The Waldo Canyon Fire Evacuation: “I can’t get out”

The Waldo Canyon Fire decimated hundreds of homes, took two lives, and traumatized thousands. Heat and wind exploded windows which gave way to intense smoke damage in homes that were otherwise untouched. On top of that, criminals took advantage of the abandoned neighborhoods and stole goods or vandalized property for sport. Firefighters sacrificed to save what they could and, in many cases, kept the fire just feet from the walls of homes.

Before I explain, here are my questions to you: Have you had a similar experience? How did you handle it? If you haven’t dealt with anything like this, how do you think you would have responded in my situation?

Since I am a writer, I felt like I had to get this out. This is the story of how my children and I escaped.

On June 23rd, my mother and I took my son to Lil Bit Farms, just east of Colorado Springs. He milked a goat, fed baby chicks, and spent time playing with the other animals. That’s how I want him to remember that day.

Briley and my friend, Bronwen

Around 2 pm, we saw a large plume of smoke that seemed to be coming from the highway. That was not the case. As we got closer, I could see that it was in the forest just southwest of my home in Mountain Shadows. As soon as I realized the gravity of the situation, I called my husband, Dan (a CSFD firefighter), to see if he had been called in; that was not the case.

View from Centennial Blvd

Soon, the city gave the order to evacuate Mountain Shadows (which was later rescinded). We gathered pictures and important paperwork, but that was it. To my surprise, Dan asked me out to dinner, which ended up being a big surprise party at Fargo’s for my 30th birthday. My friends and I made light of the situation, joking that instead of eating pizza and drinking Pepsi, I should probably be emptying my house of valuables, dogs (including my 5 lbs Pomeranian, “Puff Daddy,” and Dan’s 90 lbs Estrela Mountain Dog named “Biggie”), and children (my son is 3 and my daughter is almost 1). Dan explained that there was too much defensible space for the fire to penetrate the city. That night, my friends gave me another gift, so I spent the night eating chocolate and drinking wine with my best friend Lauren in a hot tub at the Embassy Suites. A little after midnight, the fire changed direction and Manitou Springs was evacuated. I was glued to my Twitter feed: an addiction that would persist for a week. Information made me at once powerful, in control, and yet vulnerable, panicked.

Hotel room view on Sunday morning. Pikes Peak is in the background

Monday morning, Dan was called into work, though he wasn’t supposed to go in for his first 24 hour shift until Tuesday (he fought fire until the following Sunday, working over 120 straight hours). On June 26th, the day the fire destroyed so much, Dan was fighting fire at Cedar Heights (a neighborhood above Garden of the Gods). He texted this picture to me around midday.

When the pre-evac order came through, my husband told me that the fire had not entered Queen’s Canyon (the canyon directly behind the ridge above our neighborhood) and so, again, we were not in danger. I did laundry. I did dishes. I was even still planning on flying to Wisconsin on that Friday. I was not taking the evac seriously because the news never said that it was in Queen’s Canyon. I was going to watch the 4 pm news conference while my kids were asleep, but friends and family were calling to check on me, which was distracting.

View from my backyard at 3:30 pm

By the time my mother-in-law called to tell me that the mayor had ordered a mandatory evac, two family friends, the Diehls, were at the door saying that the fire was already coming down the mountain. This was their view as they left their home, just after the evac order came through (all the homes on that ridge were destroyed).

View from Flying W Ranch Rd and Wilson, just after 4 pm

We packed in just a few minutes. Dan called to tell me to get out, but the line went dead. I didn’t have any clothes besides the ones I was wearing. However, I had the wherewithal to set our house alarm. I got in the Jeep and looked west to exit the neighborhood. I’ll never forget it. I took this picture while waiting in traffic. My children fell asleep and my dogs curled up in the front seat. While at this intersection, I received a truncated reverse 911 call.

The Pineview Quarry on the mountain in the picture is just above my house

I had planned to go to my mom’s, which is only a mile away, but her area, Rockrimmon, had also been evacuated. I helped my sister put some of mom’s things in her car and shut the house windows; in that time, the smoke obscured the view across the street: a blizzard of ash and embers that hurt my eyes and littered my skin.

View from Allegheny. I was trapped in traffic for about 30 minutes on this .5 mile street. The cell towers were overrun. I couldn’t get texts out to let family know where I was. I did manage to post on Facebook and Twitter that I was OK.

What I didn’t know before is that wildfire smoke is like a blanket that covers everything, giving an eerie filter over the landscape. I reminded myself to keep it together because my life is no longer about me, but my thoughts were circuitous: “I can’t get out.” The traffic was maddening, and I even considered off-roading around the elementary school, but I didn’t want to be a jerk and cut in front of others. Due to the nature of the traffic, I ended up rear-ending a truck in front of me on Woodmen but the owner just looked back at me and waved it off (only my license plate was damaged). I wish I could thank him.

It took my sister and me over an hour to get to our destination: the Diehls daughter’s house on the northeast side. My mom joined us and it was there that I learned that the Flying W Ranch had burned to the ground. My neighbor then called saying that she left right after me and was headed to Fort Collins. She warned that as she was leaving, Centennial was already on fire. She cried, “there’s no way that our houses are still standing. Everything’s gone.”

Heat from the fire created a thunderstorm, which then caused the pyrocumulus cloud to collapse on itself. Assisted by 60+ mph winds, the flame front devoured the hillside. The firefighters had no chance. The couple that died in their home had no chance.

I got to my sister-in-law’s home around 8:30, and even though she and her husband discouraged me from watching the news, I couldn’t pull myself away from my phone. I needed information. Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, my mind was full of images of destruction. While kicking myself for not documenting my belongings somehow, I took inventory of the things I’d lost: the cream satin dress that was the last gift from my father before he died, the curved glass china cabinet from the early 1900s, my daughter’s crib that I saved for months to buy. I reminded myself that they were just things, that the important things, my children, were safe and unaware of the danger. I prayed for Dan’s safety in the firestorm. I hoped that he wouldn’t be feel the same trauma that I had (as I have a theory that most firefighters are really pyromaniacs and so witnessing that isn’t as caustic to them). Just before 1 am, I received this message:

While my fears were kept at bay a little longer, I knew that nothing was certain. The rest of the week is a blur. I ended up staying with friends who have two children the same ages as mine (and they have a Great Dane that entertained Biggie). I was in survival mode. Between the stress of caring for the kids, worrying about Dan and my house (and those of my friends), I could barely function. I couldn’t get far enough away from the fire. On Thursday, I was walking into Target to get diapers and food and a house across the street exploded; I could only stare as Truck 4 screamed down the street.

Dan and 2 members of his crew in the newspaper (he’s on the right)

One of Dan’s fire buddies sent me this picture, reassuring me that he was taking care of him for me. He was so exhausted that he passed out in a lawn in Peregrine during their lunch break:

I tweeted this picture, and many others related to the fire, but this one was picked up by several news agencies.

Luckily, Dan only sustained minor injuries and our house only had ash accumulated on it. The Pineview quarry actually diverted the fire away from our area (with the help of firefighters that were able to hold the line). The Diehls’ house was saved by firefighters (and only have a couple neighboring houses on their street now), but three other friends lost their homes.

If you look closely, you can see where the firefighters were able to contain the fire west of a path above the neighborhood

Because of what I saw during the Waldo Canyon Fire, have PTSD. I’m trying to work through it but the nightmares have a way of drawing me back into that afternoon. I hope you will keep all those who are currently facing similar situations in your thoughts and prayers.

The skeletons of burned trees are all that remain in much of the fire’s path

Also, here is a time lapse of the fire:

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3 thoughts on “The Waldo Canyon Fire Evacuation: “I can’t get out”

  1. Am so relieved that you and your family made it through in one piece thoughts go out to your friends who lost everything, I know people say they are only material possessions and to an extent that is true but they are also in many cases symbols of our life and family to lose everything would be almost as painful as losing a family member xxx

  2. We live near the post office. What a scary frantic time that was. I am leading a class on what we have learned from the evacuation, insurance companies, survivor guilt. I talked to a psychologist today about PTSD- she said if people are still having nightmares or other symptoms it might be a good idea to talk to someone. The best thing we did was go up to Water World and just have fun! Good luck! Remember what you wished you had taken, what you shouldn’t have bothered with, update your homeowners insurance etc.

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