping a lot, but officials say they’ll keep plenty of boots on the ground until they’re truly satisfied there’s no threat of flare-up.  Those firefighters will eat well while they’re here.  Dawn Smith with the Conifer Chamber of Commerce has been organizing home-baked treats for the fire crews.

SMITH: "And they were like, 'Conifer has the best hospitality.'  And we were like, 'no thank you, we’re so glad you’re here!'"

REPORTER: In normal times, one of Smith’s jobs is to hand out fire safety packets to new residents in Conifer.  But she says new arrivals are usually more worried about mountain lions than wildfire.  After this tragedy, she imagines the county will do even more to get the word out.  

[Photo: CPR/Megan Verlee]

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