It's a steady climb as you drive into our neighborhood. A hundred yards to the south is a spectacular, silver hogback that juts out of the earth creating a sheer face of beautifully textured rock. On top stand some ponderosas and the gnarled skeleton of one tree that succumbed to pine beetle about five years ago. Raptors survey their kingdom from this favorite perch.
Due west is a massive, red crag somehow supporting other conifers that cling to its face. On a typical Colorado morning the contrast between red, green and the deep, deep blue sky never fails to make me pause and give thanks. The best treat of all is when a morning moon settles behind the crest adding its pale face to the chromatic feast.
One week ago my son received a text asking if we needed help. A column of smoke was rising above our house. Turns out this fire had already taken about 150 acres in Waldo Canyon, one of Colorado Springs' most popular hiking areas. It was two deep canyons and several ridges away, but the plume was being pushed by a red flag, SW wind and streaming directly over our house. I had predicted many times that this was Colorado's summer to burn. "I told ya", would not be helpful, time to start packing.
My wife was at Seneca Lake, New York, enjoying a day more temparate than our unheard of 100 degrees. She was attending her niece's wedding along the vineyard draped sides of that finger lake. Same texts to her, but all those texts could do was produce a sense of helplessness 2000 miles away.
The previous week we were discussing fire potential at dinner and it dawned on me that despite my hunch I had never photographed our stuff. I told my son that I would make this a pay job if he was interested. That task got lost, so as I started to move around the house, snapping everything in sight, he objected, "Hey, you said I could do that!". "Sorry, bud, too late. Go pack what's dear to you."
The police came around the curve, lights on, to tell us we were in a mandatory evacuation zone, but he saw all the gear going into our vehicles. Turns out we were actually 50 yards north of the evac line, but with Sarah in her wheelchair, I didn't want any part of a panicked retreat, so we continued with our plans to get out. When the rigs were full we prayed in the driveway and told God thanks for the ten years we'd so enjoyed, that this was his house, he could do with it as he saw fit. Turns out that evac line held for another three days and we were able to make multiple trips, doing triage on what was most valuable to us. Some stuff I left behind thinking it was more likely to be damaged in a hasty move then destroyed by wildfire. Books, clothes and most of the Olaf pottery from Oregon stayed behind. The pottery was fragile and I grinned as I thought, "It's already been fired!"
Tuesday, the 26th, was a busy day at the office. Every patient had one-hour problems jammed in to half-hour slots. I kept a regular watch out our north window and followed the fire line as it snaked its way into Queen's Canyon, an incredible gulch that is a bit like a slot canyon and carries a lovely, trout-filled stream. Word got to me around 3p that my house was now under mandatory evacuation. I kept pushing and was able to get the last patient done around 4:30. I flew to my car and headed north up Centennial Boulevard. There was lots of smoke and lots of cars headed into the fire zone. Many folks had stayed at work like me, thinking that the C-130s and the confident incident commander could keep it under control. Now we were all rushing back for either our first or last load. Too many had been dinking around, pulling weeds, raking their stones, planting flowers, putting their heads in the sand.
I made it to within a mile and a half of my home when I came around a curve and saw what looked like a 9/11 apocalypse. A black cloud from the pits of Mordor was descending over my neighborhood preceeded by multiple walls of flame racing down the mountain, heading north and south wrapping the sides of the gulley that heads into the Flying W Ranch. I had read Norman Maclean's "Young Men & Fire". I had visited the Berkely Hill neighborhood in 1990, before exploding eucalyptus took the lives of some 25 people the next blistering summer. I saw the barely moving line of cars trying to escape and thought, "I don't want to be at the end of that line." I was able to get turned around, parked and then watched a torrent of flame engulf Mountain Shadows and the Flying Dub as police and firemen rushed straight to the heart of the battle.