A look at recovery a decade after the deadly Black Forest Fire destroyed hundreds of homes northeast of Colorado Springs

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5min 03sec
Ahodges/Wikimedia Commons
A night time image of the Black Forest Fire at 9:30 pm on the night of the first day, 11 June 2013. Photo was taken from the Broadmoor Bluffs neighborhood of Colorado Springs on the lower slope of Cheyenne Mountain, about 20 miles away.

Ten years ago, a wildfire roared through the Black Forest community north of Colorado Springs. Two people died and nearly 500 homes were destroyed. Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire that began on June 11, 2013.

The El Paso Sheriff’s Office said it's been years since they've found any new information about the cause of the more than 14,000-acre fire. The agency now considers it a cold case, but investigators say they're still committed to looking into tips that may surface.

A summary of the initial investigation says they ruled out all natural causes within 24 hours of the start of the fire. That means it was human-caused, but it could have been accidental. 

Terry Stokka has lived in Black Forest for 30 years. He’s the president of the Friends of the Black Forest Association and has taken an active role in helping the area recover, even though his own home survived the fire.

KRCC's Shanna Lewis spoke to Stokka about how the devastation continues to change things for residents a decade later, including the rebuilding process.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Highlights from the interview

On homes having been rebuilt and people moving back into the area 

Terry Stokka: It's interesting that in our development there were 26 homes that burned and out of that [only] one person has not rebuilt. It's still a vacant lot. But the others have and they built very nice homes. 

Black Forest Fire
U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons
A burnt section of forest land can be seen as a result of the Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., June 12, 2013. The Black Forest Fire started June 11, 2013, northeast of Colorado Springs, burning scores of homes and forcing large-scale evacuations. The Colorado National Guard and U.S. Air Force Reserve assisted in firefighting efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Darin Overstreet/Released)

After the fire, we had a lot of black sticks all over the place because the trees were burned. We got neighbors together and organized it so that this company came with this great big masticator, like a big rototiller. This guy just went from residence to residence and just cleared off the black trees. Other people cleared their own lots,so probably in the late fall, we had all of the black sticks down. 

Of course the grass hadn't come back yet, but it kind of was a new normal. The people that rebuilt ended up with dynamite views because now they could see the mountains. So what we thought were going to  be worthless lots because the trees were burned, the value went back up again because they had a million dollar view within a year or two. Lot values are right up back where they were before the fire.

On challenges the community still faces as a result of the fire

Courtesy Stokka family
Terry Stokka, left in blue, does mitigation work with his grandkids around his property in Black Forest.

Stokka: About a third of the forest burned, so there's still two-thirds left. That two-thirds is very much needing mitigation. It's way too thick, there's way too many trees on the ground…so the need is very much still for cleanup.

On whether the fire changed his thinking on growth in the area

Stokka: We found that houses that were on two-and-a-half acre lots or smaller burned at a higher frequency because the embers from one house jumped over to another house. And so we have long had a rule in our preservation plan, that the lots should be five acres and no smaller. That's partly for preservation of trees and wildlife. Several sections of Black Forest were built and developed before they established five-acre zoning. Those areas burned much more severely for houses, so we think that we should fight to keep the five-acre rule, both for preservation of trees and animals, as well as for fire safety.

On his involvement in the recovery efforts

Stokka: After the fire, Black Forest Together was an organization that formed and was dedicated to recovery. In the beginning, the whole idea was to help people immediately and we had an office that was open every day in the fire station with representatives from recovery organizations and charitable organizations. 

Courtesy Stokka family
Black Forest residents work together after the fire to chip up burned trees.

Then the Red Cross donated a chipper to Black Forest Together and we organized crews and went out to clean up people's property. Other times teams went to people's houses to put up a log dam in a gully so the rain wouldn't wash everything away. 

Later on, a sub-organization from Black Forest Together was formed called Trees for Tomorrow. They would connect people who said, “I've got way too many trees, I need to get rid of some of them,” with people who would buy these trees from Trees for Tomorrow, which would pay for the equipment and the gas to take them over to someone's house and plant those trees. 

Black Forest Together is now dissolved and Trees for Tomorrow is as well, so I'd have to say that right now, recovery efforts are pretty well over.

On what the future holds for Black Forest

Stokka: I think the future holds a constant struggle to do responsible development. We want to have homes on five-acre lots where people care about it, take care of it, and love it like we do.

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