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Rising from the ashes: For couple who lost home in Lower North Fork Fire, recovery comes slowly

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By Deb Hurley Brobst

Editor’s note: The Courier profiled Kristen Moeller and David Cottrell, who lost their home in the Lower North Fork Fire, at the beginning of April. We have checked on their progress six months after the disaster.

One step forward and two steps back.

That’s the best way to describe the past six months for Kristen Moeller and David Cottrell, who lost their home in the Lower North Fork Fire. Moeller says they still have good and bad days after the devastating fire, which started six months ago today.

They have learned many lessons about such tragedies: the good, such as the unending support from the Mountain Resource Center and state Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, to the frustration of working with insurance companies and the state in trying to get compensation.

The Lower North Fork Fire, which started on March 26, burned 4,100 acres, destroyed 23 homes south of Conifer and caused about $11 million in damage. The blaze re-ignited from a Colorado Forest Service prescribed burn that was poorly monitored near Reynolds Park.

The neighbors affected by the fire meet twice a month to provide information and support, and they thank the community for its generosity through fund-raisers and assistance.

They also ask the community to understand they have not healed from the effects of the devastation, and while they may look fine on the outside, it’s not the case on the inside.

“I’m not going to be sad for 2012 to be over,” Moeller said. “Everything is bittersweet right now.”

She and her husband still are working with their insurance company, which has paid some of their claims, and monitoring the actions of the state, which has not come forth with relief of any kind for any victims.

According to the victims, at times it appears they have been lumped in with the High Park and Waldo Canyon fire victims, but at other times it seems the Conifer fire was “too small or too early or not big enough,” so the state has not provided help with mitigating burned trees or 0erosion issues, Moeller said.

“If I sound a little cynical, it’s because I am,” she said.

The couple still are deciding what to do about rebuilding a home on their 37 acres off Kuehster Road and Rocky Top Trail. For now, it’s a matter of how much the insurance company will pay and when, and what that money will allow them to afford.

Despite the worry about their finances and home, they continue working. Moeller is an author, author coach and executive publisher of Imbue Press. Cottrell owns a software company.

Moeller says she and her fellow fire victims want the public to know they are not opposed to prescribed burns. Rather, they want prescribed burns to be monitored better, so another fire doesn’t get out of control.

On a sunny day last week, Moeller stood on her property. To the west along the ridges was the smoky haze from wildfires burning out of state. The couple have taken down 40 trees, and Moeller is amazed that aspen already have sprouted. The 2-foot-high saplings and grasses are green, and wildflowers bloom in patches. But the blackened sticks that used to be trees are a stark reminder of the fire that turned their dream home to ashes.

Current state of mind

Soon after the fire, Moeller decided she wanted to return to the property, so the couple bought a trailer that they named Flame. They put it on their property around Mother’s Day and quickly learned that, with no trees to provide shade, it was too hot for them and their Australian ridgeback dogs, Roscoe and Tigger, to stay. They lasted a month there, she said.

“It was a romantic idea to live out here,” she said. “We thought it was a good plan to be up here and reconnect with the land.”

The couple have learned they should have moved to a rental home immediately because that could have created a sense of having a place of their own. Instead, they’ve been staying with friends.

They took a month-long vacation in August to get away from the stress, but returning brought everything back.

Moeller says that six months later the grief isn’t as deep as it was, but she still isn’t sleeping well because of worrying about finances, where to live and insurance issues.

“Some days are pretty good, and I laugh,” she said. “Other days are tougher. It’s hard because you have a few good days in a row, and then it all comes back.”

More advice

Moeller continues to learn lessons from living through a disaster, and she passes them along:

• Don’t compare tragedies. The Lower North Fork Fire victims should not minimize their experiences by comparing them with other fires last summer that were larger, or with the Aurora theater shootings.

• Cultivate a support system of friends you don’t have to remind that you’re still emotionally raw over the fire.

• The world will go on, and people will forget what you’re still going through.

• The stress from losing a home can be difficult on couples because everyone grieves differently and at a different rate.

• It’s important to find an outlet for your emotions. For Moeller, it’s been her blog, called “Walking Through Fire.” It can be found at http://kristenmoeller.com/walking-through-fire/.

She says that while she’s sad that so many of her neighbors lost their homes, too, she’s grateful for the support they provide one another.

“Thank God we have a group,” she said. “To do this alone would be insurmountable.”

Contact Deb Hurley Brobst at deb@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1041. Check www.CanyonCourier.com for updates.