Two weeks ago my daughter and I concluded a visit with family, ready to return home and sleep in our own beds. Our time in Missouri gave me a chance to proof recipes at a lower altitude and higher humidity, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I learned that more flour and less steam is required than at high altitude, valuable information I can now add to the recipe notes of my Sprouted Wheat French Bread, Parmesan Sprouted Wheat Bagels, and Sprouted Wheat Burger Buns. It was time well spent in the kitchen as well as with family.
My sister, Suzi, breeds English Golden Retrievers and she was caring for two litters of 4 week old puppies while I was there—18 puppies is more fun than a barrel of monkeys (and a ton of work). At four weeks they are ready to learn their names, which is a color until they go to a family (she marks them with a crayon), as well as giving their attention and sitting. It is remarkable how their personality it apparent so early on. They kept my mom and sister quite busy, but there was sweet cuddle time for me while waiting for the oven timer.
When the baking and puppy fun was done, there was loads of chit chat about life. If enough coffee is flowing, we have a knack for solving the world’s problems by the end of a long breakfast. Relaxing around the dinner table with a glass of wine brought days to a peaceful end. The highlight of my week of baking was the hamburger buns, though I ended up over-cooking the burgers, which was a bummer. Oh well, that’s the way it goes when I get too focused on one part of a meal.
Midway through our visit, I began receiving text messages from friends back home asking if we were okay and if we needed anything…
Weird, it was like they knew something I didn’t.
A fire had started in Waldo Canyon, about 4 miles from our house. It was among ten wildfires burning in Colorado, so the news stations in Missouri didn’t single it out. Thank goodness for Face Book where friends can keep you up to date on what is really going on! Of course, I depended on my husband’s assessment of the danger to our home, which for the first three days was minimal.
Early on June 26th, we headed to the airport, wondering if we would see the smoke from the plane over Colorado Springs. When we finally landed at 3:30 pm, the column of smoke was about the same as the photos I had seen earlier from texts. Though it had spread to more than 5,000 acres, it was primarily on the other side of the foothills and no structures had been affected. As we drove home the wind was beginning to shift, the temp around 98° and I noticed flames on the crest of the hill. I’d seen smoke in the photos, but no flames, and the column of smoke was widening.
We arrived home to this:
As soon as we unloaded the bags, I watered my garden while watching the sky. Matt began taking photos, each one more ominous. It was incredibly hot and dry, the smoke intensified with each passing minute. We hopped back in the car to get a better view from the parking lot of the corner post office where several others had gathered. In the short time we had been home the fire was no longer on the crest of the hill—the hillside was on fire.
The wind fueled the inferno, fire jumped across the foothills hundreds of yards at a time–everything changed in just minutes.
A woman standing in the parking lot became distraught as she watched her engulfed neighborhood.
Traffic, which had been normal just 30 minutes prior, was now snarled in gridlock. People began to panic, driving over curbs (folks in CO with 4×4’s are prone to disregard 6” obstacles), one roared through the parking lot right in front of us, fortunately no one was hurt.
Police and fire engine sirens began screaming past.
We had registered with reverse 911 so we would receive a call/text alert to evacuate. No alert had been issued for our neighborhood, but we decided to get home and get ready to evacuate anyway. One daughter was at work, the other just out of the shower, who now had the task of packing for herself and her sister. We had been home for 1 hour, phone calls and text messages began pouring in with offers for a place to stay and close neighbors checking on us to be sure we were getting out.
Still no evacuation notice.
Two other neighborhoods north of us were evacuating, so our friend and neighbor was stuck in traffic coming home from work, unable to get home to collect her things. No one was being allowed in so others could get out. I can’t imagine the number of people who were caught in that same situation, it was a little after 5:00 pm, many of them would have to evacuate with whatever they took with them to work that day.
Already tired, I had a difficult time deciding what to pack. I could hear the brutal wind outside, erratic, so strong the deck furniture was blowing across the yard, towering trees bent helplessly sideways. The smoke was filling our neighborhood, so all the windows had to be shut while we finished packing and the heat was stifling. Then the electricity went out, which meant no fans to circulate air in the house in now 100° temps.
The phone was still ringing, but connections were tenuous, calls dropped after only a few moments. Text was more reliable, though time consuming, making it hard to complete a thought about what was being stuffed in boxes. At this point, we looked around and decided if we had important paperwork, the computer, and family photos, the rest was replaceable. It was time to go.
With wet bandanas covering our faces, we loaded the cars like evacuating bandits. Thankfully, our friend was one of very few able to make it home to retrieve her dog and precious belongings or that would have been our next stop. Had her (hero) boyfriend not shown up to help convince the police she needed to get home for her meds, she may have ended up evacuating in the back of the police car based on her initial encounter, but that is another story. She had received the evacuation text, call, and email, though we never did. Evidently, the reverse 911 system was having issues.
We caravanned out of the neighborhood, our 16 year old driving alone for the first time, tucked in between her dad’s truck and mine. Literally, it was trial by fire, she had been amazingly helpful with all she had calmly got packed and loaded, we were enormously proud of her. Our older daughter met us at a friend’s home just a few blocks from her work (they were preparing to evacuate too), at last we were together and ready to proceed to our final destination. Let me tell you, I don’t care how old your kids are, when facing a crisis, all you want is to make sure your family is safely together.
The roads were clogged with additional neighborhoods being evacuated, so we made our way slowly east to stay with friends who were able to receive us and our dog, Silas. Pets make evacuating even more challenging; many were displaced and cared for by volunteers while away from their owners. When you consider 32,000 people were evacuated, that is a lot of displaced family pets. Another friend couldn’t find their cat when police knocked on their door to get them out of the neighborhood—her son told the officer he faced more peril not finding the cat.
Everything happened so fast after our arrival home there was no time to stop and eat dinner, so we were grateful to be welcomed at our friend’s with food and a bed to lay our weary heads.
Aided by 65 miles/hour winds and record high temperatures, a wildfire that had consumed a little over 5,000 acres and no structures over 3 days, devoured an additional 12,000 acres and more than 350 homes in a matter of hours. Days later, we would learn it also took the lives of an older couple who did not evacuate. According to the National Weather Service, gale force wind is defined as 34–47 knots (63–87 km/h, 17.5–24.2 m/s or 39–54 miles/hour) of sustained surface winds. Normally, this type of wind is associated with hurricanes and tropical storms. Imagine a hurricane carrying fire, hundred foot flames releasing embers with each gust … everyone was caught off guard, our purple mountains majesty was eclipsed with smoke. It is still hard to believe that 81% of the homes were saved and no firefighters were injured. We are so appreciative of their coordinated efforts and bravery.
Waldo Canyon Fire was declared 100% contained last night. That is reason for celebration and an important step to begin the recovery process, which will look different for each family. Whether it is smoke damage, rebuilding, relocating, encouraging and helping, grieving other less obvious losses, it is a journey best traveled with good neighbors and friends. Several of our daughter’s friends lost their house, one in particular told us there was so much they had to process letting go of over the past two weeks, but there was also so much to look forward to as they prepare to rebuild. The mom’s attitude tugged at my heart because she had just finished chemotherapy and survived breast cancer, they knew they had all they needed. As she put it, they had just climbed a mountain, so they knew they could climb this one too. The Westside is a resilient community, committed to helping one another and moving forward, I’m glad we are part of it.
We really hadn’t worried much about the fire when it started, we thought the mountainsides and 4-lane road between us was a lot of distance for it to cover before our home would be in any danger. Silly human notion, thinking we know what tomorrow holds. Well, it burned all the way down to the road, less than 500 yards from our house. That still feels so close to me, but for others, it was the house right next door. It is crazy to try and wrap our head and heart around even now. Thankfully, our home is secure, heck, our gardens even survived! We talked again last night about measures we will take to prepare differently for emergencies like this. What is really important, what isn’t. Flash flooding is now a real concern for our area with the hillside landscape so drastically changed, sure to hold our attention through the rest of the summer and for years of rainy seasons to come—part of our new normal.
Throughout life’s journey there have been timely messages, encouragement, and scripture to help our family persevere through trials. As I look upon our beloved foothills and mountain trails ravaged by fire and homes destroyed with only a curb number to distinguish it among charred remains, it is Isaiah 61:3 that inspires hope.
…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Today, we are savoring the comfort of this place we call home, from the dining table witness to the toil of homework and the joy of feasting to the paint on the walls that covered toddler “artwork”, there really is no place like it. As we unpack the last box, I look forward to cooking and writing again. I have missed visiting my on-line friends and am anxious to return to my regular blogging schedule to finish the pizza series, which my husband says will have to be renamed Five Pies In Twenty-Something Days. Ha! Maybe so, such is life.