COLORADO SPRINGS — David Croslin peered across the valley Friday afternoon and watched smoke billow from Blodgett Peak — a half-dozen plumes that were staying put, at least for now. At the base of the mountain sat the house he, wife Suzanne and five children were evacuated from three days before. He thought about what was left behind: albums packed with thousands of pictures, a saltwater tank full of fish, the necklace his 17-year-old daughter got from her boyfriend.
He did not know when, or if, they would return to their home. He felt lucky it still stood, because hundreds no longer do. He waited and hoped that the fire a half-mile from his house would not come down the mountain.
“It’s kind of frustrating that you don’t really know what the heck is going on,” he said.
To the left, about a half-mile away from his home, he could see the remains of the Mountain Shadows subdivision, the epicenter of the fires that ravaged this quiet community about 60 miles south of Denver, the home of the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters.
On Tuesday, the Waldo Canyon fire roared down the mountain and consumed 347 houses. The most destructive wildfire in the state’s history blazed across 26 miles and has forced more than 30,000 people from their homes as of Friday afternoon. Officials found human remains in one home, and a second person was found dead in the house. The number of people still missing stands at fewer than 10, officials said. They considered the fire 15 percent contained. Police also charged a person with impersonating a firefighter, the first arrest made in relation to the wildfires.
President Obama declared the fire a “major disaster,” promised federal relief and toured the damage Friday. He visited the affected residential areas, thanked firefighters at a firehouse and praised volunteers at a YMCA. He also said that local officials had made “unprecedented” arrangements with military resources to fight the fires.
“Whether it’s fires in Colorado or flooding in the northern parts of Florida, when natural disasters like this hit, America comes together,” Obama said. “We all recognize that there but for the grace of God go I. We’ve got to make sure that we have each other’s backs.”
Hundreds sought out Red Cross shelters, visited mobile insurance trucks and frantically booked hotel rooms. Helicopters whirred through the valleys, and planes soared over the peaks, dumping bright-red flame retardant on the woods. The smell of smoke permeated the air. High winds threatened to spread embers.
Dread was mixed with signs of normalcy. Restaurants and stores remained open, the smoking hills visible out the windows. Garbage trucks trundled along streets as scheduled. In coffee shops, residents shared experiences and whispered rumors.
Most residents of the affected area of Colorado Springs split into two groups: those whose homes were destroyed and those who wondered if theirs was safe. The Croslins still remained in the latter group.
David Croslin, 55, and his family had moved into the home of a friend who was out of town. It was across the valley from their home in the Hunters Point subdivision, where they have lived for 16 years with eight children, five of them — ages 8 to 17 — still at home.
The mundane has been foreign since Tuesday afternoon, when Hunter and Parker Croslin, 8 and 9 years old, were watching “Star Wars” in their living room. Parker looked out the window and spotted fire.
“The smoke was moving super-fast,” Parker said.
Hunter ran into the kitchen and told his mother, “I see flames.” On the phone with a friend, Suzanne, 52, brushed off the worry as an 8-year-old’s panic. Hunter persisted. When she looked out the window, she immediately hung up, woke her husband from a nap and told the boys to get ready to leave. Smoke made it hard to breathe. Within 10 minutes, an emergency evacuation had been ordered.
“To see the fire racing down the hill, knowing it’s going to hit those homes, was terrifying,” Suzanne said. “How would I feel if that was mine? We may find out.”
Kristina, Olivia and Jolie – ages 17, 12 and 11 – had been shopping at the pet store inside Chapel Hills Mall, on the other side of the valley and about two miles away. They could smell smoke from inside, and when they walked out, they could see the hill in flames.
“We thought our house was going down,” Olivia said.
David called his girls and told them to stay put. Suzanne had been making wonton soup, and she poured it into containers before she had time to add the wontons. David didn’t know where he would end up, so he packed camping supplies into his gold Ford Excursion. The license plate read “6 GIRLS.” By the time they adopted two boys, they were tired of changing the vanity plate.
They took their three poodles, Max, Cisco and Jake, and stayed at their son-in-law’s home for one night, then moved into their friend’s vacant home. They spread air mattresses on the living room floor.
“We’re okay,” Suzanne said. “We’re okay.”
Her husband has kept an even keel but also a sense of weary uncertainty. Suzanne explained to the children that they need not worry about arsonists. David told the kids not to watch the news. He calls come and exhales when the answering machine picks up.
“We don’t have any idea,” he said. “I’d rather it burn down today. Just do it. Burn or don’t burn.”
In chaos, the Croslins have grasped for normalcy. Parker plays Wii games at the friend’s house. David limits his family to one meal out every day; the kids’ favorite is Lucky Dragon. Jolie teases Olivia for being paranoid. They still laugh a lot.
“We were just being funny and trying to cheer each other up,” Jolie said.
The Croslins wish they could have brought the photo albums. Hunter didn’t have time to pack his Pokemon cards, and Jolie misses her Harry Potter books.
Tuesday afternoon, Suzanne went to lunch with a friend while her husband took the kids to Lucky Dragon. Once her friend left, she stayed and knitted, something she can focus on. Out the window, above her home, she saw the plumes expand, so she stood up and looked outside.
“The wind is starting to pick up,” Suzanne said. “The smoke is starting to pick up.”
She sat down and went back to knitting, trying to keep her mind off the fire in the distance.