Colorado Fire Victims Switch To Recovery Mode

Everyone who lost a home to the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado seems to have a story about stuff: the stuff they grabbed as they fled, the treasures they forgot to pack. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports on what it means to start over.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

The Waldo Canyon Fire became the most destructive fire in Colorado history when it tore through neighborhoods this past Tuesday night. Some 350 houses were destroyed in Colorado Springs. Today, residents of those homes are returning to assess the damage. They may not find much more than chunks of rubble.

Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports on what it means to start over.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: Everyone who lost a home to the Waldo Canyon Fire seems to have a story about stuff, the stuff they grabbed as they fled, the treasures they forgot to pack. Loretta Armstrong thought she had all of her important stuff: the cat, the jewelry, the pictures off the walls.

LORETTA ARMSTRONG: And then on the way home, I started thinking of my husband's military uniforms. And my wedding dress was there. My kids' First Communion stuff, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

VERLEE: All those things are gone. She's seen aerial photos of her house. It's nothing but ashes.

ARMSTRONG: My husband says - I talked to him, he says, Loretta, you and Adam are safe, everything else can be replaced. And he says, we're going to be OK.

VERLEE: The thousands of victims of this fire are coping with their losses in different ways. Janet Wilson has managed to hold onto her sense of humor, despite the destruction of her long-time home. She says while she was evacuating, her sons called to make sure she didn't forget something very important, the ashes of numerous family members, including her husband and mother.

JANET WILSON: And I said yup, all the dead people are in the car safe and sound. Because they were afraid that we'd go back to the house and we'd look at piles of ashes and I'd say, Mom, is that you or is that the couch?

VERLEE: Wilson's trying to look at the situation as an adventure, a chance to start over. But she says the loss hits her in weird ways.

WILSON: You're pouring yourself a cup of coffee and suddenly you remember that you don't have any coffee cups. Or when Christmas comes around, your Christmas decorations are gone.

VERLEE: Wilson was out front of a recovery center set up by El Paso County and the City of Colorado Springs to help fire victims. They didn't find anything to replace her lost Christmas lights, but she did leave with information from her insurance company and a 24-pack of Gatorade.

DAVE ROSE: We have five of these intake stations. As you can see, they're quite busy. You walk back in here, American Red Cross, Goodwill Industries...

VERLEE: El Paso County spokesman Dave Rose threads his way between folding tables covered in pamphlets, staffed by workers and volunteers in polo shirts.

ROSE: What we are offering is answers. They need answers.

VERLEE: Answers to questions evacuees may not even have thought about yet, like which areas are at risk of landslide once the rains come. And how to avoid the unscrupulous contractors who will soon start calling.

Julie Justice got answers. But she also found something else at the recovery center, a reminder of why she loves Colorado Springs.

JULIE JUSTICE: It's a very loving community, as we're finding out. I mean, the amount of help and support has been amazing. And our firefighters deserve something - a parade, anything.

VERLEE: Firefighters across Colorado have had a good couple of days. They expanded containment lines significantly around this fire. And also made a lot of progress with large blazes near the cities of Boulder, Fort Collins and Durango. But with nine fires still active in the state and the West's extreme drought showing no sign of breaking, Waldo Canyon Fire Incident Commander Rich Harvey's work is far from over.

RICH HARVEY: The fire potential is still very, very high. It's extreme and explosive, and we're going to prepare to deal with that every day for the rest of the summer.

VERLEE: For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee.

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