Our Wildfire Story

On June 11, 2013 the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history swept through our Black Forest community, located just north of Colorado Springs. It killed two people, burned 14,280 acres and destroyed 509 structures, including my brother’s home and my home and business. It took nine days before the fire was 100% contained.

The day started off hot, dry and very windy, like so many others that summer.

ourblackforestcabin6-11-13

(Our historic log cabin home as we saw it for the last time before evacuating.)

OUR WILDFIRE STORY

It was lunchtime on June 11, 2013 and I was listening to Jerri Marr speak on leadership and courage.

Jerri is Supervisor of the 3.5 million acres of Pike and San Isabel national forests and Comanche and Cimarron national grasslands in Colorado. She was also the U.S. Forest Service’s face and voice of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire public communications effort. That catastrophe caused two deaths, destroyed 347 homes and burned over 18,000 acres.

Her message was inspiring: “Life’s experiences and memories have an emotional impact. Fear is an invitation to be courageous. But we don’t have to let a crisis define us – it’s just a window to see who you are and what you’re made of. The dark side of fear is worry and the light side is courage. Crisis gives you something to overcome and strengthens character.”

She added, “Don’t wait for the big one to build muscle memory – we must train ourselves and practice responding the way we ‘plan to play’. The small crises teach us just as much as the big ones. And not having an answer to every question is not a challenge to your leadership. Saying ‘I don’t know’ will set you free! Be willing to make a decision and don’t waffle. Stand by it. Confidence is contagious and the first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive.”

I took notes and I’m glad I did, for her words would come in handy in the days ahead.

On my way home I looked north and spotted a smoke plume about four miles west of my place. I saw flames shooting up into the sky, climbing the tinder dry trees at the edge of the forest. I remember thinking, “I hope someone has called that in – it looks evil.” It took about five minutes to reach my log cabin home and not long after, I saw fire crews race down the road.

It never occurred to me the situation would grow serious. I kept thinking, “They’ll put it out. It won’t be long and they’ll have it under control.” I got on my computer and tweeted to the @KOAA_5 folks, “There is also a fire burning in Black Forest near Shoup and west of Holmes Rd”. They quickly responded, “We have a crew on the way to the scene”. Then I called my Mom to let her know about the fire. At this point, I’m still sitting at my desk – no big concerns – no sense of urgency. It was about 2 pm.

A friend called. He’d seen the flames and tried to drive straight over, but they’d already closed the west end of our road. So he found a way around and after arriving, explained how bad it looked. My daughter called from her job at the corner store across the road and said, “Mom, they’re evacuating Shoup Road. You’d better get out!” We turned on the TV and saw the first evacuation notices.

Despite all this, I still didn’t think the fire would reach us. But just in case, I reached for an overnight suitcase and looked through my closet. Hesitation. What to take? I grabbed enough clothes to last a few days and joked about leaving my winter coats behind. My friend joked about taking my collection of plastic Smurf cartoon figures. I packed the box of Smurfs, my Grandmother’s ring, a few pieces of valuable jewelry, my silver baby rattle, the phone charger and important papers from the filing cabinet.

wildfireevacuationitems

(Along with the cats, computer and photo albums, here’s what I packed to evacuate.)

I looked for our homeowners insurance policy but couldn’t find it and didn’t want to take time to search. I told my son to gather things that were important to him and started to put photo albums in the trunk of the car.

At 3:04 pm I tweeted, “Lots of traffic heading out of Black Forest on Shoup Rd. #BlackForestFire. Packing up!” Then I unplugged the computer.

All this time the phone was ringing with calls from concerned friends wanting to know if we were okay. I remember talking on the cell phone and the land line at the same time trying to sound calm. I called my daughter back to find out when she was leaving the store, feeling guilty she wasn’t with me – that I didn’t have her under my “wing” in this time of urgency. She was okay. They were staying open as long as possible to provide gas, water and food to evacuating residents, police and fire responders. She assured me she would be leaving soon. It felt strange to drive away and know I was leaving her behind. They’d close the corner store and BBQ once the police told them to leave. Then she’d head straight back to Colorado Springs. I made her promise to call me once she was on her way. She was just as worried about me as I was of her.

I moved through the house like in a dream – slow, steady, deliberate. I collected kitty litter and cat food. My son washed out the litter box. He grabbed Snickers and I grabbed Missy. Both cats started to moan and meow, which added some tension to the moment. But there was no panic. We took one last look around the house, locked the door and headed for the car. We both gaped up at the black, billowing clouds piling up over the cabin. Orange streaks tinged the base of the clouds and a blustery wind blew hot air into our faces. I hadn’t felt fear until that moment. It was about 4:30 pm. We were glad to be leaving and happy we hadn’t waited any longer.

When we drove away from the cabin about 4:30pm on June 11, 2013, I had absolutely no idea it would be the last time I’d see that place standing. I knew the fire was coming and we had to get out of there quickly. So we packed up the computer, our overnight bags, the photo albums and the two cats. As we got in the car, I looked up at the black clouds billowing above the trees and saw the orange glow from the flames.

My neighbor, Ken, raced up on a motorcycle as we started down the driveway and asked if I’d take some bags of bills and papers he couldn’t carry. Another neighbor was running up the road trying to catch a ride out of the area. I had been trying to stay calm this whole afternoon, but now I was stressed. The two cats moaning from their carriers in the back seat didn’t make it any easier. There’s nothing worse than a moaning cat to set your nerves on edge!

We evacuated to my Mom and Dad’s house, got the cats settled in the garage and glued ourselves to the TV. We stayed that way for the next few days watching as the wildfire raced back and forth through Black Forest and threatened adjoining neighborhoods. We checked the lists on the county website to see if they’d posted our house as safe or a total loss. It was agonizing not to know. Those three days felt like three weeks. Speculation ran wild. Did my brother’s house burn? Was his store okay? What about the old Community Center and the Log Schoolhouse? My Dad and my brother tried to get back up there to see if the cabin was still standing, but access was denied. Fires were still burning.

(Video by Wayne Laugeson showing the wildfire burning our home)

People were calling. My cell phone was ringing off the hook and my email in-box was full. People were so kind. Everyone asked, “Is there anything I can do?” I kept up with people on Facebook. Thank God I had taken my computer out of the house with us. It was a lifeline.

My Mom, Dad and siblings were so supportive. My brother and his family were living in their camper, then a house my Dad owned that was vacant, then a hotel. They had two dogs to manage. They were exhausted. My son moved over to a friend’s house because they had more room and he’d gotten tired of sleeping on my parents’ couch. I was on the sofa sleeper. My Mom was cooking meals and trying to keep everyone’s spirits up.

On June 12th I tweeted, “Evacuated due to #BlackForestFire. Safe and sound. Thanks to those who have expressed concerns. Cabin might be gone.”

WHEN WE GOT THE NEWS

Then, on Friday morning June 14th, as Mom and I sat on the front porch having our coffee, my brother came outside and quietly mentioned he’d just checked the list. He said, “Laurie, the cabin is gone.” I remember standing there as the news sunk in and the tears just started flowing. I’d been trying so hard to be strong during those days of waiting. All I could think of was my sweet little log cabin being eaten alive by those flames. (Even as I write this, the tears spring back up.)

So we were homeless. What a feeling that is! You have no place to go back to. And all the family heirlooms and boxes of memories no longer exist. All the years of business files, my books, our clothes. Everything we owned was gone. But the strangest feeling was not knowing what to do next.

And now, all of a sudden, the wait was over and there was so much to do. I had to call my other children and let them know the house was gone. I called the insurance company and filed a claim. I had to get organized. I had to find housing. We needed clothes. I had to contact the phone and cable companies. Where would our mail end up? Would my clients be okay if I postponed their work? Did I have to cancel garbage pickup or would that be obvious? So many decisions. So many pieces of one’s life tied up in your home.

The following Monday we went to the Disaster Assistance Center. I resisted at first, not wanting to feel like a refugee. But my mom went with me and we moved from one station to another, tying up loose ends, talking to people who’d learned from the fire the year before. I collected paperwork, a stuffed animal, a blanket and lots of data dumped into the big black hole my mind had become. I asked the same questions over again, unaware they’d already been answered.

By Wednesday we’d found a place to live, thanks to my daughter and a friend whose dad had a rental available. There were 500 families looking for places to live, so we were so lucky to find something just miles from my folks. The insurance company sent us an advance to get clothes, beds and kitchen basics. I’ve never hated shopping so much. I purchased a plastic filing tub to store all the papers. I started a journal and created a “Breadcrumbs” book where I wrote down events as they happened.

The day we went back to the site was surreal. I braced myself for an emotional onslaught and family members insisted we drive out together so I wouldn’t have to face it alone. I remember looking at the burned out rubble and upright chimney as if it were someone else’s place. We took pictures and poked through the ashes to find a few remains. And I kept waiting to feel something. I didn’t know why I wasn’t having a reaction.

The original fieldstone fireplace and chimney were still standing, but there wasn’t much else left.

Black Forest Wildfire 2013 cabin remains

But when we drove to my brother’s house, it finally hit me. The scene was so ugly. There was a rabbit caught in the fire and “frozen” in place standing up. Imagining what that rabbit faced in its final moments did me in.

Colorado Black Forest Wildfire burned wildlife

I wanted to get out of there. I felt sick. So I crawled back into the van and waited for the others, tears burning. My son was struggling too. There was a strange sense of comfort knowing it wasn’t just me, over-reacting. We were in this together, he and I. When we finally left and drove through the neighborhood, almost every house was burned to the ground. Taking pictures felt like such a desecration.

“Put one foot in front of the other,” my Mom and Dad kept saying. The steps to come would prove to be the hardest.

(Please check back in. I will post the rest of this story soon!)