Colorado Springs will never be the same. As I stare up at our gorgeous mountains with burned trees and rubble of what was a home, I know we are changed at so many levels.
Ten days ago I drove the kids to Costco. Headed down the road I noticed two small plumes that appeared to be in town. I turned on the radio where the DJ announced there was a small grass fire of under 3 acres and it was being taken care of already. An hour later I left Costco and there was now a lot more smoke in the area. I turned the radio back on and they said 150 acres and crews were fighting it. I headed over to my grocery store on a bluff closer to the fires. As I drove down Garden of the Gods Road I watched dark gray smoke grow out of itself and take over the horizon. I reached the grocery store I could even see some of the flames. Another hour passed and as I headed home the fire was reaching 600 acres. It was burning fast. A short time later our neighbor let us know we were on voluntary evacuation. John and I walked around the house gathering essentials and getting them ready in the living room should we need to evacuate.
Sunday came and the fire grew away from us. Monday came and the fire grew even more. Tuesday came and I still felt reassured by the news that the two containment lines defending the NW side of town were solid. I prayed for the folks in the areas evacuated. Working from my basement I was oblivious to what was going on around us. John was on the far SE side of town away from what was developing. Alexandra on the NE side of town could see from afar that the fire had taken a horrible turn and right into the city. She texted me madly – which I am embarrassed to admit, I didn’t give much attention as I was working. Finally I walked upstairs into a wall of smoke that burned my eyes and a blazing heat. Immediately I closed up all the windows and started calling John. He was having a hard time getting home due to the cars exiting our area. I tried to hose down as much as I could around the house.
At that time we were on pre-evacuation orders but the areas to the west and northwest of us were mandatory. We decided to take our time to let the folks that needed to get out safely. I had dinner cooking and John was going to bathe the kids as I packed a few more items. Down again in my office packing up my computer I got the 911 reverse call. It is a contradiction of crystal clear and blurred memory of the call – “…your residence has been identified for immediate evacuation…..leave now…..fire is imminent – leave NOW!”. The kids safely in the basement John and I raced to get things loaded into the car. We stood there for a few seconds perplexed. Watching cars racing down the road packed to the brim – why did we have so much space still left in the cars? Documents – check; Peter’s chemo and oxygen – check; computers – check; scrapbooks – check; quilts made with love and full of prayers – check; 3 days worth of clothes – check; jewlery and Peter’s Beads of Courage – check. We determined that with all we love about our home, there is little that we couldn’t replace. One more hug as we looked at the house we didn’t know we would see again and loaded up the kids in the van. As I backed out of the drive way a water tanker pulled up and took position in the cul-de-sac across the road from our home. That scared me.
As we raced down the road I didn’t know how near or far the fire was – just that I needed to get out. Fire trucks and policemen flying up the road as I headed down. Coming to our intersection I assumed the normal process of waiting for my turn to go. Nope. The roads in and out of our neighborhood had become a four lane road out with emergency personnel rapidly evacuating us. Reality was starting to set in. The further away I got the more smoke I could see and the sky was turning an orange and black glow as the smoke thickened. The news anchor choked up as she announced the Flying W Ranch was gone and read the statement from the family. I choked up with her – we were supposed to be there with family this August.
When I got to the interstate I jumped on it and headed two exits up. As I pulled off the interstate I got my first full view of the west side of Colorado Springs in flames for what appeared miles long and the sky over us was turning darker shades with a glow of red. I slowly made my way to the Walmart parking lot to meet John. As I got out of the car and walked towards the view of our town burning up I think the shock kicked in. I e-mailed my parents and simply typed “I think I am in hell”. It looked as if the earth had opened up and unleashed flames and devastation of epic proportions that raced down the mountains leveling homes in it’s path. The city appeared to have a dome over it as I could see nothing but dark evil clouds in any and every direction swallowing us.
We are blessed that John has family in town – and my sister-in-law opened her home to us. I felt as if I was in shell-shock state for about 24 hours. I didn’t know what to do or think. I didn’t know what we would go home to if we would go home at all. For the kids sake we kept the news off in the family room as I didn’t want them to see the footage over and over and over again. That night I tossed and turned as I realized we had left the childrens’ baptismal gown home together with the plates I had hanging in the kitchen that I had painted for each of them. Wednesday night the routine of cooking and cleaning took over and suddenly there was some normalcy and purpose. Thursday and Friday I worked – an endless operation of virtual fires to fill the mind, stress the body, and drown the soul.
A little after 8pm we found out we could go home. I was working still – shut down my laptop and excitedly packed up to come home. Afraid of what we might find we were relieved to find that our house had been protected. Our home was moistened, some things moved out of the way, and spotlights around our yard turned down – most likely to allow the ember chasers to keep us safe. They did! The worse smell in our house were the dirty dishes. I had been afraid to turn on the dishwasher should the power be cut and the old machine leak causing other damage. By midnight we were ready to crash. Normalcy was back in our home – Alexandra snuggled up with a book, the boys in bed, Michael playing a game, Peter pulling all the books off the shelf (again!) and G snuggling up to squeeze my arms for her comfort ritual.
Yesterday was a week from the day I thought I was on the edge of hell. Fire has scarred our mountains, taken 346 homes from their families, and two lives. We are scarred but we are stronger. Over 30,000 lives were evacuated yet only a few hundred reached the shelters – most were embraced by family and friends. Shelters were overwhelmed with donations. Weary fire fighters pulling into grocery stores and gas stations were welcomed with cheers and gratitude. And while there are many people who every day fought the fire down to what is now 100% contained almost two weeks ahead of schedule – one woman has become a hero who embodies the spirit of Colorado Springs displaying integrity, leadership and compassion during a tragic time in our history. Jerri Marr has no doubt inspired a few young girls to believe they really can make a difference and save the world! She is one woman with thousands of men and women behind her which have saved so much of our town – and for that we are so, so thankful!
Today we celebrate 4th of July – our independence, our freedom. This fire is a reminder that we should never take anything for granted, and while we build our communities we should always be grateful to the men and women who keep us free and safe. God bless us all!