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Showing them the money in Black Forest

One shift after Waldo came in the willingness to give victims cash



Months after the Waldo Canyon Fire raged through Mountain Shadows, its victims were still struggling to get assistance.

Despite an outpouring of donations, victims complained of confusing voucher systems and a network of charities that was more headache than help. By the end of last October, for instance, victim Susan Post and her two teenage daughters had received only $150 worth of donations. Meanwhile, Post had spent nearly $13,000 of her own money just trying to get by, and was desperate for cash ("Kink in the hose," News, Oct. 31).

The Independent received many calls and emails from victims with similar stories at that time.

But the lines have been quiet since the Black Forest Fire.

El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who is leading the recovery effort and working with victims, says several factors have helped. First, services are all being handled through a single entity, the county, which has in turn formed committees to deal with specific concerns. Second, the county has held regular meetings with residents to hear their concerns. (The next one is scheduled for Aug. 22 at New Life Church.) Third, the county set up the Disaster Assistance Center within 36 hours of the Black Forest Fire igniting, and began offering cash grants to victims, courtesy of the El Pomar Foundation.

That last part is particularly significant: Waldo Canyon victims often said the thing they truly needed, especially early on, was cash. "That was a gap that we saw during Waldo Canyon," El Pomar spokesperson Lori Bellingham says, "and the county was set up and able to fill that gap very, very quickly during this fire."

El Pomar gave $250,000 to the county to dole out for victims' emergency needs. That was part of a larger 2013 gift of $530,000-plus to its own Wild Land Fire Fund, which assists Colorado first responders in areas with an active fire.

El Pomar also gave to the fund during Waldo, but its largest gift, $125,000, went to Pikes Peak United Way, which in turn distributed the money to smaller charities.

County Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who was active during both the Waldo and Black Forest fires, says she believes victims more greatly benefited from receiving cash — usually a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

"My job [during the Black Forest Fire] was to make sure that people were being helped and were happy, and I think we accomplished that," she says. "There were very few people that had anything but positive things to say when they were leaving."

That said, there was at least one drawback to the new system. While the county listed specific reasons money could be given, as well as amounts — for instance, a recommended maximum of $250 for food for a family — there were no checks to ensure it was spent as directed. In one case documented by staff emails, Littleton intervened on behalf of a victim, who ended up getting an El Pomar grant to pay her $500 insurance deductible — an expense not covered by the grant.

The emails indicate Littleton knew it was a rule violation, though she says she was confused and didn't intend to break a rule. (The incident was reported to El Pomar.)

With two local fires and two strategies under its belt, it remains to be seen whether El Pomar will favor a more controlled, charity-based system or a freer, cash-based one in future disasters. Trustees, Bellingham says, will look at cases individually.

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