Flash Point: Waldo Canyon Fire Victims, Recovering Without Rebuilding

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Brian and Ferne Hoffman Photo: Michelle Mercer

Brian and Ferne Hoffman at the new home they bought in the Peregrine neighborhood. Photo: Michelle Mercer

Richard and Francine Hansen Photo: Michelle Mercer

Richard and Francine Hansen at their rental home in the Kissing Camels neighborhood. Photo: Michelle Mercer

 

Waldo Canyon Fire Victims: Recovering Without Rebuilding

By Michelle Mercer • April 23, 2013

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News of the Waldo Canyon Fire recovery has sounded an almost unanimous refrain, championing the efforts to rebuild in Mountain Shadows. But that tells only part of the recovery story.

Retired IBM executives Francine and Richard Hansen moved to Mountain Shadows in 2002, and spent years renovating their house into their dream home. When they lost that home in the Waldo Canyon Fire, they initially thought they’d rebuild.

Francine Hansen says they found a builder. “The insurance company didn’t like the bid,” she says, so they went and got more. “And in the process, a lot of time went by.”

During that time, the Hansens had time to think about their decision. “It’s not the place that we had moved to,” she says. “It looks amazingly different. To the back of us it’s all dead. Dust is still coming off the trees. My doctor’s nervous about my allergies in the dust. So we’ve decided to look elsewhere.”

FrancineHansen_Candara

Making the decision not to rebuild actually puts the Hansens in the majority for now. 347 homes were lost in the Waldo Canyon wildfire; to date 151 rebuilding permits have been issued. Rebuilding permits are still trickling in, but it’s safe to say a significant number of fire victims are not rebuilding.

“Inevitably it came up with every individual who lost their home,” says Colorado Springs Together President Bob Cutter. He adds many who don’t rebuild are in a later stage of life: for example, couples with grown children who were thinking about downsizing before the fire.

“I think you have seen some people say, ‘It happened. We didn’t plan it that way, but we were thinking about it, and now we’re forced to. Others didn’t want the hassle of rebuilding.”

Disaster victims commonly feel pressure to rebuild from their communities. UCCS psychologist Chip Benight has been researching adaptation to natural disasters since 1993, and he says it’s important for the community that people rebuild in those areas.

“That’s very important for the collective sense of recovery,” Benight says. “Individually there’s no data that I’m aware of that suggests that people who choose not to rebuild are doing better or worse than those who choose to rebuild in the same spot. The key is that these people feel a sense of moving forward. I think the worst part would be for someone who’s sitting there sort of on stuck mode.”

That indeterminate, unsettled state is exactly what disturbed Brian and Ferne Hoffman after they lost their home on Trevor Lane in June.

“It felt like you were sucked up into a vortex during the fire,” Ferne says, “and then you get spit out and you land, and you’re in someone else’s clothes, using someone else’s things, in someone else’s house. That feeling of limbo is almost unbearable, you just want to get out of it as soon as possible.”

In September the Hoffmans bought a house in the Peregrine neighborhood. They’ve held onto their Mountain Shadows lot, though: Ferne would like to rebuild there one day; her husband Brian would not. Brian says he wouldn’t be comfortable at that location again.

“And I can’t feel like it’s a safe place for me to live anymore,” Brian Hoffman says. “Not that there’s going to be another fire there, but there could be flooding . . . it’s just an atmosphere that to me is depressing, to be honest with you.”

Brian says he began to feel reestablished as soon as they started having friends over to their new house. Ferne says she’s still waiting for that feeling.

“This home is kind of like a consolation prize,” she says. “I’m hoping that I’ll start to feel like it’s home, but it’s a process.”

Whatever process Waldo Canyon fire victims undertake to rebuild their lives, Dr. Benight says it’s vital they feel as if they’re in command.

“So if you decide not to rebuild,” Benight says, “If you felt like you knew what you needed to do and you could do it, your capacity to see a way forward, to harness resources available to you, you feel like you have what it takes to recover, that really is powerful to help you feel like you’re succeeding and have control. Really what this is all about a sense of control in your environment.”

Meanwhile, Colorado Springs Together continues to work with those affected by the fire, and lots for sale by former Mountain Shadows residents are attracting new residents to the neighborhood.

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COMMUNITIES REBUILD

• Rebuilding “Safer, Stronger, Smarter” After the High Park Fire

• Colorado Springs Together

• Waldo Canyon Property Restoration Progress


EMERGENCY PLANNING RESOURCES

• Ready Colorado

• Pack a Kit

• Pack a Kit (Spanish)

• Ready, Set, Go!

• Plan for Pets in Advance of an Emergency

• Build a Kit


Rebuilding “Safer, Stronger, Smarter” After the High Park Fire

By now, residents of Colorado Springs are familiar with Colorado Springs Together, an initiative spearheaded by Mayor Steve Bach and led by Bob Cutter that serves as a resource for those affected by the Waldo Canyon Fire. But the blaze here wasn’t the only devastating wildfire in the state last year. The High Park Fire affected northern Colorado, with 259 homes lost. There, volunteer firefighter Phil Benstein anticipates around 111 homeowners will choose to rebuild, though around 50 permits are pulled. Benstein is one of the founders of NoCo Rebuilding Network, which focuses on rebuilding efforts in Larimer County after disasters. Founded after the Crystal Fire in 2011, NoCo Rebuilding Network was reactivated during the High Park Fire. KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin visited with Phil Benstein to talk about the notion of community and resiliency, and what their tagline means to rebuild “Safer, Stronger, Smarter.” (Right click here to download.)

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Slideshow of images from visiting the High Park burn area with the NoCo Rebuidling Network:

 

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Main Flash Point: Living with Wildfire page
A Disaster Is A Disaster: The Nature Of Emergency Management
• Waldo Canyon Fire Victims: Recovering Without Rebuilding
The Wildland Urban Interface: Where the Wilderness Meets Civilization
The Double Bind: Forest Treatment In The Age of Megafires
Wildfires and Climate Change Perception