4th of July in Colorado Springs

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We are still rebuilding the NW side of Colorado Springs, and we’re looking to rebuild Black Forest when it is safe. Many will spend this Independence Day looking how far we’ve come in a year, even if it means that we have only cleared the rubble.

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Black Forest Fire

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Hey friends! Sorry I’ve been away lately. My husband has been off fighting fires and I’ve been editing/submitting my second project, the YA Fantasy ASHES & EMPIRES, which (coincidentally) focuses on a massive wildfire in Arapahoe National Forest: an area devastated by pine beetles. Two friends lost houses in the Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs and a couple more lost a barn and garage, but some have been able to find strength in this loss. Hope you are doing well, and keep writing!

 

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Image Credit: Bronwen Maxson (books destroyed in her garage)

Top Image Credit: Toby Partridge

The Firefighter’s Wife

Waldo Canyon Fire coming into Mountain Shadows

Waldo Canyon Fire coming into Mountain Shadows

For the Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado College will host an exhibit of work (poems, photos) commemorating those who endured and volunteered for the fire effort. Here is my (reworked) submission for the exhibit:

The Firefighter’s Wife

I am a car crash
Resounding
Cranked metal twisting
Freshly destroyed
I am not rusted
 
The fury of my hands colliding
Praying
Asking why asking how asking for anything at all because an answer would be better than this
Alone
And yet not
 
It’s not about me
Distorted in shock
In guilt
And yet it must be hidden: shame of undiluted fear for others
 
It was never about me
It’s about children needing me to hold it together
It’s my love on a fiery mountainside as the flame front spreads out tentacles lashing
Torching
Unblinking they fight
Terror packed in back bunker pockets
Secretive
It’s not there
 
Yet how can I tell them he’s safe
When he’s subduing and running and choking on smoke
Soaked
No room for bruises when reassurance is the most important thing
So I lie
To everyone
 
Blackened
Skeleton trees
Ash strewn in the air catching tongues
Catching catching gleaning peaking short
 
The rocks
Scorched but incapable of conducting
A wasted effort
Directed redirected reaching arching
Something more
 
These are the foothills of my young life
These are Jenner
Brogan
Ashton
Still
 
The trauma has passed in the wind wisps faded
Embers blown
Eyes streaming and for what
Nightmares shall pass
Hunger shall return
And this is only part of a sea of restless Colorado summers where yellowed ash
Collects on windshields overnight
 
For certainly we are lucky happy family
Unburned
Unbroken
It is through
Through to color memories of insufficiencies and bittersweet consolation prizes
Certain and savor the notion that we are lucky happy
Unwrecked
Unrusted
Crashing
No longer
 
– Carrie Nyman
 

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:

Wildfire

In my second work, EMPIRE, a massive Colorado wildfire clouds the hills and colors the sunsets, but also instills fear into my main character. This detail may seem like it has great timing, however, given my firefighter husband and his working knowledge of the pine beetle infestation, the fires that are going on now (just miles from our home) are expected.

For those of you that are familiar with forest or structure fires, what is memorable about them? What do you wish that you knew (or didn’t know) before you had that experience? What is burned (pardon the pun) into your brain after seeing such a destructive force?

I remember that 10 years ago, the Hayman fire decimated large swaths of land and homes just west of Colorado Springs. The wind would carry the scent of smoke and drop yellowed ash on my windshield. There have been two fires at my mother’s house (while I was living there); they were quite small, smouldering fires that cost a lot of money to fix but there wasn’t any degree of trauma that occurred.

So if there are any details that you find interesting that I should add to my manuscript before my editor gets his hands on it, please let me know!

image credit: everythingsright.com