High Park Fire Forum: Recovery

“How do you help a family who has lost everything?” asked Suzanne Bassinger, the Larimer County Recovery Manager. “Whose responsibility is this? It’s the people in the community that help each other.”

Bassinger was one of four speakers at “The High Park Fire: Recovery” hosted by the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. The April 9 panel discussion was the fourth of six public forums, each focusing on a different aspect of the fire. Joining Bassinger were Phil Benstein, president and co-founder of NoCo Rebuilding Network, AnnMarie Arbo, case manager with Long Term Recovery Group, and Matt Marietta, principal of Poudre School District’s Mountain Schools.

The High Park Fire raged for three weeks in June 2012. By the time containment was achieved by multiple local, state, and federal agencies, one person had been killed, 259 homes destroyed and more than 87,000 acres burned.

Bassinger said the first recovery effort was offering disaster assistance as soon as possible. Five days after the High Park Fire was declared a national disaster, Deni La Rue, the community information manager, announced the opening of the Disaster Recovery Center on the Colorado State University campus.

Bassinger quoted a story from La Rue, who told her, “People would arrive in shock. They would be rather dazed and not know exactly what to do.”

The Disaster Recovery Center — a partnership between Larimer County, the state Department of Local Affairs and CSU — provided a one-stop opportunity for fire victims to learn about services and assistance.

Recovery also extends to the landscape and vegetation. Bassinger said that due to the increased risk of post-fire flooding, Larimer County began a sandbag project in 2013 with a generous donation from the Red Cross.

“Post-fire flooding is a huge concern and threat,” Bassinger said. “Every inch of rain can represent a risk. It will be a very long time for the environment to get back to normal. It will be 20-30 more years.”

Rebuilding assistance in the aftermath of the fire was the focus of NoCo Rebuilding Network, a volunteer collection of over 100 construction professionals and local businesses.

The organization provides volunteers, materials, financial support, local expertise, and education on sustainable best practices. NCRN’s Benstein said the goal is to “rebuild safer, smarter, and stronger.”

So far, NCRN has provided over 60 grants for those who choose to sustainably rebuild in Larimer County.

Benstein emphasized that recovery from a fire actually begins before a fire.

“Be prepared,” he said. “Do your inventory now, and have the right amount of insurance. Most people are underinsured.”

Recovery Case Manager Arbo echoed the importance of taking stock of household contents and possessions. “The person sitting in front of [the insurance agent] is probably in one of the worst parts of their lives,” Arbo said. “And now the insurance company wants to know what was in the third drawer of their kitchen cabinet. For most of the survivors, they don’t want to answer a lot of questions.”

The final panelist, Mountain School Principal Matt Marietta, addressed the role of the school in the recovery process for students.

“School is the one thing in their lives that does not change,” he said. “Recovery is hard, messy, emotional, and tiring. So we focus on what we can control – providing optimism and building people’s strengths. The school is a place of hope and support; we look for the bright spots.”

The three Mountain Schools serve the elementary students at Stove Prairie, Livermore and Red Feather Lakes. In spite of the High Park Fire, Marietta said enrollment in the Mountain Schools has continued to climb in recent years. In 2014, 120 students were enrolled, compared with 110 in 2013 and 98 in 2012. “Next year, we’ll probably have the highest enrollment,” Marietta said. “The enrollment figures are showing that people are coming back to the mountains.”

In conclusion, NCRN’s Benstein reminded the audience that fires are a natural event in the history of a forest.

“These dramatic events shape the environment around us,” he said. “Forests are so much healthier after a fire. Fires should be seen as a transformational experience, and life is full of transformational experiences. If you don’t think we’ll have another disaster in the next few years, you’re not looking at history.”

With regard to the High Park Fire, Benstein added, “Our mettle was tested, but we came out more resilient. Disaster happens to everyone. But every day we wake up, we are a survivor, not a victim.”

The next forum — “Where Do You Go From Here?” — will be held at the museum beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 14. Each forum is open to the public and free of charge. For more information, go to fcmod.org. The forums will also be aired on Fort Collins City Cable 14.

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