And then Wittry, 55, went to work. A 30-year veteran, he joined the hundreds of firefighters who battled the most destructive wildfire in state history, which destroyed 347 homes and at its peak, forced the evacuation,of 32,000 people. The number has shrunk to 10,000. Two bodies were found in the ruins of one house. No firefighters have been killed in the 26-square-mile blaze, but it forced them to see things they never had before.
By Saturday afternoon, authorities had increased the Waldo Canyon Fire’s containment to 45 percent, but they worried about continued dry conditions, high temperatures and possible thunderstorms. The National Guard committed more than 150 soldiers to help Colorado Springs police return to normal work. President Obama came here Friday and hailed the firefighters as heroes.
Authorities had started to wrangle the blaze, but the effort to limit damage still raged. Behind Station 9 on Garden of the Gods Road, Wittry, who has wavy, gray hair, wire-rim glasses and a mustache, ran the staging area: the parking lot for Appliance Factory Outlet had been converted into a makeshift headquarters. He wore a blue T-shirt, thick, bright-yellow pants and black boots. He carried two cellphones. When one of them rang, he answered curtly, “Staging, Wittry.”
The wildfire charred but spared his home from destruction. Given the intensity of the fire, Wittry felt exhausted but fortunate. He has been too focused on salvaging other homes to worry much, yet, about his own. He has not been to his usual firehouse, Station 3, in days. He had difficulty describing the last week. He settled on, “controlled chaos — and I don’t know about the controlled part.”
The chaos began Tuesday afternoon. By then, Wittry said, fire officials mapped out how they believed the wildfire would behave. It would creep down the mountain, they figured. To be safe, the fire marshal called for the evacuation of the entire community at the base of the peaks.
The decision saved countless lives. The fire changed with a perfect storm of conditions: high winds, high temperatures and additional lightning. It did not creep down the mountain slowly. The flames rose in a column. Then the column collapsed, and the fire roared down the hill.
After Wittry heard his neighborhood had caught fire, he reported to the staging area. They could see flames shooting into the night.
“Guys were excited, wanted to get on the fire,” Wittry said. “I had 150 guys milling around. Everybody wants to be on the next engine.”