- Associated Press - Saturday, June 21, 2014

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - Tulips bloomed in Pat Baker’s garden this year, tulips that two years earlier had been burned, trampled, smothered in weed barrier, and covered with rock.

“How far they had to come to reach the ground then bloom in such a beautiful fashion was inspiring,” said Baker.

The tulips were a lot like Baker, a self-proclaimed “tough bird” who lost her home in the High Park Fire but was determined to come back better than ever.

There was never a question whether Baker would rebuild her Rist Canyon home. Nine months after the June 2012 fire that killed one person, destroyed 259 homes and burned more than 136 square miles in the canyons and foothills, Baker was one of the first to return, the Fort Collins reported (http://tinyurl.com/nxaqgrc).

“When they finally let us back in to see what was there and what wasn’t there, I was looking around at the devastation when I saw … a penstemon that had burned was starting to send up little green things,” a sign that life would return to the land she had loved and cared for for nearly five decades.

“I love the land, I love the trees, I love the rock. It was not just the house. I was very connected to the land,” she said.

Two years later, Baker is one of only 40 homeowners to return to the burn area, according to Larimer County building statistics. Another 37 landowners have either applied for or received their building permits to begin construction.

That’s only 30 percent of homeowners who, thus far, have moved back or indicated they’ll return to the homes they fled.

Some homeowners were uninsured or underinsured and couldn’t afford to rebuild; others could no longer qualify for a mortgage due to changing financial circumstances. For others, rebuilding is just too painful, said Suzanne Bassinger, Larimer County’s recovery manager.

“I don’t think people not involved with the fire understand what a long, arduous path it is to rebuild,” she said. “It becomes a four- to five-year event.” Equating the emotional toll with the environmental toll, Bassinger said, “It will be 10 to 15 years before we see a normal environment up there. It’s a very long-lasting impact to the environment and certainly to people who lived up there.”

Dale and Marilyn Snyder lost their 1,500-square-foot home with expansive deck in the Davis Ranch Road area and have not decided whether to rebuild. They are living in a 320-square-foot guest house on the property.

“We haven’t totally decided what we are going to do but we’re taking the pressure off ourselves,” Dale Snyder said.

They spent the bulk of that first year trying to get an insurance reform bill through the Colorado Legislature with moderate success. “We’re sitting tight and not really doing anything right now. We don’t have to. I feel bad for the people who felt pressured that they had to do something right away on top of everything else.”

The Snyders’ home burned to the ground. The guest house, about 40 feet from the main house, was untouched by the wind-driven flames except for three broken window panes. “The wind took a lot of homes but the wind saved a lot of homes. We were lucky. We have a lot of black on our property but a lot of green trees, too.”

The couple, which had lived in the Davis Ranch Road area for 20 years, initially rented an apartment in Fort Collins “and we’d come up on weekends,” Dale said. “We truly did think whether we should just try to sell it; everything runs through your mind. But this is home to us and it feels good to be here. It’s quiet. It’s home.”

The Snyders may one day rebuild, he said, but for now, they have paid off their mortgage “and are now part of the tiny home movement,” he said.

If history is a guide, it could be years before most of the homes are rebuilt in the High Park Fire area.

Two years after the Fourmile Canyon Fire destroyed 169 homes in the foothills around Boulder County, only about 30 percent of homeowners had rebuilt. Four years later, the number is just under 50 percent. “Some people can’t afford to rebuild, some of them don’t even want to,” said Sue Leto, building permit specialist with Boulder County.

Willingness to rebuild in the wildland urban interface like Boulder and Larimer County looks quite different than it does in Colorado Springs and Estes Park, which lost neighborhoods in the Waldo Canyon and Woodland Heights fires in 2012.

Nearly 80 percent of residents who lost their homes in the Mountain Shadows subdivision in Colorado Springs already have rebuilt, and in Estes Park, all but one of 25 homes is back.

It’s a phenomenon that has more to do with an urban vs. rural setting, and connection to a neighborhood, Bassinger said.

“People who lived in subdivisions like Waldo Canyon lost trees and homes but they didn’t lose the character of the neighborhood,” she said. Homes and neighborhood connections have been rebuilt. But those living in the canyons and foothills burned in High Park live there for a reason, she said. Homes sit on several acres, more than an arm’s length from their neighbors. Rebuilding can be tougher.

Bassinger said she’s also heard from some who built their houses as labors of love 10 or 20 years ago. “Now they’re 10 or 20 years older and at a place in their life where they don’t want to do that again,” she said.

Lee and Karen Swindler bought 40 acres in Rist Canyon in 2007 and were building their vacation/retirement home when fire swept it away. “We struggled for a while before deciding to rebuild,” Swindler said. “We lost every tree and the trees were everything to my wife. I was on the fence. We looked around and there was nowhere else we desired to be more than the Fort Collins area.”

So they decided to rebuild.

“The fact that we liked the area and for me, having a hand in helping and watching the area rehabilitate itself was a factor,” he said.

The couple planted 750 seedlings last year, another 500 to 700 this year and reseeded the grass. “It does look good. The trees are gone, but they’re coming back.”

Pat Baker’s house and garden was recently part of a garden tour that drew dozens of visitors from plant societies.

Plants are sprouting in new locations, “plants have moved, every day is interesting,” Baker said. “Mother Nature is so determined to live and to survive, and I keep seeing that in the plants and it makes me feel stronger.”

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Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com

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