2013 Black Forest Fire, Colorado Springs, a personal account of events.
2013 Black Forest Fire, Colorado Springs, a personal account of events.
For a second year in a row, Colorado Springs has experienced a devastating fire. In June 2012 345 homes were destroyed during the Mountain Shadows fire.
I remember that evening very clearly. It was June 23rd, a very warm and windy evening. The air was very heavy with smoke. We stood in our backyard with friends visiting from MN as the winds continued to blow from all directions. We watched in disbelief as the fires rolled down the hills setting off white smoke and then black smoke. We later learned that the black smoke came from the homes burning in the fire’s path.
We knew we were in no danger, but it didn’t diminish the helpless feeling of knowing that friends, clients, and work associates were evacuated and might lose their homes.
Flash forward almost one year to June 11, 2013. As my 15-year-old son, Ryan, and I were leaving the house at 2:45 PM to head to an appointment, we immediately noticed the column of smoke to the northeast from our front door. Thinking that it was just one home, we decided to drive up to Pine Creek High School where we turned to head south on Powers. At that time, it looked like it was only one home and we could not tell if it was actually in the forest.
As we headed home at 4:00 PM we realized it was much bigger than we had realized. A mushroom cloud covered the sky. We couldn’t avoid the flashback of the previous year’s fire. The news coverage was immediate and continuous. This was very helpful, but at the same time instilled fear in our minds of what could happen. Later that evening we drove up to the high school again, the closest I would go, and as it turned out, the closest law enforcement would allow. We could see flames in the trees through the heavy smoke, but it was still a “safe” distance away. We went to bed sleeping fitfully.
The next day it was apparent that the fire was growing fast with the heat and the heavy winds. The evacuation zone and pre-evacuation zone were expanded with the southern pre-evac zone only two blocks from our home on Old Ranch Road. Neighbors were packing up and leaving town, some for the health affects of the smoke, others for the fear of the fire growing. I immediately took a video of the contents of our home for insurance purposes (lesson learned from last year) and uploaded it to Dropbox.
I left the home early morning to meet with a client for an inspection and when I returned Ryan had dragged up 10 suitcases of various sizes into our family room. He was ready to go. He showed me a picture that he received from his 19-year-old brother, Michael, who was visiting family in Ohio, that looked as though a large plane was dropping slurry on his high school. I could tell that the plane was way in the distance and dropping slurry on the forest, but Ryan didn’t believe me. We decided to head over to the school so he could see that the fire was nowhere near his school. This was the first of four trips that day to the school to watch the fire’s progress.
I was sure we were still safe, we were about a mile from the Black Forest tree line and many homes had to burn before ours, but when I received a text from a neighbor telling me they were leaving to stay with family because the kids were upset, I threw up my hands and started to pack.
My husband, Jim, called me as I opened the first suitcase. He is an airline pilot and left the morning of the 11th to start a trip on the 12th. He said he was about to step on the plane and said that if I wanted him to come home, just say the word. I am typically a very strong individual, and I knew we were in no immediate danger. My first thought was to say no, we were fine, but the emotions of the moment caught me and I heard myself saying “I am starting to pack, if you could come home that would be great.”
Ryan and I packed up eight suitcases with our valuables to include family pictures, all the items in our safe, clothes, electronics, and the extra keys in the cabinet. I also packed all my memory albums in clothes baskets. I was very thankful that one of the cadets we sponsor came over to help me ferry the suitcases to a friend’s house about two miles away. We also moved both cars and the dog to Deb’s. We finished at about 8:30 PM, the time Jim was expected to land in Denver. At about 8:45 PM I received a call from Jim, the plane was diverted to Colorado Springs due to wind sheer in Denver and he needed me to pick him up.
I treasured the quiet time I had in the car as I drove the 30 minutes to the Colorado Springs airport. It was such a relief to see him waiting for me. He hopped in the car and gave his own report on the fire; his plane flew right over it. The winds had shifted and the fire was heading north, away from our home.
Because looting was such a problem last year, Jim decided to pick up the dog and spend the night at the house, while Ryan and I had a sleep over with my good friend Deb.
The next morning, Ryan and I returned home, but left the suitcases at Deb’s in case the winds shifted again. Knowing the three of us were together was comforting, but it was still unsettling knowing that the fire was 0% contained.
For at least two more days the evacuation and pre-evacuation zones began to grow north, west and east. Social media was very important during this time with the Gazette.com Facebook page posting updates from the Sheriff and fire department. Initially, there were two press briefings daily for updates on the fire, but it took several days and many resources to begin containment.
I was very proud to see that the Army helicopters were dropping water on the fire using dip buckets as early as the 11th. They often flew right over our home. Firemen were coming from all over the nation to fight this fire and save homes. Unfortunately, two lives were lost on the first day of the fire, and a total of 511 homes. For a complete list of crews that helped to fight the fire that was 100% contained on June 20th, visit Black Forest Fire Crews. The last estimate I heard on June 19th was that it had cost over $8.5M to fight this fire.
The last four or five days of the fire, the community thanked the firefighters for their efforts by greeting them at Pine Creek High School, their fire camp, after both the morning and evening shift changes with banners, whistles, flags, and cheers of thanks. This was a sight to behold. Living only one mile from Pine Creek High School, we could hear the cheers for each shift change. Ryan and I joined the crowed on the evening of June 18th and in the rain there were still 100s of people cheering on both sides of Old Ranch Road.
It was reported that the fire was man made, though it isn’t known if it was deliberately started. At one time I had heard that eight fires were started on or around June 11th, it isn’t clear how many of these were deliberate or natural. The same thing happened in 2012 where there were several fires started just prior to the Waldo Canyon fire. Waldo Canyon fire was also man made. To date no one has been charged.
As devastating as this was to our community, we are thankful that the fire was contained so quickly. We are saddened by the fact that a past client lost their home and many of our boys’ friends from school lost their homes, some while they were out of town on vacation. Now we begin the recovery, clearing and rebuilding of our beautiful Black Forest.
I expect recovery in Black Forest to be slower than the recovery of Mountain Shadows primarily because the lots are much larger with houses spaced further apart, and less visibility to the community. Mountain Shadows was a development with smaller lots allowing builders to rebuild efficiently. Additionally, many of the homes lost in Black Forest were smaller older homes, house trailers, or cabins that have been in the family for years, some without homeowners insurance. Rebuilding will be a long drawn out process with many owners deciding not to rebuild.
Thank you for spending the time to read my personal account of events of the Black Forest Fire. I find it therapeutic to put my thought down in a blog.
Gazette photo gallery of Black Forest Fire 2013.