Survivors of the Lower North Fork Fire Being Shunned by the State- Part 3

Survivors of the Lower North Fork Fire Being Shunned by the State- Part 3

Linda Kirkpatrick | 10 September 2012 Life In Evergreen as seen by Linda Kirkpatrick –

March 26th was the first day of Spring Break. Sara Shirley and her two children had packed some things in anticipation of a getaway to a cabin along the Big Thompson River at Estes Park when the children returned from visiting their dad.

About 2:30 that afternoon Sara saw smoke and called 911 and was assured “crews were on the way — don’t worry about it.” She and her dad began driving around to see if they could locate where the smoke was coming from, determining it was two ridges away from their home near Kuehster Road. They stopped to warn a neighbor before returning home.

(Photo above before the fire shows the main house and the apartment in the structure to the right where Sara lived)

A prescribed burn on Denver Water Board property – conducted by the Colorado Forest Service the week before and left unchecked for 44 hours – had been whipped up by hurricane-force winds that Monday.

She was a bit impatient with her parents who seemed too calm about it all. She found herself experiencing a panic attack, walking around her apartment and looking at things, thinking “I can’t take all these things with me — I just hope I’ll see them again.” She packed more things into the car, urging her parents to do the same, and repositioned the cars to get out when everyone was ready.

A volunteer with the InterCanyon Fire Department had driven down their driveway warning the family to get out immediately, Sara recalled. Everything moved quickly at that point. “For a long time [after the fire], I was convinced he was not real – that he was an angel who appeared….”

They managed to rescue their three dogs and one of their two cats. Their second cat would perish in the fire along with their 23 finches.

“The whole thing was surreal,” she said recently. It was not until the next day that Sara and her parents would learn from TV news coverage that their homes had burned. A fleeting aerial view from video shot from a helicopter allowed them to spot their driveway with no buildings left where they’d once stood. It would be more than a week before homeowners were escorted back to their homesites.

To deal with their shock and disbelief, the three generations retreated to Estes Park for four days and four nights.

Her 12-year-old daughter recalls getting the news through her dad, crying initially but then being comforted by the fact that everyone got out. Her dad had helped her focus on the good aspects, and they talked about all sticking together. The first day back to school crowds were swarming her in every class. “It made me feel like people really cared and were there to comfort me,” she recalled.

There was a tremendous outpouring of support from the community, Sara said. “It was breathtaking.” Six months after the event, she still teared up with emotion telling the story of how the community rallied to support them and wanting me to convey her tremendous feeling of gratitude.

When Sara and her family were freezing, Mountain Resource Center (MRC) provided them with hats, coats, gloves and blankets for their beds. MRC sought out in-kind donations to furnish a temporary home and provided clothing, household items and “random stuff.” “Everything in our home (except for beds) was donated by friends and people we didn’t know,” she said with an expression of appreciation. “The outpouring was amazing. People we don’t know have been the most generous.”

Her two children were the only ones in public schools whose homes were lost in the fire. Area schools conducted fundraisers with West Jeff Elementary and West Jeff Middle Schools raising about $1,600 between them. Parmalee Elementary in Indian Hills raised about $3,000. Students there wrote letters expressing their concern and support and prepared a huge Easter basket made from a laundry tub, Sara recounted. Each of the students signed their names on the tub and filled it with toys for the children.

“Both the school therapists were really amazing,” Sara says with enthusiasm. She goes on to explain that her 10-year-old son has expressed a lot of frustration since the fire, attributing much of it to the fire. He says it was his dream to live in that spot, on that mountain and tells his mom he is expecting a Christmas miracle as if Santa is going to make their house reappear in time for Christmas. “What am I supposed to do with that?!” she says in anguish.

(Drawing right done by Sara’s son, a third-grader)

“There’s too much going on to feel the grief part,” she says, explaining that she tends to push her emotions aside. If I desperately need to do something [to escape thinking about the fire], I do something artistic. It makes me feel better.”

As a divorced mom with two kids, Sara had moved back home to be able to attend college two and a half years earlier. As a student at Red Rocks Community College, she had begun her studies in pursuit of a degree as an art teacher/elementary school teacher. The disruption of the fire caused her to drop out of classes, putting her into a category of “unsatisfactory achievement” and triggering the need to repay the $500 Pell grant because she failed to complete the semester. It now interferes with her ability to qualify for future financial assistance.

“I haven’t been able to work for six months,” she says, explaining that her parents have been “amazing” in making sure they have whatever they need. “We’re a very close family.” The extended family is renting a home in Pine that’s up for sale and is looking for a four-bedroom home with a yard for the dogs to settle into while they make decisions about rebuilding. Sara and her family hope to stay in the area. “I’ve been trying to keep things steady for the kids, not wanting to uproot them now.”

“There’s not a place we can call home,” she said, fighting off tears. “It doesn’t seem like we’re getting to an end. I don’t feel settled.”

She says her parents are more stressed than she’s ever seen them. Her mom works for Verizon, and her dad’s retired. They all keep busy dealing with the aftermath. If it’s not meeting with contractors about clearing debris, it’s coming up with lists of belongings, estimated dates of purchase and purchase prices for insurance purposes. After all that, “everything is then depreciated – generally about 50 percent,” she says in reference to filing an insurance claim. “It’s hard to remember everything you owned.”

She and her parents attend meetings with legislators and meetings with other victims of the fire. “It’s hard because every time I go to a meeting, it brings me back to the fire – it’s gut-wrenching,” she says. “Our hearts go out to those who lost family members – it feels like we didn’t lose much compared to them.”

Three neighbors perished in the fire, and 23 homes were destroyed.

Many neighbors who didn’t lose their homes experienced significant smoke damage and had to move out for a month or more.

Under the terms of their insurance policy with Farmers, they were given a check for the full extent of the dwellings as well as $5,000 for replacing clothing, toiletries, and personal items. “That will be deducted from our allowance for personal property,” Sara explains.

They consider themselves luckier than some but have begun to feel like “people are out to get you” and that “the vultures are circling” as they deal with contractors and those who make bids to clear their land. “Others are looking out for their own interests,” she says.

In many ways, times are tougher now than at first, she continues, explaining that the attention that immediately followed the fire has waned. “The support phase seems to have passed, but the victims are still dealing with it.”

With all the meetings – with other displaced homeowners and with legislators – she highly doubts that anything will come of it, referring to any compensation from the state for help with clearing their properties, reforesting and compensating the victims for the pain, anguish and inconvenience that’s not covered by an insurance policy. According to what the Attorney General said, “As far as he’s concerned, the cap [of $600,000 per occurrence] hasn’t been lifted. Insurance companies and IREA are also hoping for a piece of the same pie.

Reaction from the State

Colorado Representative Cheri Gerou would agree with her. “They’ve basically been shunned by the State,” she says with disappointment, confessing that she loses a lot of sleep thinking about it. “The State really doesn’t want to admit guilt.”

Gerou, who co-sponsored House Bill 1352 intended to be the victim’s voice, says, although investigation was a criterion of the bill, the commission will not investigate because they feel that would take money, which has not been allocated.

There is no money. None to investigate. None to reforest. None to compensate.

Assistance was available from FEMA and the State for the larger Waldo Canyon and High Park fires but not for the Lower North Fork fire. “Everyone is assuming that the Lower North Fork fire victims are getting federal money when they’ve gotten nothing,” Gerou points out.

“Nobody’s talking about it,” Gerou continues, “and that’s to the benefit of the State.”

In reference to the homeowners, Gerou says, “All they’d really like is a little bit of honesty. They’re losing faith in their state government.”

“I guess I’m naive,” she admits. “I thought just-ness would be done, but it is not being done.”

Click here to email Gov. Hickenlooper via his Chief of Staff. Or send your letters to:

You might also email legislators serving on the Commission:

Senator Ellen Roberts
Representative Cheri Gerou
Senator Jeanne Nicholson
Representative Claire Levy
James Davis, Director, Colorado Dept. of Public Safety
Bo Pogue, Legislative Council Staff

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