After the Flames: Builders bustling in Black Forest

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0502-rebuild2CCLucky is an aptly named Betta fish.

He was rescued from a high school lab by Moriah Nelson, so she bestowed him his moniker.

Moriah was home alone last June, her father Steve away on a fishing trip, her mother Stacie in Colorado Springs, miles from their Black Forest home.

Stacie, seeing on the news that a wildfire was burning not far from where they lived, called her daughter. Moriah told her she could see the smoke from their house near Gun Club Trail. Stacie was coming home.

Not long after she arrived, a deputy from the Sheriff’s Office was at their door, saying they had to evacuate. They had time to gather some family photos, the home computer … and Lucky.

Two days later, while staying with friends — who also were later evacuated — the Nelsons saw via an online list that their home had been destroyed.

“Our hearts just sank,” Steve Nelson said. “There were tears all around. It was kind of a feeling of disbelief. … It’s difficult to admit you’ve lost everything.”

The Nelsons had lived in their home on Highline Drive for 18 years.

“It’s the only home our daughter ever knew,” Nelson said.

Now, from a hole that will one day house a westerly facing window, the Nelsons can look from their home under construction at the remnants of their old home.

“We were on the fence about rebuilding,” he said. “Once we were able to go to the house and saw the property and saw some of the trees remaining, we decided in October to rebuild, and we broke ground in March.”

The Nelsons went with family friend Cris Clothier, of Cris Clothier Construction in Cascade, to build their home, and they expect to move in sometime in August.

Like the Nelsons, many Black Forest residents have decided to move back, and the disaster has been a boon for all things construction. The fire reduced homes, some a century old, to ash. It claimed countless memories, two lives and a community’s peace of mind. It left behind hundreds of crumbling foundations, thousands of blackened trees and a whole lot of work to do.

Longtime builder staying busy

Louis Mastin, owner of Seeger Homes Inc., remembers watching last June as the wind blew smoke to the northeast. Mastin was at his own home near Burgess and Milam roads in Black Forest when the fire started less than a mile away. He knew even a brief shift in winds could mean certain evacuation.

Less than a year later, Mastin’s home still stands. But many of his neighbors weren’t so fortunate. Along with his wife Shar, Mastin is trying to help rebuild their community.

“We have about 16 [modular] homes that are either done or that we are currently working on,” Mastin said, adding the building industry had slowed prior to the fire. “From 2005 to 2008, a lot of [builders] folded and went out of business.”

During the 1990s, Seeger Homes would build an average of 60 homes a year. He said doing half as many homes now is considered busy, and his company is certainly on track to complete that many because of losses suffered in 2013. Mastin said he’s had to hire three employees on a contract basis to help with the sudden workload, and subcontractors are hiring as well.

Mastin said he’s been in the local homebuilding industry 47 years, and while he knew many of his neighbors prior to the fire, they were more acquaintances than friends.

“Black Forest is a funny community,” he said. “Most homes are on 5-acre lots. We built our home and moved in in 1981 and we have great neighbors, but we only talked with them a few times a year.

“That’s changed. People started to come see us a week after the fire. My wife worked with people on the Tuesday and Wednesday after the fire started. Eight groups of people came in looking for answers and help. By Thursday, she had to take a day off because it was too much listening to their stories.”

Mastin said he looked for a way to help those who lost everything, so he has since waived a $3,000 construction and permit fee on homes he’s building in Black Forest. “We’ve put $40,000 of our own money back into the community,” he said.

Mastin said one unexpected result of the fire is the increased interest in properties from those living outside the area.

“One family came here looking for property and purchased a lot from a lady who did not want to rebuild,” Mastin said. “People come here wanting to be close to the city and want 5-acre lots. Now we have meadows and views instead of wall-to-wall trees. For as many people who want out, we’re seeing more people who want in.”

Custom homes in demand

Custom homebuilders Dave Wallace and Steve Ridgway of Wallace Construction Services said the fire has meant a two-fold increase in business.

“We’re small, so two houses [in a year] would be a big deal,” he said. “But we’re working on two houses replacing homes from the fire right now.”

Those homes should be completed within the next few months, Wallace said, adding that other side projects resulting from the fire have further increased their workload.

Black Forest Veterinary Clinic, which occupied the lot across the street from Wallace and Ridgway’s office building, did not survive the fire, so the two men remodeled and equipped units adjacent to theirs to make room for the clinic.

Wallace said the wildfire not only created jobs, it may have saved some livelihoods. “I think some contractors would be out of business if it hadn’t been for the fire,” he said.

Wallace said he’s been in business in Black Forest for 22 years, and they are busier now than they’ve been in a decade.

According to the Pikes Peak Regional Building Development website, 183 new construction permits have been issued within the Black Forest burn area since last summer. Approximately 500 homes were lost. Wallace said it will take some time to realize the fire’s full impact on the economy because many victims still are contemplating whether to rebuild.

Wallace and Ridgway, both Black Forest residents, said neighbors who resided in larger homes lost to the fire are determining if they need to rebuild a home to the scale they had before.

“I know folks who lived in a big house, but their kids are grown and gone and they’ve since moved into an apartment in Monument,” Wallace said. “There are those who’ve lost their home and said ‘it’s just stuff’ and that they’ll rebuild, but there are lots of memories [lost in the fire].”

He said that when they create custom homes, customers have usually been planning them for years. Now they are faced with life decisions that must be made virtually “overnight.”

“People rebuilding are asking themselves, ‘Do I need this big master closet if I don’t have any clothes?’ or ‘Do I need a workshop when I’ve lost all my tools?’”

Subcontractors rise from the ashes

“If you’re looking for a silver lining, the fire is stimulating the economy for sure,” said Ed Williams, owner of Black Forest Heating and Cooling. Williams said his company hadn’t been involved with new construction in years, until last summer’s fire.

“We got sucked back into new construction because we didn’t want to turn down work,” he said.

The recession hit Williams hard. He went from seven-figure revenues in 2008 to one-third of that in a year.

“I didn’t want to participate in the recession,” he said. “Somehow, it made me. … It’s very scary. I almost lost my house. I have three kids. It was very gut-wrenching at times to think I’d have to come home and tell the kids to pack up because we’d have to move to a place with axles underneath it.”

Prior to the recession, Williams had a staff of 10, but he now operates with five employees after recently hiring two workers to help with new contracts due to rebuilding.

Williams said heat recovery ventilation, or HRV, systems are driving business in Black Forest. Williams said materials in newly built homes can exude unhealthy fumes, adding that contaminated air in the area as a result of soot from burnt trees and the forest floor can make breathing difficult, especially for asthma and allergy sufferers. HRV systems filter clean air from outside while expelling toxins from within the home.

Williams said one drawback from the sudden surge of work is the lack of qualified employees in the area; during the recession, the worker pool dried up as local companies went out of business and labor moved elsewhere for jobs.

“Finding qualified people is difficult,” he said. “People want to move beyond being just an installer. You have to take classes and get trained. … If you go into these classrooms at night, the demographics are guys 40, 50, 60 years old. There are no young guys. People have said the industry will be in trouble in five years. I think it’s in trouble now.”

Williams added that the extremes can take their toll.

“I did geothermal [work] for a builder before the recession hit,” he said. “He was sitting on a $900,000 home. The bank took it back, and he filed bankruptcy and developed health problems.

“Contractors face a different reality than most people,” Williams said. “We get ulcers, we drink ourselves to death, we get divorced, we get sick because we are worried about the next paycheck.”

Williams is optimistic, though. He said there are signs of recovery and the fire had a large part to play in that.

“It looks like we are getting some air underneath our wings and the landing gear is lifting,” he said, adding that rebuilding could go on for years, which would revive the local economy, at least momentarily.

“We were already coming out of the recession before the fire,” Williams said. “Business was up from 2012 to 2013 by $100,000. … We’re on pace now to do much more. There are irons in the fire and the numbers can go up fast.

“The fire was devastating. But guess what? It created jobs.”

(Editor’s note: First of a two-page series. Next week, a look at other Black Forest businesses doing well.)