COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.-As a wildfire that began June 23 spread over the southwestern foothills of Colorado Springs and into the city, Gary Schneeberger watched the growing nightmare from the balcony of Focus on the Family headquarters. The ministry, headquartered on the eastern side of town, had a safe window seat on usually idyllic mountains to the west, now shrouded in billowing black smoke and flames.
Schneeberger, vice president of communications at Focus, helplessly surveyed the scene, and like so many others, desperately wanted to help. That's when he and others hatched an idea: a benefit concert for the fire's victims and firefighters sponsored by as many partners as Focus could rouse.
The next day Schneeberger called John Weiss, publisher of the Colorado Springs Independent. Often at political and cultural odds, the newspaper and Focus on the Family agreed to set aside their differences for the sake of the city.
In the end major civic organizations plus Christian ministries headquartered in the city known as the "evangelical mecca" came together for the Fourth of July event so that 100 percent of the funds raised could go to victims. The World Arena donated its concert space. CHEFS Catalog and the United Way provided call centers and volunteers for telethon donations. Lot owners donated parking fees. And local non-profit groups pooled money to pay for tech costs.
All the performers also donated their time, including the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra, Isaac Slade of The Fray, the Flying W Wranglers, Michael Martin Murphey, and Flash Cadillac.
The July Fourth concert, "A Community Arises," announced just five days ahead of time, saw its 8,000 free tickets snapped up within 48 hours. Local PBS and all major network affiliates broadcast the show live. And the event raised nearly $300,000-with additional contributions putting the final total closer to $500,000, according to the Colorado Springs Independent.
Almost as astonishing as the financial haul was the sight of the community coming together. Onstage were Nathan Newbrough, president of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, together with Rajeev Shaw, assistant to the president for community relations at Focus on the Family, and Jack Ward, director of marketing and promotions for the Colorado Springs Independent. The night's biggest applause came when Ward told the audience it was a time to set aside political and religious differences and to help neighbors in need.
The morning after the concert, Schneeberger sipped on a Red Bull as he tried to recover from the whirlwind of helping to pull off so enormous an event in seven days. "This was not a 'Christian concert,' he told me. "No prayer [said], no worship music played. But together, we were able to find that patch of grass we could all stand on to help our city by raising money and modeling community. God planted seeds last night."
The Waldo Canyon fire has been the most destructive fire in Colorado history, consuming 346 homes, damaging dozens more, and killing two people.
Authorities say they've pinpointed the fire's origin but haven't released details, including whether it was human-caused. Dispatch recordings, according to Friday's Denver Post, reveal that it appears to have started near a popular hiking trail west of Colorado Springs. Those recordings also indicate that firefighters searched the Waldo Canyon trail on the evening of June 22 and morning of June 23 trying to find the source of smoke, but their efforts were hindered by wind.
High temperatures and winds of up to 65 miles an hour hindered efforts to battle the blaze, and the gusts blew the blaze east into the city, picking up embers and dropping them like cannons onto unsuspecting lawns and flowerbeds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Relief online: Technology has played a key role in assisting families affected by the Colorado wildfire | Sarah Padbury | July 19
Devastating view: Their house was spared, but a Colorado family now must rebuild their life | Sarah Padbury | July 16
Winning against wildfires: Colorado Springs faces hundreds of homes and millions of dollars lost to the record-breaking Waldo Canyon fire, but with a renewed spirit of togetherness | Sarah Padbury | WORLD July 28 issue (posted July 13)
Called to action: Church members rally to serve their community during the Colorado wildfires | Sarah Padbury| July 11
Burning blazes: Some Colorado Springs residents return to homes, but with Obama visit underway, wildfires continue | Mindy Belz | June 29