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Arts Post
Posted at 06:58 PM ET, 06/29/2012

Colorado wildfires hit home

“Your parents’ house okay?”

It was Saturday afternoon. I had missed a phone call from my brother out in Colorado, and that text message from my best friend from sixth grade was how I found out that my childhood home in Colorado Springs was under threat from a raging wildfire.


Looking up Rossmere Street as the Waldo Canyon Fire moves into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 26, 2012. Evan O'Lear took this photo from his driveway just before he evacuated Tuesday evening. (PHOTO BY EVAN O'LEAR)

Unable to do anything more useful from some 1,600 miles away, I quickly bored into Facebook and Twitter for real-time information. Images of the Waldo Canyon Fire, still blazing, began unfolding online — on local news and government sites — but, early on, nothing could tell me whether the unpredictable blaze was headed for our family home.


An area of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colo., a day after the Waldo Canyon Fire jumped fire lines and swept into the city. My childhood home sits perpendicular to Courtney Drive, which suffered almost a total loss, in the center of the photo. (John Wark - WWW.JOHN WARK.COM)

For the next several days, from the safety of my Arlington apartment, I watched as thick black smoke and flames enveloped the neighborhood I grew up in. President Obama could, and did, visit the scene. I couldn’t. For me, there was a gnawing sense of dread, but it was a fire with no heat, flames with no roar, a disaster playing out on TV and online; it had nothing to do with life in my sunny, air-conditioned apartment. Except that it did.

Growing up in Colorado, I knew that there’s always the threat of wildfire. But our neighborhood, at the foot of Pike National Forest, always felt safe, a suburb like any other. By Sunday, though, most of the neighborhood was under evacuation orders, our house only a few blocks from the street that had become the dividing line.

For 17 years Rossmere Street was home. It was in the scrub oak in its backyard that my sister and I played house. On that driveway, I was asked to the senior prom in sidewalk chalk. From its bay window, my brother, sister and I would watch for the school bus on cold winter days.

My brother, who still lived in the family home, was waiting, watching as the thick smoke moved closer. He e-mailed me a photo he snapped from our balcony: White smoke was rolling down the hill toward our backyard.

By Tuesday evening, he had been officially ordered to evacuate. He grabbed the family photos and documents he had gathered plus enough clothes for 72 hours.

I spent most of Tuesday night listening to rescue workers on an online police scanner from my living room sofa, again feeling helpless as I envisioned the wildfire move through our neighborhood, our house in its path. The firefighters had made their first stand near the top of my street, where the forest meets our neighborhood, but the dangerous conditions had forced them to fall back. Rescue workers said about 30 houses in a row near Rossmere were on fire.

Then I heard something else. Firefighters were telling the command post: “We can save a few at Rossmere and Courtney,” he said.


The Waldo Canyon Fire consumes homes Tuesday along Courtney Drive in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colo. The part of Courtney Drive in the foreground is only about 350 yards from my childhood home. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post - ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But a photo on the Denver Post’s Web site showed houses along Courtney Drive, the closest one about 40 feet from our house, engulfed in flames. The house on the hill behind ours was burning, too. The smoke made our house impossible to see, but I assumed it was gone. I couldn’t watch anymore.

Before work on Wednesday morning, I checked the Denver Post site. There, stripped across the homepage, was an image of Courtney Drive. Each picture I clicked through on the site showed greater destruction than the one before. The fire had doubled in size overnight, burning thousands of acres.

That day friends began posting photos and well-wishes on Facebook. I felt nauseated but went to work, thinking the distractions of The Washington Post newsroom might help.

That day brought devastating pictures but also the first sign of hope. My hometown friend called to tell me about some aerial images of my neighborhood online. I clicked through photo galleries searching for something that looked familiar.

And there it was — our house. Still standing, from what I could tell. The hill in back was charred and part of the scrub oak in our yard still smoldering. Our neighbors’ houses on each side had survived, too.

Four houses remained on Courtney Drive. I began counting the empty lots where neighbors once lived. I stopped counting at 30, not halfway through the photo.

Thursday morning I woke up to another aerial photo, this one posted on my Facebook wall by an old friend whose home I had seen burning down on live television Tuesday. There it was, my neighborhood, the green hills that roll through it blackened and scarred. Hundreds of homes burnt to the ground, entire blocks reduced to rubble. Flying W Ranch, a Colorado Springs landmark for a half-century, had been destroyed. But my house was indeed still standing.

On Thursday night, my mother and brother gathered with residents from 35 affected streets to get official word about their houses. More than the sense of loss , there was a sense of community at the meeting, my mom said. People seemed more saddened by the fact that they’d never live beside their neighbors again than about having lost their houses.

It had been only 48 hours since the first flames had hit the neighborhood. Rescue workers had compiled a list of neighborhood houses hit by the fire — one person on my street had been killed and 347 neighborhood homes destroyed.

My mother thumbed through pages of addresses. Beside each in capital letters were the words DAMAGED or DESTROYED.

Our address was not on the list.

READ MORE: Obama surveying wildfire damage

By Coleen O’Lear  |  06:58 PM ET, 06/29/2012

 
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