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Fire crowns in the trees in the Black Forest area north of Colorado Springs, Colo.
Associated Press/Photo by Ed Andrieski
Fire crowns in the trees in the Black Forest area north of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Déjà vu

Disaster | One year later, Colorado is on fire again

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—A year ago, at the onset of the Waldo Canyon fire, Pastor Steve Holt received an emergency phone call asking whether his church could host more than 300 Summit Ministries students being evacuated from its campus due to the blaze. The congregation at Mountain Springs Church responded eagerly, assisting with hundreds of sleeping bags, bottled water, and snacks for the students’ 3-week stay at the church facility.

Early Tuesday afternoon, Holt was in a staff meeting so he didn’t answer his phone, though it rang several times. The church receptionist abruptly burst into the room and told Holt to call his wife immediately—something was wrong at home. Holt hopped into his truck and rushed to their house, located at the south end of the Black Forest, a densely wooded community on the northwest edge of Colorado Springs. There he saw a wall of black smoke only 200 yards from the house. As he pulled up to a stop, a young girl frantically pulled a horse by the bridle onto their property. Her father suddenly burst out of the woods, running towards them. He was covered in dirt and black soot, shouting that the surrounding woods were on fire. It was then, Holt said, that he realized he was in trouble.

Holt called his staff to send help while he pulled precious family pictures off the walls. Within an hour, they loaded up vehicles with important items, including a safety deposit box, photo albums, computers, and guns. By the time they tried to go back for another load at 4 p.m., the road was barricaded. Holt and a friend snuck past the roadblock through an unguarded creek bed to feed the chickens and take videos of the house in case it burned.

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The Black Forest Fire incinerated 92 homes within hours of igniting on Tuesday. Holt called a noon prayer meeting for Wednesday, during which Amy Lathen, an El Paso County commissioner and church member, revealed the inside scoop on the fire’s situation to the crowd. On Wednesday night, the fire blew out of control toward the northeast, fueled by strong winds and hot, dry weather. By the next morning, 360 homes had been lost—more than last year’s Waldo Canyon fire—and the blaze was 0 percent contained.

“There was nothing firefighters could do,” Holt said. “That’s a literal truth. When the wind is blowing, they are pawns in the game.”

Holt called another prayer meeting on Thursday to plead with God to stop the wind and save people’s homes. So far, 20 church families have lost their houses. Holt was astounded that all of them came to the prayer meeting for support and to profess their trust in God, despite their loss. Thus far, Holt’s home has been spared.

As of Friday afternoon, the fire had consumed 379 homes, spread over 25 square miles, and was just 5 percent contained. Firefighters found the bodies of two people in their burned-out garage—their car doors were open and the trunk was filled with belongings. About 38,000 people are under mandatory evacuation. The area also held hundreds of livestock that had to be moved, or left behind. The winds died down overnight, so officials are hopeful they will make headway on containment.

In addition to the Black Forest fire, other blazes started in Colorado this week:

  • The Royal Gorge fire near Canyon City has demolished all of the park’s buildings. The world-famous suspension bridge, made of wood planks, is seriously damaged and the aerial tramcar is completely destroyed. So far, the fire has burned more than 3,100 acres and is 40 percent contained.
  • The Big Meadow fire, on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, has burned more than 350 acres and is 30 percent contained. No structures or communities are threatened.

It’s typical for Colorado to have afternoon showers in June. But those storms also bring “dry lightening,” known to start fires in the drought-plagued state. Thirteen fires in northwest Coloradowere started by lightning on Thursday alone. Firefighters quickly contained 11 of them. Two are still burning, including one near Dinosaur National Monument. Known as the Wild fire, it has burned 120 acres so far and is 0 percent contained.

Sarah Padbury
Sarah Padbury

Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.

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