I am semi-retired with a small business that teaches disaster preparation training classes. My whole immediate family are preppers of various degrees, some are content with a 3 day plan and others like myself are prepared for six months or more. I always tell my students, friends and family to not only prepare, but build and practice a plan that will function even if you are not together, not expecting something or the ‘leader’ is away. What I never anticipated was that all three would happen at the same time.
We have been preppers for over 10 years. 2012 has been a good year, I completed my greenhouse in March and automated it to accommodate control for our 800 sq. ft. garden. We utilize a fifth-wheel trailer as a component of our preparation planning. It is equipped with additional equipment, supplies and bins full of essential tools, etc. Where I live allows me to park it in the backyard with a quick exit to the alley and street. Other important items that would be part of a bug-out checklist are stored in easily accessible areas of the home to reduce time in moving them to our vehicles if required.
This is our story of how being prepared and actually having a plan has worked, lessons we have learned, what we forgot in the midst of the turmoil of the disaster and what needs to change. All of these being applicable as a result of our actual experience with the Waldo Canyon Fire.
The fire started approximately 2 ½ miles west of our home and the homes destroyed were 5 minutes north of us; with only an open park area, the Garden of Gods, between us and the destruction.
The fourth of July is traditionally our family camping time. On Thursday June 21, 2012, I left home with the truck and fifth-wheel trailer to travel about 50 miles west into the Pike National Forest to camp alone and enjoy a few days of solitude before moving about 40 miles further west to reserve our camp spot where 19 other members of my family would join me on June 28th for a relaxing weekend in the mountains at 10,200 feet and escape the summer heat for a few nights.
DAY 1 (June 23)
On the day the fire started I was a 2 hour drive from home with my camper loaded with family camping stuff and minimal prepper items. My bug-out supplies and my wife were at our residence alone in Colorado Springs.
The Good Lord was watching over us, my foster-daughter Carroll texted me at 2:30 pm that she had heard on the police scanner that a fire had started in Waldo Canyon. (Having resources for pre-emptive information is very important.) I checked a weather website and saw that the winds in Colorado Springs were blowing toward our home. I immediately called my wife Mary and asked her to look outside for smoke. She called back and said, “no”. I thought for a moment to collect my thoughts and called her back. I asked her to go out front and into the middle of the street and look because only from there could she see Waldo Canyon. She called back immediately and said, “yes”. We decided that she would drive about a mile from our house to a mesa that contained an overlook and take a picture and then to send it to me.
(Note to self: I take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about smart phones and the decision to camp where I have a phone signal when alone.)
(Note to Reader: It is vital to know topography and the geography of your area. This information will aid you in being able to ascertain the circumstances of a disaster scenario as it develops and modify your plan of action accordingly.)
The picture Mary sent, told me that if the winds prevailed from the west, the fire would be in our neighborhood by nightfall. There was just a mile of forest and then a down hill rush through scrub brush, oak and grass to our street from where the fire was burning in a deep canyon known for strong winds.
Let me be honest, this is not how I planned things to be, but preparation was our ally. The first hour or two are the most important in a disaster situation. Part of me was saying, ‘get in the truck and drive home and get your stuff and your wife’. The other half was telling me, ‘stop, think and organize a quick response of instruction and then wait to see whether the situation changes’.
My foster-daughter texted to inform me that another arson fire had been set between my location and our home. My mind went into overdrive. Are we dealing with terrorism and a wildfire? Time to immediately go to Plan B.
I called Mary and kept her on the phone while she piled certain items in the living room to take if she was told to evacuate. We discussed whether I should come home. The concern became that the main road between us was in close proximity to the fire and that I would get within 5 miles of home and be turned around and would have to travel 4 hours around Pikes Peak to get to her. So I instructed her to call Ryan, our son-in-law, to come immediately to our home and get the items she had gathered. Then she could concentrate on personal items to put in her car if required to evacuate. Also, that if she had to evacuate, where she would be going in case we could not reach each other by phone. This way both of us could then proceed without further communication and concentrate on what each of us could do independently using our best talents and efforts.
I then hooked up the trailer and moved to a spot about a mile away where I could spend the night from an elevated observation point and have two exit routes. I needed to be ready in case the arsonist struck in my immediate vicinity. By nightfall news on the internet announced evacuations for the communities on Hwy 24, the main route home. I later learned that my next-door neighbor’s son, a fire fighter, spent the next two nights on the ridge above our sub-division called Cedar Heights. A battle of brave firefighters against the wildfire, they fought for two days and nights. Their efforts saved our home and hundreds of others. This battle was fought by the Colorado Springs Utilities (using bulldozers) and the Colorado Springs fire department who did not wait for the feds to come to the rescue on day 3.
How our plan worked:
- Our bug-out items were organized and locatable.
- What ‘was needed to be done’ was in a checklist to be followed.
- I had full provisions for four people for a month with me.
- Our plan was working because we had phone communication.
- Even if a phone call did not go through, texting worked.
- I had out-of-state contacts to relay messages if necessary.
- We had planned primarily for single disasters, not multiple, but both plans were in existence and now they could be adapted to become one.
- The checklist of operation was in my possession and Mary did not have a copy. She could not read my mind and know what items were in the camper and what was still left at the house.
- What if we did not have direct phone contact? I really had not planned out well all the possibilities in a scenario where ‘we’ were the ones separated.
- If we had lost our home in this wildfire, certain important items may have been lost.
DAY 2 (June 24)
This was the longest day, a day of waiting, watching, reading the news for information and keeping in communication with my wife as she moved items from our home to our daughter’s home.
Evaluating the changing conditions:
- The command headquarters for the fire was setup in the shopping center parking lot less than a mile south of our home.
- The number of people evacuated in three directions from our home grew to 11,000.
- Geographically that only left two residential exit streets for my wife to use.
- We decided it was best for her to evacuate before the announcements came.
How our plan worked:
- Essentials items in our plan were no longer at our residence.
- Checklist items of importance; life-rebuilding paperwork and expensive assets.
- What was left in the house was photographed before she exited.
- We had evacuated before we were told to, before the neighborhood panic and blocked streets became issues.
- Several items left at the house should become additional checklist items in a total evacuation.
- These things need to be organized and ready to go at a moments notice.
- Our long-term food storage items, equipment, supplies and several important books would have been sacrificed if our home had burned.
- Questions to be answered:
- A moving van is not a viable option of an evacuation plan, what really is important? (Note to self: review checklists every 3 months.)
- Our plan worked this time with the aid of local phone communication, need to plan and practice to become less dependent on this resource for Mary and I.
- Our plan does not require phones for the larger group components, every individual family in our group knows where to go, various ways to get there, etc.
DAY 3 (June 25):
This is the day of watch, wait and to remain adaptable.
Evaluating the changing conditions:
- I’m packed up and ready to exit in 10 minutes if necessary because the arsonist has set six new fires of which two new fires are still being fought.
- My wife is safe at our daughter’s.
- Some evacuations have been lifted and the fire seems to be going in three directions away from our home.
- The Feds have arrived and airdrops have begun.
- Will the monsoon rains come and the winds stop long enough to put an end to this destruction?
We are all praying for the safety of the firefighters. We begin a discussion of how the family can still rendezvous for the holiday camping trip. Part of a viable preparation plan is recreation and a diversion from the situation. Mary and I have a conversation about the things still in our home. We declare everything there to be just stuff and reassure each other that if our home is lost that we will be just fine. Sure there are pictures on the walls and a remodeled kitchen, clothes in the closet and food in the pantry, but what do we really have? We have each other. We know that our loved ones and ourselves are safe.
Important Reminders in our plan that help and keep everyone from becoming a ‘stress mess':
- It is very important to maintain a positive frame of mind and to communicate that to those in your plan.
- It is important to move on mentally and think of activities to keep everyone busy and productive.
- At some point we must stop fretting and resolve ourselves to move forward even if the situations turns grave.
DAY 4 (June 26):
We spent the morning on the phone and by email making the final decision to proceed with the family camping trip. That location would place everyone 100 miles west of the wildfire. Our home is evacuated, everyone is accounted for and there is essentially nothing we can do about the disaster. I packed up my camp and headed west into the central Rockies to our spot where there is no phone service. As I arrive at the mouth of the river canyon, at 3:00 pm I send a final email that I am at our spot and will communicate to everyone on Wednesday morning.
What I did not know was that the weather has changed and that this is the afternoon and evening the firestorm will pour into our nearest neighborhood to the north. That 32,000 more people will be ordered to evacuate and that over $110,000,000 of personal property will be destroyed while I am relaxing and setting up our rendezvous camp spot.
I would later learn that our area was evacuated and that Mary had returned home to get a few more items to find our street filled with neighbors filling up car and trailers with possessions. She spent a lot of time talking to our neighbors answering simple questions about what to take with them and witnessing their panicked actions and confused conversations. Ryan along with his son would come to our home and water our roof and my new greenhouse until they had to leave. Our neighbor’s son would be among the brave firefighters that Tuesday evening fighting fire with temperatures of homes above 1,000 degrees and watching houses leap into flames from the intense heat and dodging exploding backyard barbeque propane tanks flying like missiles through the night sky.
How our plan worked:
- If everyone knows what to do you can maintain a civil sense of internal peace.
- I was no longer the leader, each person knew what they needed to do.
- Even if I was ignorant of the latest news our group plan was working.
DAY 5 (June 27):
I got up at dawn and rode my mountain bike down the pass to an opening in the trees where I could get phone reception. Just as I stopped, a hotshot fire team drove up and I asked the young men in the vehicle of any recent news regarding the Waldo Canyon fire.
In shock over their report, I spent the next 2 hours on the phone with family and reading the news to learn of the destruction and the events of that fateful day. With my phone battery spent, I just sat there on the side of that forest mountain road and prayed for all those who had lost so much, the firefighters valiant efforts and to thank God for keeping my family safe.
I spent the rest of the day reflecting on the past week’s events and in preparation for the arrival of the rest of gang on Thursday. I thanked God that the winds had changed this morning and were not blowing south, otherwise our home would not be standing. The firestorm would have reached our home in less than an hour before I was even aware that circumstances had changed.
How our plan worked:
- We did not have a plan without the resources of a group.
- Being a maverick does not work and never will.
- My wife did not go to a ‘shelter’ but to one of our alternate rendezvous.
- Ryan, our son-in-law, probably saved the new greenhouse from falling hot ashes.
- Numerous members of our plan took care of my wife and kept me abreast of her safety and condition while we were separated during this event.
- Carroll, my foster-daughter, kept us informed of breaking news from the police while glued to her scanner.
Am I glad that I am a prepper? It is not glee nor pride but rather gratefulness; to have been blessed with this mindset. Being prepared, having a plan and practicing it are ‘common sense’. One never wishes to actually be put in a situation to implement it.
Did I learn from the actual experience? You bet I did. I think often now of the people who were not ready for this, that lost everything and their pending battles with insurance adjusters with limited documentation. I’ve learned that some were on vacation and could not get home in time to evacuate their homes. I was reminded that in 2005 when Mary and I travelled overseas, that before leaving we took items from our bug-out checklist to one of our children’s homes; knowing that we could be capable of rebuilding if a disaster had occurred in our absence.
In the past two months, over 30 wildfires have been started in our county and the two neighboring counties to the west with only one being attributed to lightning. The arsonist is still at large and has not been caught. The cause of the Waldo Canyon fire is still under investigation. The FBI is still in town. Why have there been seven wildfires in the last two months next to major municipal watersheds, all of which appear to be man-made? Part of being a prepper is to pay attention and be wise, but never paranoid.
What am I doing now? My checklist is being updated, lessons learned are being applied to our plan. I’m still thinking of how to make it all work without the use of a phone in all scenarios, in case that ever happens. The fifth-wheel is parked on the street in front of the house ready to go. Why you ask, because the danger now is flash flood. This is a scenario where you do not have hours to get ready, but only minutes. We live at the conjunction of both watersheds that have been affected by the fire. Oh, our home is more than 50 feet above the actual waterways, but if they flood we will become isolated with no exit by road.
I sincerely hope that our experience and story will be of benefit to all who read it. Never stop learning. Keep our community and us in your prayers.