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Fire’s scar looms as life returns to normal

Residents reflect on life during and after the blaze
Steve Beiser was pleasantly surprised when he and his wife, Connie, came driving down County Road 201 to find their house untouched by the 416 Fire after being evacuated for seven days.

Residents were filled with fear, horror and shock when the 416 Fire grew from a “wisp of smoke” to an 11,000-acre wildfire on June 1, 2018 – the first day of the 416 Fire.

Since then, residents have assessed the damage, processed the information and formed opinions about what it means for them and the community. Feelings of fear and shock have been replaced by anger, grief and new resolve.

One resident, Steve Beiser, shared this week how he made the decision to stay at his house during evacuations to prepare for the fire’s arrival on County Road 201 in the Hermosa area.

He worked to mitigate fire danger by clearing trees and mowing brush to stunt the fire’s advance toward his house.

He finally decided to leave when firefighters set fire to a hillside near his house, called a back burn, which is designed to starve the advancing wildfire of fuels.

He and his wife went to Bayfield to escape the smoke.

The night he returned, he witnessed a big black plume of smoke and ash that he assumed was his house burning. He was surprised to see his house still standing, calling it the third happiest day of his life.

He learned later the plume was the result of two fires merging.

With the anniversary of the start of the 416 Fire, residents have had time to contemplate and reflect on the fire.

Beiser said when the fire first occurred, he was pretty upset, partly because he said everyone knew what caused the fire even if it was not officially declared. He said if someone has done something wrong, they should admit to it.

Steve Beiser says views from his house on County Road 201 changed after the 416 Fire last year, but he has no plans to move. “It’s still beautiful, man. I wouldn’t live anywhere else” Beiser says.

“If the train is the one that caused the fire, they should be held responsible for the damages that they’ve caused people,” he said.

No one was hurt, and no homes were lost – for this, Beiser said he is thankful.

“I feel like they’re not moving forward with the investigation, or you don’t hear anything about the investigation because of the political ramifications that there may be in Durango with the train,” he said.

Myrna Ford, a resident south of Trimble Lane on East Animas Road (County Road 250), was never in immediate danger, as the fire did not make it across U.S. Highway 550.

But like most Durangoans, she woke up to smoke in the mornings and saw raging flames in the evenings.

While this is her second experience with fires, Ford said, “We hope that never happens again.” It would be a disaster, she said.

With the forest being burned, the root systems can no longer hold the soil intact to prevent erosion and mudslides. Last year, immediately after the fire, the area experienced mudslides and debris flows when rains brought an end to the long, dry summer.

Ford says the view from her home remains intact with no browning or black trees.

Today, Beiser is not worried about mudslides affecting his house, but he said there is a potential for his neighbors down the hill to feel the impacts.

For Beiser and Ford, life has returned to normal in terms of health and daily activities.

With the reopening of the Hermosa Creek area for recreation, Beiser finds himself walking the road 3 to 4 miles back. He said the damage to the Hermosa Trail is not as bad as one would think.

Beiser’s view did not fare as well with the surrounding trees being torched during the blaze.

While he is not concerned about his own property value because he has no plans to move anytime soon, he said the fire’s damage may have affected property values in the area. If he were planning to sell his house in the near future, he said he would be concerned.

The views are definitely diminished compared with their “pristine” appearance a year ago, he said.

“It’s still beautiful, man. I wouldn’t live anywhere else” Beiser said.

The fire became a learning experience for some residents, including Beiser, who came to realize what wildfires mean to the West.

He now has more empathy for others facing the perils of natural disasters.

“I would hope that no one ever has to go through what we did,” he said. “... I had no idea how terrible it was (experiencing a wildfire) until we actually went through it.”

bmandile@durangoherald.com

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