Black Forest: Trip into the past, and future

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Just like yesterday, I still remember my first drive into the Black Forest. It was in the fall of 1977, on a beautiful weekday afternoon.

I was feeling a little homesick, though I never would’ve admitted it at 25, having moved here from my native state of Arkansas a few months earlier. So I decided to explore the north end of El Paso County and this area they called Black Forest.

It felt like going home. I was stunned by the rolling country, driving roads with hardly any traffic, up and down hills that weren’t close to being mountains, surrounded by peaceful pine trees and still-green meadows. It was such a comforting escape, so near the metro bustle yet so totally removed.

And if you’ve ever visited rural areas of the South, you know what I mean.

Ever since that day in 1977, I’ve known where to go for a quick taste of nostalgia and a break from the rat race. Sure, development has come into play, with thousands more area residents sharing the same feelings about Black Forest and taking the extra step of actually building or buying a home to live there.

But one still could find the same solace revisiting that area — even dealing with the addition of that single stoplight at the intersection of Black Forest and Shoup roads.

And through the years, I have to say, not once was I ever consumed by a fear that someday a wildfire might destroy so much of that secluded paradise. You’d see homes, old and new, built on large lots or in small subdivisions. But they never left the impression of inviting full-scale disaster, as has been the case with other developments carved into mountainsides.

If you had asked me prior to last week about the potential for a Black Forest cataclysm destroying 509 homes, I would’ve scoffed. Perhaps a small blaze might consume one subdivision, or a handful of homes within sight of each other in an unlucky area. That’s all.

Now, of course, we know differently.

Certainly, our region and its governments responded admirably after the Waldo Canyon experience last year, raising the awareness level for mitigation needs and documenting lessons learned from that experience to apply in the future — but without knee-jerking and going too far. Some were critical of the Red Rock Canyon Open Space being closed to hikers for a while, but that was about it.

Last week, after the Black Forest fire erupted, we quickly saw how valuable those lessons were. Communications were better and more effective, the military air support came far sooner, evacuation notices appeared to be more authoritative and proactive, the steady leadership of Sheriff Terry Maketa came across to all concerned, and the overall battle succeeded as a result.

We’ll never know how much worse this fire might have been if not for such an immediate, massive, efficient and aggressive response. But the bottom line is this: Within 12 months, our county has endured the two most destructive (in property losses) fires in Colorado history. Waldo Canyon was No. 1; now it’s second to Black Forest.

What happens next? Does this fire underscore the need for stricter mitigation requirements in areas where development and nature intermingle? Already, a state-level task force has been exploring related issues, now with a heightened sense of urgency. There is talk of added fees for homeowners with rural homes surrounded by trees, and we can be sure that insurance companies will be more forceful in monitoring policy-holders.

But government leaders also must be careful not to go too far in addressing public concerns. For example, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark says she has heard from people wondering if the county now should close Gold Camp Road, solely because the next fire could strike there. But she’s concerned that would send the wrong message and actually hurt the business community.

“It’s important not to be over-reactive,” Clark said. “I’ve had calls saying we need to do more mitigation, and the tendency appears to be that people will want to mitigate everything now. Some are also saying we should just close all the mountain roads and not let anybody into our parks. But that’s going too far.”

Just as we learned from the Waldo Canyon fire, we’ll learn from this one — and hopefully we won’t have to apply the newer lessons so quickly. But given the fact that these fires truly are state disasters, not just local, we can expect the state to consider next steps as well.

This one will be different, because the damage won’t be easy to see. For people who aren’t affected, the memories of this past week will fade quickly.

As for those of us who have enjoyed our occasional escapes, at least we know that the entire Black Forest didn’t burn. But the scars will be permanent — especially for the 509 families who now must decide what to do next.