On Tuesday, while my phone was silenced for work, I received numerous texts. I retrieved them as I was leaving my office in Denver for home in Colorado Springs. Fire. Fire in the Black Forest.
As I made the long drive home, I could see the huge plume of white and gray smoke climbing in a massive column into the sky off in the distance.
Closer to home and farther off into the distance I could see the smoke from yet another fire in the Royal Gorge creeping its way across the horizon from behind Cheyenne Mountain.
When I reached the exit for New Life Church, I headed that direction. I parked on the side of the road and watched the fire. The nearest edge was only a mile or so away. Chinook helicopters were already chugging their way back and forth dangling Bambi buckets filled with water beneath them to, and empty from, the fire. They looked like mosquitoes dropping trickles of water into hell.
Not again. These fires are only supposed to happen once in a couple of lifetimes.
But last year at almost this exact time, there was a fire burning in the mountains behind my own house. It started in Waldo Canyon, one of my favorite hiking spots. I had been out shopping when I looked up into the mountains and saw smoke rising. By the time I got home a short time later, it had doubled in size.
It seemed like it was far enough away that it wouldn’t threaten my neighborhood. As it burned, I had to keep my house sealed up as the smell of smoke was so strong. It was so hot. No air conditioning, no breeze through open windows. I would go to sleep (fitfully at best) at night with those fires burning “back there” praying none would be caught unawares in the middle of the night. I would wake up in the morning with a lurch because of the smell, and I’d check the news and look around outside in search of fire. Always with the smell of smoke in the air. No one thought the fires would reach as far as the city, but I evacuated my dad who was on vacation and staying with me, just in case. I didn’t want to have to try to have any future evacuation any more complicated than need be. And a couple days later, devil winds picked up and blew that fire like a river down into the beautiful Mountain Shadows neighborhood just a couple of miles from my own neighborhood.
I had been taking photographs at a local school that looked down into a number of the canyons that were on fire when the winds inexplicably “collapsed” over the mountains and tripled in velocity. I watched in horror as the fire began to run out of the canyons and around the mountains seemingly directly toward my home. As I rushed to my vehicle and to home, I could feel my heart racing. When I reached home, I could see the flames not too far in the distance.
As I was taking pictures of the fire from my bedroom window, I all of the sudden realized, I needed to leave. The smoke and flames were getting awfully close very quickly.
I had already packed up in “pre-evacuation”, so I took a quick video tape of all the things in my house rapidly explaining in a very shaking voice what it was I owned, and what I thought things might be worth…for insurance purposes, and to remember. Smoke was blocking out the sunshine and burning my throat.
I caught and loaded up my cats and picked up a few last minute items and headed out as the smoke and embers blew into my own little neighborhood in a toxic choking cloud. I said good-bye to my neighbors as they also evacuated and thanked my next door neighbor as he watered down our building one last time before he and his family left. As I was leaving, I got an electronic reverse 911 call instructing me it was time to get out NOW. I had already resigned myself to losing nearly everything I owned and was at peace about that. By the time I reached safety, everything I had evacuated with, including my cats, smelled like forest fire. I thought watching from a distance as the fire consumed everything in its path, that all of Colorado Springs was going to be ashes by morning. But it wasn’t. Miraculously, the fire was contained to, and stopped in, Mountain Shadows. The fire had been traveling a half a mile an hour, and the nearest burn to my house was only a mile away, but I lost nothing. Not true for so many. I thanked God for graciously sparing me. But 346 families’ homes were a total loss, quite a few those of friends. That fire was declared the worst in Colorado history.
But that record was not to stand for long. On Tuesday, less than a year later, the hellish quadrad of high winds, high temperatures, near zero humidity, and a longstanding drought lead to a another fire of epic proportions raging out of control through one of the most lovely areas in all of Colorado Springs. As I watched from New Life Church, I saw pops of black smoke rising out of the gray. That was homes burning. So awful to watch, even from a safe distance.
For the past five days, I have been experiencing that same sick and uncomfortable feeling remembering my own experiences a year ago. This fire was 10 miles away. I could see the smoke out the same bedroom window, only looking in the opposite direction. Across town, thousands and thousands and thousands more new evacuees were experiencing the same emotions and fears that we on this side of town experienced last year. I could feel it again like it was happening to me. There was one morning in particular, when I was awakened early to the smell of smoke, that I felt that shaky uncertain sort of scared feeling in my chest again. I quickly got up and looked out all of my windows, went outside to look for evidence of fire, and checked the news to see if there was a new fire, perhaps nearby. I had this feeling I should be packing up and going somewhere, just to be sure. I didn’t like it.
I had put the word out that my home was open for fire refugees, but no one took me up on my offer. Which turned out to be a good thing as a few nights ago my phone rang at 1:30. Those early morning phone calls are never good news. It was my friend Abner. And he was calling to tell me he was very sick. He was in Casper, Wyoming for work, and it sounded like he had malaria. I told him my house was available and to get here as soon as he could. What a weird thing to have happen in the middle of a totally different kind of crisis. So, as Abner, a malaria refugee, was getting over the worst of his fever and other symptoms, the heat lifted, the humidity rose, we got some rain, the fire abated, and evacuees started to return to their homes. Those who still had them.
As of tonight, 483 homes are a total loss. The death toll is two. Two souls trying desperately to evacuate who were captured by the flames. And, just like that, less than a year later, we have a new worst fire in Colorado history.
Things eventually begin to return to some normalcy. My windows are open and I don’t smell smoke. Abner was well enough to get to his parents’ home to spend Fathers Day with his pop. My mother, two sisters, nephew, and their cats, who were all evacuated the evening the fire broke out, have returned to an undamaged house. And that jittery feeling is abating for me.
Colorado Springs is an amazing city. For the second time in a year, the community absorbed 10’s of thousands of evacuees. Lines for donating food, water, and other supplies stretched for miles at various drop off locations. By basic standards, it’s a large city, but it acts like a small town. People line the streets cheering the firefolks who run in when others run out. When I had to evacuate last year, I had a dozen people offer a place in their home to me. I imagine that this is the same story many others would tell. It is likely that last year’s evacuees returned the favor to the exact same folks who took them in.
I am blessed to live in such a great place. I am blessed that all I have had to endure with these fires is some temporary inconvenience and a ongoing sense of uncertainty about future fire. When I lived in Southern California there would be times when it seemed more quiet than usual…more still than usual…warmer than usual. The birds would be quiet. There was no rustling of ocean breeze through the vegetation. Even the bugs were silent. We called it “earthquake weather”. Now, when it gets hot here, when the humidity dips into single digits, and when the winds kick up, it will be “fire weather”. And I will pray that epic firestorms are a thing of the past. I pray that lightening does not strike my wonderful community three times.