Difficult memories of Battlement Mesa blaze still flicker
BATTLEMENT MESA – Seven years after a devastating fire on June 27, 1999, which destroyed nine Battlement Mesa homes, memories are still fresh. For Kay and Larry Soderberg they are doubly painful. While the fire stopped just short of their home in the Monument Creek Village subdivision, it consumed Kay’s father’s house down the street.Bob Barraclough, who was 85 then, lost everything in the fire except his 1991 Thunderbird and some coins he was able to salvage from the charred ruins.Bob died in January 2006 after rebuilding his home and working, along with daughter Kay, to rebuild his life.On the day of the fire, Kay and Larry were camped at Ridgway State Park near Montrose. As soon as they heard the news they took off for home, leaving their trailer at the park and arriving home at 2:30 a.m.”We didn’t know where her dad was,” Larry said. Hundreds of residents had been evacuated to local motels, to friends and neighbors and other places of refuge. Early the next day a Red Cross volunteer found him staying in an apartment nearby.Two days after the fire, Bob and Kay were sifting through the precious few remains of the burned-out house. They were able to salvage a small fraction of Bob’s coin and gun collections. Fortunately, the really rare coins were in a safe-deposit box in the bank.At first he did not want to rebuild. “He wanted to get a place where he didn’t have to do yard work,” Kay said. He had broken his wrist and found pushing a lawn mower painful.
However, he decided to stay and rebuild. The deciding factor was a ham radio antenna. He had sought and won permission from the homeowners association to erect an antenna for his radio on his property, which was not allowed under the homeowner covenants. It was the antenna, and the view of Mount Callahan and the widespread spaces of the Battlements out his windows. “He didn’t want to give up the view,” Kay said.Born April 18, 1914, Bob worked for the Pueblo Police Department as captain of radio communications. He retired to Cañon City before moving to 31 Cottonwood Court in Battlement Mesa in 1995 to be near Kay and Larry.
Now, seven years later, in their screened-in porch overlooking the gulch where the fire raged, Kay and Larry pore over a thick scrapbook. Kay put the book together, with newspaper clippings and photographs of her father’s house after the fire.”The scrapbook was my way of grieving,” she said.The aftermath of the fire was traumatic in equal measure for Bob and Kay.”Dad didn’t have anybody,” Kay said. “I was caught up in it with him.”His wife, Barbara, had died in 1975.Like many survivors of the fire, Bob and Kay worked on insurance claim forms. Kay still has the three-ring binder filled with itemized lists of household items lost in the fire, from a cheese grater to her dad’s coin collection.State Farm insured many of those who lost their homes in the fire.”State Farm was wonderful,” Kay said. “We would start replacing things. They had me visualize each room … then we went shopping.”Receipts were sent on to the insurance company, which reimbursed them for the purchases.In the aftermath of the fire, Kay said her father didn’t say much about it. But in a passing comment to her sister he once said, “I have nothing left of your mother.””This old man, he handled it beautifully,” Kay said proudly. “He had some bouts of depression. We all did. … You couldn’t get away from” evidence of the fire around their homes.Like an amputated limb that continues to cause “ghost” pain, Bob would reach for something, forgetting it was lost in the fire.
Kay could also see the effect it had on him over time.”It seems like he had a different attitude on life. He would sit in City Market and talk to people. He was more patient, there was more awareness of other people,” she said.The pain of the 1999 fire continued to haunt those who lost their homes long after it was extinguished. One man whose home burned down committed suicide. Marilyn Thomas died in a car accident in January 2002. Brandy Wenter died two years later. Several of the families, although they rebuilt their homes, eventually moved away. And as a sad reminder for longtime residents in Battlement Mesa, Bob died on Jan. 18 of this year.Today, sitting on their screened-in porch overlooking the grassy swath where the fire burned seven years earlier, Kay and Larry Soderberg worry about another fire.
A committee of residents received a $200,000 grant from the state to treat the cheat grass in Monument Gulch. Cheat grass is an early growing non-native grass that dries up quickly and creates a perfect fuel for fires.Battlement Mesa has a history of fires. In July 1987, three wildfires burned in the community open space near Monument Village. Two years later, also in July, two fires burned in nearby Saddleback Gulch. In 1998, three boys were arrested for starting a fire that burned several acres in Monument Gulch, close to where the 1999 fire burned.”All seven wildfires were caused by unsupervised children in the community open space,” Larry said.After the 1999 fire, there was a push to control brush and grass around Battlement Mesa homes, but Larry contends little was done by the Battlement Mesa Corp. that owns the community open space and continues to develop the land.The corporation has responded in a letter to Soderberg that the community open space will remain just that, open to all who live in Battlement Mesa.For the Soderbergs, and many others who live in the fires’ path, the open grassy gulch so attractive to kids and their games, is a stark reminder of what was and what could be.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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