The Waldo Canyon is south of our home by the distance of 12 to 13 miles “as the crow flies” and so on Saturday, June 23rd, when the first smoke plumes appeared I had a momentary flash of “wow”, but since it was “over there” I found myself gazing at it more out of curiosity than concern. I had been out checking the horses’ water as the temperature was hovering in the 100 degree mark and they were going through hundreds of gallons of water. When I finished topping off their tanks, I took a few minutes to sit on a favorite rock and watched as the smoke plume went from white to black and then disappear and then reappear. We have wildfires here in Colorado every year, but since they have always been “over there” I really had no experience in what I was looking at from a distance.
I’ve been a “prepper” for a few years now and had the “go bags” and other supplies ready to go. After an hour or so of watching the fire I said to myself: “this would be a good chance to practice” the evacuation drill I had run in my head so many times. I loaded one of the cars with the “go bags”, extra water, important documents, and a few pieces of personal art work, and called my husband who was at the airfield with his soaring club and asked him to leave the glider at the airfield “just in case”.
He was east of the city and could see the smoke from a different angle and knew the wind direction and speed was having an impact on the growth of the fire. From my vantage point, I could not determine anything but a little bigger smoke plume. That’s when I turned on the local news on the television and sat stunned at the changes that were happening so fast, but again it was happening “over there” so I sat glued to the news in sort of a morbid curiosity. Then there was the panicked voice of the announcer calling for the evacuation of the neighborhood of Cedar Heights, and the city of Manitou Springs. There was a momentary flash of concern but I “knew” the fire would be contained shortly as hundreds of firefighters were gathering. On Sunday, I spoke to my daughter who lives in the Springs and told her to keep the RV that both families share and to keep it at their home “just in case”.
They had used the RV over then weekend and were planning on returning it our house because covenants at their neighborhood. ( Little did I know we would be living on “the street” in front of their house for six days.) Throughout the next two days, the fire grew and started up the Ute Canyon. There were calls to evacuate all the beautiful little towns along U.S. 24, along with the highway, up to Woodland Park 17 miles away. The sense of mild concern started to kick in, and I packed the second car with personal items that could never be replaced, but again the fire was “over there” across several deep canyons and many miles to the west.
By Monday, the smoke was a constant presence and the horses spent their time in the upper arena turning into the wind. Since I had gotten older, my horses and I rarely traveled and I had not had them in a trailer for years. Since the fire was still “over there” I had to decide whether or not to risk injury to them loading or wait for any pre-evacuation order. They had been issuing pre-evacuation orders hours ahead of time so I “knew” I would have plenty of time to get them out of our valley. This assumption could have been fatal.
Tuesday came in hot, and there was a shift in the wind direction blowing eastward. The weather forecaster had an edge to his voice when he described the chance of “dry thunderstorms” building in the afternoon. My inner voice and my pilot husband both knew what that meant, but again, the fire was still “over there” behind the Queen’s Canyon and my normalcy bias was working full tilt. There was no way the fire could move from way “over there” to our location without us having plenty of time to move out of the way.
Then the sky darkened and the wind kicked in. We were watching the four o’clock fire briefing on TV when someone said “what’s that” and we watched as the incident commander turn around and with open mouth literally halted the briefing mid-sentence. The entire city of Colorado Springs watched in horror as a 65 mile an hour wind started blasting the fire over two ridges and poured like lava over the ridge line above Mountain Shadows”. I had gone to run an errand (stupid tactical mistake) and while on the road back home, called friends with an extra trailer and we met at the house within 30 minutes. The chaos that ensued will never be erased from my mind. The wind was blowing embers and ash, the smoke so thick you could barely breathe and the horses were in such a state of panic that the task of loading them became a life threatening event.
I can vividly remember the surreal aspect of the situation. We went from no evacuation order to run for your life within an hour and a half. The fire was in the ridge line just above and about a mile west of the house and was “running” about a mile every 20 minutes! We loaded two of the mares and then a still quiet voice inside said “you must leave NOW”. I sent off the helpers and turned to the task of returning the three remaining horses to the upper arena. If they were to survive they would have to do it there. My son-in-law filled water tanks and he and my husband threw as much hay as they could into the east end of the arena. The arena was the only area on the property that wasn’t surrounded with trees and if they could survive the smoke they might not burn to death if the fire got into the valley.
We then each drove a car out of the valley. There is only one way in and out of this valley and as we approached the main road, it was standstill traffic with literally hundreds of cars. We got into line only because other drivers let us in. If they had not let us in we would have sat trapped. The eastbound traffic was in two lines (there is only one lane and a side shoulder). The westbound lane was filled with emergency vehicles rushing toward the ridge. In the blinding smoke and ash I felt sure the fire would overtake us and there was no where to move. No one could have outrun the fire if they had panicked and left their cars. It took about an hour and half to go the mile and a half to the end of the road that would take us to larger, more open road. The entire time I was cursing myself for waiting so long to evacuate the horses because I had put other people into great danger. I learned later that over 30, 000 people were evacuated.
Now, several weeks after the fire, I still find myself in post traumatic stress. As a prepared person I knew the right things to do, had the proper supplies loaded and ready to go, but my normalcy bias put myself and others that I love in a terrible position. Thinking that the disaster was “over there” could have easily become a fatal mistake. It is one I will, God willing, never make again. I pray none of you ever assume you will be safe because the danger is “over there”.
5 Day Time Lapse of the Waldo Canyon Fire
[disaster-author]Kate in Colorado[/disaster-author]