Falls Residents Struggle To Rebound From Devastating Fire

Devastating Fire

by Rick Langenber

   Colorado Springs suspects arrested

      Despite suffering a devastating community loss from an arson-related fire of a historic gem, the town of Green Mountain Falls is quickly rebounding and is proceeding with a business as usual attitude. Early Thursday, the town incurred a huge blow, when GMF’s highly revered town hall, first constructed in 1898 and a mainstay for city business for decades, was completely destroyed from a suspicious fire that totally engulfed the structure and slightly damaged an adjacent residence within 30 minutes. The only remains of town hall consisted of a recently-added on addition.   For much of last week, the ruins of town hall almost resembled a local version of the 9/11 Twin Towers disaster area, with post office goers gawking at the site in dismay and shock. Even with this tragedy, regarded as the single-biggest loss of a municipal structure in the city’s 100-plus-year history, the swift work of the Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park Fire Department, stopped the blaze from spreading to other structures, including the home of Barbara Gafford, located right behind town hall.  “They did a tremendous job under very difficult conditions,” said Richard Bowman, Board President of the Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park Fire District.  No one was hurt from the blaze.

Authorities have arrested two men from Colorado Springs, Zachariah Shaffer and Kyle Lawrence, in relation to the blaze.  They face charges of first-degree arson, second degree burglary and conspiracy to commit first-degree arson. The arson suspects, who apparently used five gallons of gasoline, reportedly scorched the town hall as part of an apparent anti-government plot directed at local police, according to Colorado Springs news reports.  One of the suspects, Lawrence, is at a burn facility in Denver, recovering from injuries incurred in the blaze.  They both suffered serious burns during the arson.  The arrest stems from an earlier standoff that occurred near Wasson High School in Colorado Springs Friday afternoon, and resulted in the apprehension of three probable suspects or people of interest. Authorities from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency surrounded a home near the school.  One of the suspects tried to barricade himself inside the home, but eventually surrendered. Wasson High and Audubon Elementary schools were put on lock down during the standoff.

The eventual arrest occurred from a Crime Stopper tip, according to a KKTV news report, when an individual noticed burns on one of the suspects shortly after the fire was reported.  The fire was investigated by the Green Mountain Falls Police Department, the GMF/Chipita Park Fire Department, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department.

According to most reports, the fact that the fire was squashed without destroying any residences has turned into a complete miracle.    In the last five days, the town has received an outpouring of support from adjacent municipalities and residents from the region.  “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to pull communities together.  The support we have received has been unbelievable,” said Green Mountain Falls Mayor Tyler Stevens. “If I had any doubts about where I wanted to always live, I don’t now. It is here (in Green Mountain Falls),” said City Clerk Chris Frandina, who reported receiving at least 40 calls the day following the fire.

Still, officials are ready to start the process of rebuilding and analyzing what they have lost.  “While it is devastating to us, it is just a building,” said Stevens, when addressing residents during an emergency town meeting on Feb. 24 at The Church in the Wildwood.  “It is important to move forward.”   This became a central theme echoed by virtually all local leaders.

 A time for rebuilding

     During the emergency forum, town leaders quickly went into a rebounding mode and named a new interim site for conducting meetings and running the operations of city hall.  The new headquarters, pending the submittal of documents, will be the Rocky Mountain Christian Center at the west entrance to town, with the Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park Fire Department headquarters and The Church in the Wildwood slated as backups in case the Christian Center site falls through.

Moreover, city officials made it clear that the scheduled election of April 3 will move forward.  “We need to send a message we are back in business,” said Trustee Marshall Worthey, who actually compiled a detailed recovery plan.  “It is important we go on with the election and not let this thing de-rail us.” In fact, Worthey even drew comparisons regarding the town’s plight to the elections in Iraq when the country was assaulted by terrorists. He didn’t get any arguments from the trustees or Frandina, who stated that she has met with election officials from El Paso and doesn’t see any big hurdles.  “I think our community residents will be understanding,” said Frandina, regarding minor glitches that may occur for this election. To help facilitate the process, Worthey urged all candidates for office to get petitions filed or possibly refilled (if they had been turned in, they have probably been destroyed) without delays.

During the forthcoming election, voters will pick a new mayor and three trustee positions, along with deciding the fate of the proposed mill levy in nearly 30 years. The board also voted to name the Rocky Mountain Christian Center as the interim home of town hall, with the first formal meeting to be held there this Friday (March 2) at 4 p.m. Ironically, prior to the fire, a few trustees had conducted meetings with officials from the Rocky Mountain Christian Center regarding the prospects of leasing space at their facility.  The center was selected as the interim town hall mainly because of its parking availability, Internet capabilities and ample space. However, the trustees weren’t lacking in possibilities for a temporary home.  They were provided choices from the cities of Woodland Park and Manitou Springs, The Church in the Wildwood, the GMF Fire Department, a private residence and even an area above the Silver Tongue Devil Saloon. Plus, the Sallie Bush Center was even thrown out as a remote possibility.

City officials hope to be up and running in their new facility at the Rocky Mountain Christian Center by Thursday. Also, the city plans to set up a fund for recovery donations, coordinated through the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, while emotions are still running high.

Falls still reeling in shock

     However, with the huge fire and loss of many historic documents, the city faces many challenges.  Besides serving as the home for town hall, the historic building presided as GMF’s court hub. Judge John Bruce expressed potential problems with pending cases, with the reality of many judicial records being destroyed.  “There may a lot of defendants that just get a break,” said Bruce.  But the judge said he would consult with the city attorney and marshal in trying to resurrect these documents.  Assessing the damage from the fire is now a big priority, according to Worthey.  On the upside, Frandina told the trustees that many of the town’s documents, especially ones compiled in recent years, may be able to be retained due to a special computer backup system that the city utilized. However, she conceded that many planning documents, including cherished historic photos, are probably gone.

Regardless of what action transpires, residents and town leaders are still reeling in disbelief.  “I was in absolute shock,” admitted Stevens, who arrived on scene shortly after the fire.  GMF Marshal Tim Bradley echoed similar sentiments, and praised the way town residents have come together.  “There is really no letdown from this,” said Bradley. On Sunday, Pastor David Shaw of The Church in the Wildwood devoted his entire sermon to the devastation that occurred and the community’s loss. “It is just a building,” said Shaw, who noted that from a symbolic standpoint, fires can “rekindle the spirit.”  Like other community leaders, he lauded the work of the GMF fire department in dealing with a horrific blaze involving embers that even drifted into the lake area near the Gazebo.  He also advised the church’s congregation not to jump to conclusions regarding the probable perpetrators of the incident. “We are angry, but we are committed,” said Shaw.   He hinted that the situation would work its way out through the local agencies and the courts.

     The GMF town hall was regarded as the community’s core municipal center for decades.  It first served as a school house and then became the official town hall when Green Mountain Falls was incorporated.   Besides serving as the place for housing documents, it maintained quite a legacy as a quaint place for town meetings. While many municipalities or small cities now sport big podiums and microphones, television cameras and digital equipment, GMF conducted meetings the old fashioned way. However, in the wake of the fire, one of the big future decisions will involve the possible reconstruction of another town hall.  According to Mayor Pro Tem Dick Bratton, the idea of a new town hall wasn’t highlighted much as a capital improvement project, but was listed as a future project.  “It has now jumped way forward on our list,” said Bratton.