Black Forest Visit Reveals a Fire Both Relentless and Capricious

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[Photos: CPR's Megan Verlee]

When the Black Forest Fire blew up ten days ago, it first leapt high into the trees, raging up through tinder-dry ponderosa branches. Then, as the wind hit it, it flattened out and reached forward, scattering advancing armies of embers and running as fast as the gusts that fueled it. Boxed in by smoke and flame, residents fled.

In recent days, many of those homeowners have returned to discover they now own little more than twisted piles of rubble, often still scorchingly hot. But even in the areas where the fire was most relentless, it also proved to be endlessly capricious.

"It’s kind of funny, in the middle of all this black and grey, you have this red car," said Ben Robinett, pointing to the 1968 Ford Galaxie 500 ragtop convertible sitting nearly unscathed in the ruins of his former garage.

The car was just a fun fixer-upper project for Robinett and his family before the fire, not a thing of much sentimental value. Now it means a lot more.

"I’ve got a 16-year-old [daughter] and a little 11-year-old and when they saw it, they were ecstatic," Robinett said, choking up. "They don’t have anything left, ... so that’s the attachment to it."

Robinett had come back to pick up the ‘big red machine,’ nicknamed 'Birdie' for the Saint Louis Cardinals, and to get whatever he could from the house. There isn’t much.

As a firefighter himself, Robinett has seem damage like this before and he’s been trying to stay strong for his family, but it's clear that hasn't been easy.

"I kind of blew it off," he said of losing his home. "It’s material stuff. There are valuables: my great granddaddy’s gun, my wife’s grandmother’s china, just stuff that you don’t think of until you start writing it down for insurance companies and that’s what we’ve been doing the past couple of nights. That’s the tough part."

Many of the homes in this part of Black Forest started out life as vacation cabins sixty or seventy years ago, built without thought to fire danger or protection.

Media got access to this area Friday as part of a guided tour by local officials and organizers clearly had one message they wanted to get out: mitigation matters.

In addition to Robinett’s devastated neighborhood, the tour charted a course through areas where the fire behaved more like a fire and less like an atom bomb. Places where only a few yards of matchstick trees separate charcoal ruins from their untouched neighbors.

Standing at the front of the bus, El Paso County Deputy Jeff Kramer played tour guide, pointing out features of the recently-built Cathedral Pines neighborhood that may have helped save many of its homes from fire. The county required the developer to agree to things like clearing out low trees and landscaping with rocks around the base of houses, instead of mulch or bark, before they were allowed to build in the area.

While the county has had some success negotiating with larger developers, it's still struggling to convince individual homeowners of the importance of mitigation.

“Any time... somebody’s trying to build a house or they have their dream home in mind and you tell them [what to do], it’s not a popular request," said Roger Lovell with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department. "And until recently, I’d say that a number of people didn’t exactly understand why that request was being made, too."

It’s easy to believe that they they've gotten the message now now. And it’s likely that the rebuilt Black Forest will look very different from the Black Forest that was. The local fire district has already said it will be requiring strict mitigation efforts from any homeowner who decides to rebuild.