Saturday, June 30, 2012

COMMENTARY: Waldo Canyon Fire

Saturday on my way home from work.
This has been an unbelievably traumatic week for me. And since writing has always been good therapy, I thought I would write about my experience.

I spotted the first plume of smoke around noon while showing houses on Saturday, June 23rd. I remember thinking, “Ugh, a wildfire. Someone probably threw a cigarette butt down on the Waldo Canyon Trail. Idiot!” (I do not tolerate the inconsiderate morons who litter and put the rest of us in danger by throwing out their butts anywhere they want, let alone in a forest as dry as ours!)

As I drove up I-25 back to my office after showing the last home, I started to worry about the fire. It was very apparent that the smoke plume had grown significantly larger.

Monday afternoon with the smoke column rising.
That night I watched the news with my family. Yes, it was a wildfire. Yes, it was in Waldo Canyon. And yes, it was dangerous. We watched that evening and much of the day Sunday and into Monday as they evacuated neighborhood after neighborhood coming closer and closer to us. 

The Incident Response Team was amazing as they immediately started holding press briefings twice daily to update the community about the fire. The fire moved in different directions every day, which was making things difficult.  The Fire Manager explained some of the boundaries the firefighters were trying to set up to keep the fire from coming into the city. One of the main containment lines was Queen’s Canyon, just outside the Garden of the Gods area near Glen Eyrie. Two mountain ridges from housing communities, and just about five miles from our house. 

On Tuesday I dropped my daughter off at her grandparents’ house so I could go to work for awhile. The wind was starting to blow. It was quiet at the office, but after a few hours people started going over to the western windows and looking out periodically and I started to do the same. The fire seemed to move faster than imaginable.  The wind had gotten ahold of it and fanned it into a ball of flame.  Before we knew it, the fire had visibly crested the second ridge from town, which meant it had passed the containment line the firefighters had established at the boundary of Queen’s Canyon.

Photo taken from my office Tuesday. My cell camera is terrible,
but you can see the flames sweeping down the mountainside.

Not good. I checked the fire about every 10 minutes. Each time I looked, more of the mountain was encompassed in flames and soon, it crested the first ridge of the mountain range near “the scar” (the old Queen’s Canyon Quarry), and raced down the slope toward the neighborhood of Mountain Shadows. At 4:30, I was finally finished with my work and rushed out of the office and across town to pick up my daughter. By this time, the western sky was black with smoke. The wind was gusting at about 25-30 mph. And there were so many flames.

This is what the flames looked like from the north as they
came down the mountainside into town.
Photo by Cassidy DeJong
Once I picked up my daughter on the eastern side of town and headed back west it really hit me that we were in trouble. As we drove toward the mountains, we could no longer see the flames racing down the ridge. Instead, we drove into a wall of black smoke pouring through the streets from west to east. We could hardly see the cars in front of us in some spots. Everyone was racing to get home and traffic was terrible.

We finally pulled into the house, where my husband was already packing up bins with our most valuable possessions. The wind was now gusting at about 40-45 mph and we could hardly see the homes across the street from us. I think the mandatory evacuation order was issued about 10 minutes after I walked in the door. We grabbed our cats, our lizard, some clothes, our important papers, medications, and a few irreplaceable items, jumped in the cars and left.

This photo taken closer to the fire.  Where we evacuated from,
the smoke was surrounding the cars and blocking the viw.
 But every once in awhile, the smoke would swirl up and we
could see the flames in our rearview mirrors.
(Photo courtesy unknown)
The traffic on our street was stand-still with everyone trying to get away from the wall of smoke and heat that was now bearing down on us. We were trying to get out of the neighborhood going south because of the neighborhoods north of us being evacuated at the same time. My husband and I were both listening to the same radio station when they announced they were closing all westbound lanes to incoming traffic and opening them up to evacuees going east. We immediately turned around, headed north and got out going east in a westbound lane. I tried to keep my daughter calm as she cried in fear the entire drive away from the flames.  When we finally pulled into my in-laws driveway, I finally broke down and cried too, so thankful that we had gotten out and were okay.

The flames barreled down the mountain toward the houses
backed by 65-70 mph winds.  Photo from the AP.
We knew there would be much loss. We hoped and prayed there would be no death. When the news finally came out, the loss was devastating. 346 homes lost. Two dead—an elderly couple that didn’t make it out of their home. The press briefing Wednesday morning was somber.

We spent three nights at my in-laws praying for the wind and the heat to stop. We had record high temps for several days in a row, including one day we hit 101 degrees, a historic high temperature for Colorado Springs.

As aerial photos of the burn area started appearing on social media and eventually even on the news, most people knew, even before the Incident Command Team released the list, of who’s homes had been lost.

Of the 7-8 families I know who live in that neighborhood, I was saddened to discover that one of my client’s had lost their home and all their possessions. Truly, that was the worst moment for me—to have it hit so close to home. But I was amazed at this family’s cheerful spirits and the smiles on their faces when they came to see me at my office a few days later. Truly an inspiration.

The fire destroyed 346 homes in a neighborhood of about 1800. The firefighters made heroic efforts to save most of the homes, facing down the flames that came barreling down the mountain backed by a 65 to 70 mph wind. They said later that the fire moved three miles in one hour that day. When it finally stopped, it was just one and a half miles from my home. I think about how fortunate we are for everything that we have. We are safe. Our neighborhood and home were spared. And, although this is not over yet, the fire is finally moving away from the city. We are hopeful that the pre-evacuation notice we are under will lift soon.

It sure makes you look at what is important in life and remember those that you love. My gratitude is overflowing for the 1200+ firefighters, police officers, forest service officials, and soldiers that are still out there trying to keep us safe.

If you'd like to see an amazing time lapse of the the first five days of this fire, watch this dramatic video by local photographer Steve Moraco:

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