The High Park wildfire swept through the rural area northwest of Fort Colins, Colo., last June, leaving one person dead.
The High Park wildfire swept through the rural area northwest of Fort Colins, Colo., last June, leaving one person dead. Ed Andrieski/AP
Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the High Park fire northwest of Fort Collins, Colo. The blaze consumed 259 homes in the rural area, but so far only 10 households have finished rebuilding a year later.
As Gary and Martha Lemert sort through photographs from the High Park fire, it takes just one before and after shot to convey the complete devastation of their 10-acre property.
The High Park fire destroyed 259 homes last June. One year later, only 10 homes have been rebuilt.
The High Park fire destroyed 259 homes last June. One year later, only 10 homes have been rebuilt. Ed Andrieski/AP
All they had left after the fire was a green roof that looked like it had been melted on top of gray rubble. All told, the Lemerts lost eight buildings, including a garage and a guest house.
"The first three weeks after it happened, I was like a zombie," Gary Lemert says. "I said no way am I coming back up there ... But how do you give this up?"
The Lemerts love their quiet property and the nature surrounding it. Currently, they are settled into a new manufactured home on the same land. They say that helped speed up the process, but they also ran into snags paying off their old mortgage — a burden many wildfire survivors have.
"We could not have replaced all the outbuildings and everything," says Martha Lemert. "We were about $100,000 short of being able to do all of that."
Insurance woes, money and time are three major obstacles preventing many High Park fire survivors from rebuilding. Add on a thick layer of emotions and you start to get a picture of the ongoing challenges; something Dale and Marilyn Snyder are intimately familiar with.
"After you have an event like this, people think one year's a long time," says Dale Snyder. "It's a blink of the eye with everything you have to do."
The Snyders are part of the more than 80 percent of property owners who have either decided not to rebuild or are taking their time in planning new construction. Part of their delay comes from the fact that it's nearly impossible to replace their old home, a converted barn.
"Without finding an old barn and having it brought in, which the expense, we couldn't do that," Marilyn Snyder says.
It doesn't help that the Snyders were underinsured by about $70,000. Instead of rebuilding, Dale and Marilyn Snyder spent much of the last year advocating for insurance reform, which was recently signed into law by Colorado's governor.
According to the most recent survey of High Park property owners who sustained damage, more than 42 percent were underinsured; meaning their policies didn't cover all of their property replacement costs.
"That's a big financial impact," says Suzanne Bassinger, a recovery manager for the fire. "Some people are just starting to figure out if they can afford to rebuild."
Bassinger says the county has made things a bit easier. Homeowners don't have to deal with new building codes or restrictions as they move forward.
"Larimer County, I believe, is big on allowing people to make decisions for themselves," she says. "I think that's a good thing. We provide lots of information, lots of support, but it still comes down to the landowner, in most cases, to decide what they want to do."
Gary Lemert says they're "healing up pretty good." The Lemerts have made a lot of changes, from adding firebreaks to their landscaping to fiber cement siding on their new home.
Their attention is now focused on removing burnt and dying trees on their heavily wooded property. Looking out from a second-story picture window, most of these trees are off in the distance. But just yards away there's a tall, skinny ponderosa pine charred black as ink.
"It was just beautiful, the shape and everything ... I have a hard time cutting it," Gary says.
Gary Lemert says he'll eventually remove the charred tree, but he's not ready to do it yet. "It's like a kid," he says.
Even for the most determined residents of this area, there are still limits to the work that can be done within the first year of such a devastating fire.