ALAMOSA — Rio Grande Roundtable members on Tuesday heard an account of the Spring Fire devastation from someone who was one of the first — outside of firefighters — to see it firsthand.
Costilla County Assessor Ronda Lobato, who is also a member of the roundtable board, documented the fire’s destruction of 148 homes within the Forbes Park, Forbes Wagon Creek and Sangre de Cristo Ranches subdivisions.
“We assessed 412 homes in three to four days,” Lobato told the members of the Valley-wide water group on Tuesday afternoon. She and her team of six staff worked through the July 4th holiday, days, nights and weekends to conduct the assessments and compile the necessary data.
Firefighters accompanied the team as they conducted assessments, she explained, because the fire was still going. Now the fire is 77 percent contained, but there are still hot spots in the area, she added.
(The fire, which began June 27 as a result of a cooking fire that got out of hand, burned nearly 108,000 acres. Jesper Joergensen, 52, who has been charged with arson in connection to the Spring Fire, will appear in Costilla County Court this Thursday afternoon, July 12.)
Lobato said there may have been three or four homes that were partially damaged in the fire, but most of the houses that were lost were entirely destroyed, “literally melted to the ground,” she said. “If it was destroyed, it was completely destroyed.”
She said emergency officials are calling the Spring Fire the worst disaster the San Luis Valley has suffered.
Likening it to the statement “winter is coming” in the Game of Thrones, Lobato said, “Winter came … It’s gray. It’s dark. It’s creepy. It’s sad, very said.”
She said the fire has affected every part of the environment on the mountain from houses to wildlife and watersheds. A bear had to be put down on Tuesday, she said, because it was so badly injured in the fire. Other animals are coming out, and they are injured, she said.
When asked about the relationship of the county to the properties that were under homeowners associations, as Forbes Park and Forbes Wagon Creek were, Lobato said the county was working with them through agreements. She added that the county would be assisting in repairing roads and other infrastructure.
“Forbes Park and Forbes Wagon Creek are part of the Costilla County community and family, and so our elected officials believe they need to help them out,” Lobato said.
Lobato said Costilla County will be working with homeowners whose houses were lost in the fire, waiving permit fees and assessing their properties as residential (rather than vacant land) for up to two years while they rebuild, or longer if they request an extension from the next assessor. (Lobato is term limited so will not be the assessor after January.)
She said valuations would be pro-rated this year for the 177 days prior to the fire.
“They will be taxed for 177 days this year,” she explained.
When asked how the reduced assessed valuation due to the fire would affect county revenues, Lobato said she was still analyzing that impact. However, she said one thing that would help offset the loss in revenues to the county was the sawmill, which put in $20 million worth of personal property.
Members of the roundtable offered assistance to Costilla County in the restoration process.
“We are going to need a lot of help,” Lobato said. She said Costilla County is forming a restoration group, and there will be much work to accomplish.
Lobato said residents of Forbes Wagon Creek were allowed back in on Tuesday, but residents of Forbes Park are not yet being allowed back in and will not be allowed in full time until electricity is restored. She said San Isabel Electric has been working hard to restore power. It has been a monumental task, she added, because “the entire mountain is burned.” It is not just a few poles that have to be replaced, she explained.
Roundtable member Judy Lopez said those involved in fighting the Spring Fire have said the fire rewrote the book on fire behavior because it was so erratic. Winds would come up, for example, and flare the fire hundreds of feet up in the air. When the fire moved, there was little time to evacuate some of the residential areas.
State Senator Larry Crowder commended those who have been working on the fire. “They had a super team up there,” he said. He commended the Costilla County staff like Lobato’s team who worked 20-hour days to assist the fire victims.
As containment increases on the Spring Fire, Rocky Mountain Team Black (which has been overseeing efforts south of Highway 160) will transfer command of the southern section to the Rocky Mountain Blue Team (which has been coordinating firefighting efforts north of Highway 160.) Wednesday, July 11, will be the last evacuee meeting hosted by Team Black at the Blanca/Ft Garland Community Center.
The Blue Team will assume full command responsibilities of the entire Spring Fire at 6 a.m. on Thursday, July 12.
Highway 160 and Highway 12 are now both open, but there is no stopping, parking, or standing outside of vehicles along Highway 160 from La Veta to Ft Garland. Please check www.cotrip.org for updates.
For more information see:
Fire Info Line: 719-695-9573
Captions: Costilla County Assessor Ronda Lobato gives a Spring Fire report to fellow Rio Grande Roundtable members on Tuesday in Alamosa./Courier photo by Ruth Heide
The Spring Fire has devastated the landscape along La Veta Pass. According to Costilla County Assessor Ronda Lobato, 148 homes were lost in Costilla County. An additional 68 dwellings were destroyed in Huerfano County, according to fire public information officials. These numbers could increase./Photo by Jennifer Alonzo