Handout/The McCoy Family

Winning against wildfires

Disaster | 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

Issue: "De-coding Morsi," July 28, 2012

COLORADO SPRINGS-On Tuesday, June 26, a three-day-old wildfire on the northwestern edge of Colorado Springs screamed out of control and roared into the city, forever changing the landscape and the reputation of the community known as much for its idyllic mountain views as for being an evangelical mecca for Christian nonprofits.

The Waldo Canyon fire burned through 18,247 acres to become the most damaging fire in Colorado history. Hundreds of families only had minutes to flee when sudden, 65 mph winds blew 100-foot walls of fire into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood and western parts of the city, destroying 346 homes, damaging dozens more, and killing an elderly couple trapped at home.

But even though 32,000 people evacuated at the height of the disaster, only 300-400 showed up at emergency shelters. Where did everybody go? I went to Colorado Springs last week to find out.

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From the air, Majestic Drive used to look like a gently curving flower stem that had a dozen cul-de-sacs branching off with houses like petals. Ten days into the blaze, the picturesque setting had turned apocalyptic. The air reeked of burned wood and chemicals. Two-story homes lay reduced to piles of ash with what used to be metal beams and furniture-here patio chairs, there what used to be a set of bunkbeds-twisting in the sunlight. Blackened tree trunks looked fake, stripped of leaves or needles in midsummer.

The silence too was eerie-no birds singing, no crickets chirping. Even homeowners met with insurance adjusters in hushed conversation. To the west, 67 houses in a row were gone. East, 72 houses were missing. A block over also was devastated-there 18 homes had vanished.

At his home in Mountain Shadows, 15-year-old Jonathan Hammerstrom sat scrolling through Facebook on the Saturday afternoon that the Waldo Canyon fire started. He saw a picture of smoke posted by a friend and recognized the landscape.

"I wondered if it was a fire from a long time ago near my house," he told me, "but then I noticed it was posted just six minutes ago. A couple minutes later my dad came and got me." Doug Hammerstrom, a family practice doctor and church elder, snapped into action. His wife Jodi was away at a wedding on the East Coast, leaving him to handle the crisis and their three children by himself.

Doug grabbed his camera and began snapping photos of every room in the house for insurance records while dishing out instructions. His greatest concern was Sarah, the couple's 20-year-old daughter, who is wheelchair bound. A rare brain infection at birth left Sarah with cerebral palsy, deaf, and functioning at a 3-year-old level. Sarah's certified nurse assistant (CNA) was on hand to pack her things, and Jonathan called his mother to ask what items in the house to save. Daughter Lauren, 22, at work just down the hill at the Flying W Ranch, helped frantic staff load animals and antiques onto trucks as the fire marched closer. When the smoke turned into visible flames coming over the ridge, Doug called Lauren and told her to come home. Time to go-now.

Two weeks before the fire, Jessica McCoy, 20, had a nightmare three nights in a row where fire came down and burned the west side of Colorado Springs. She dreamed she fled to a friend's house for safety. In the second dream she couldn't find her cat during the fire. And in the third dream, she blew off the fire to go be with friends and then couldn't get home to save something very important.

Jessica told her family and friends about the dreams, but only her mother took them seriously. When her family first evacuated, they stayed with the friend Jessica had fled to in her dream. Her cat, probably terrified by the strange smells in the air, disappeared. She found the animal hunched in the back of a closet.

Because of her dreams, Jessica and her mother Jonni McCoy-author of Miserly Moms and a popular speaker and blogger-made a pact that one of them would be home at all times until authorities made evacuation mandatory. Whatever the "something important" was in her third dream, someone needed to be there to save it.

But neither Jessica nor Jonni was close to home on Tuesday when the fire suddenly blew into an inferno, bearing down on their neighborhood. Both hurried home, but within 15 minutes of their arrivals, police halted traffic into the neighborhood. When the phone rang, it was reverse 911 calling to announce they had to evacuate. Time to go-now.


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