After a couple years of looking online and informally looking at neighborhoods and houses while vacationing in Colorado, D and I finally narrowed our search down to the foothills west of Fort Collins. My employer had agreed to let me work remotely, and after finishing up her PhD in Biology, D planned to look for either forestry or university work. Fort Collins is a good location for both of those things. For my part, I needed somewhere with a solid broadband connection so I could do my job, and D needed to be not-too-far from Fort Collins since she would probably be commuting. After our "drive-by stalking" adventures, we knew we wanted mountain property with lots of trees, but some open areas, too. And we wanted at least 10 acres of space that we could easily use without climbing gear -- too many houses in the mountains are perched on a cliff and crammed into a corner of their lot, leaving the residents unable to get to the rest of the property because of the terrain.
Broadband, short drive-time, trees, meadows, mountains, and lots of land. Not an easy combination of things to come by. We had several candidates favorited on real estate websites like Zillow and Redfin, but of course you can't buy real estate online. So in the early spring a high school friend of D's that had moved to Fort Collins recommended an agent, and home shopping began in earnest.
Another wasn't nearly as good in person as online -- there were a lot of things that looked like they could be maintenance nightmares lurking under the surface, especially the garage, which had excavated top-soil pressing against its back wall. That house will come up later as the Garage House. Almost none of the houses we looked at had high-speed internet.
The volunteer fire department is located only about 1/3 mile away, which is very encouraging, but preventing fire is always preferable to fighting it.
Hewlett Gulch fire started on the north side of the Poudre Canyon, about 4 miles from the house. D and I watched carefully as it was fully contained in about a week, thankful that there was a river, two roads, and a ridge-top between the fire and the property we hoped would soon be ours. Fire fighters managed to bring the fire under control without losing a single structure. The fire was the largest that Larimer County had ever had, at 7,685 acres.
Over the course of the next three days, the High Park Fire exploded in size, screaming across the entire Rist Canyon area. In the initial days of the fire, getting everyone to safety was the first priority. This meant that the limited resources already in the area couldn't do much to protect structures. Structure protection was much more effective later after the personnel fighting the fire increased from 250 up to its high somewhere near 2500. We watched in horror as the fire seemed to circle our new house, expanding first to the northeast, then the south, then back to the west again. Entire neighborhoods of houses were wiped out, for a total of 118 in the first few days. The Garage House survived, but the garage itself was destroyed and nearly all the trees on the property were reduced to blackened toothpicks. The sellers' agent also lost her house during those first few days. Eventually, the fire completed its circuit around and mostly filled a more-or-less square area 41,142 acres in size. Right in the center of that area was a little diagonal patch of unburned ground running from northwest to southeast along the road. In the middle of that patch was our house.
|High Park Fire as of June 12|
But that call didn't come. Instead, the seller -- part of the volunteer fire department battling the blaze -- reached out to me directly via email, sending me pictures that painted a very different story than the doom-filled media reports of walls of flame 200 feet high marching inexorably across the landscape. Those flame-walls were real, but they weren't representative of every part of the burn area. In many places, the fire contented itself with ground fuels, leaving the tops of the trees untouched while consuming the fallen needles, branches, scrub, and grass. Looking at the pictures, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. Instead of the blackened moonscape I expected to see, I saw green grass, green trees, and occasional black stripes on the ground where the fire sent out a finger, testing the defensible area around the house. The pictures were strategically shot, showing me bits of burn area but mostly focusing on the green stuff. I can't really blame the seller for that, he was trying to keep me from panicking and killing the deal -- and he surely knew that we would be visiting prior to closing and would see the whole story, so I view his shot selection as reassuring, rather than misleading.
On June 15, we learned that the major insurance carriers had all frozen the writing of new policies in the area indefinitely, as of the start date of the fire -- June 9. We obviously couldn't imagine buying a house with no hazard insurance, and the bank requires hazard insurance in order to approve a mortgage, so that had the potential to kill the deal. On June 16, after making some calls to find out more details, we discovered that our insurance policy had been delivered to our loan underwriter on June 8, one day before the freeze went into effect. Our agent promised to head up into the canyon as soon as the roads were reopened to take some pictures and video so that we could see the full extent of the situation and make a decision about the closing.
Despite our house being spared, the fire was nowhere near done. The management team spent the next two weeks scrambling to create and defend a line of containment around this fire, as record high temperatures, 30-50mph winds, and single-digit humidity levels all contributed to make the fire extremely aggressive and difficult to predict. Many stories have been written about the High Park Fire, so I won't repeat them except to give the final stats. By the time full containment was reached on July 1st, it had burned 87,284 acres making it the second-largest in Colorado history. 259 homes where destroyed in the High Park Fire, making it the most destructive fire in Colorado history (that record was broken immediately by the Waldo Canyon Fire outside Colorado Springs). Not including the property damages, the actual fighting of the fire cost $39.2 million.
|Progression through June 23. Expansion in WSW corner is not mapped.|
We had a closing date of June 29 scheduled, but our agent couldn't get into the canyon to view the house because the road hadn't been reopened. After much soul searching, we decided to fly out anyway, and to be very thorough with the final walk-through, since that would be our last chance to pull out. As the day drew nearer and nearer, we started questioning the prudence of closing on a house that remained evacuated and in an active fire zone. On June 28 in the late afternoon, as we were boarding our plane to Colorado, the evacuation was lifted. Only residents could pass the National Guard checkpoints, but we had the selling agent to drive us up, so that was no problem.
Our luck was magical: one day later with the insurance, and the bank would have killed the deal. Ours was the first real estate transaction to close after the fire. One day earlier with the closing date, and the evacuation order would have remained in place and our agent would have talked us out of closing. Ten feet more from the fire, and our beautiful new house would have been damaged or destroyed, and our seller would have been in grave peril. We also learned later that the Garage House was sold and closed on June 8. So those poor buyers, the very next day, found themselves thrust into an evacuation situation. We were spared that, since we were still in Chicago and in the stressful but safe situation of being able to simply cancel the deal if the house was damaged. All the other homeowners in the area had to wait and see if their summers would be spent rebuilding -- we could wait to see if we had to restart the real estate shopping or not.
Words cannot express my gratitude to the previous owner of our new house, as well as all the men and women on the many fire-fighting agencies that came together to contain this fire and protect the structures within it. But especially the seller, because I know he risked his life for the property, and then thought to take pictures to reassure us the next morning. He was an absolute prince of a man throughout the entire transaction, and I like to think that I can now number him as one of my friends.