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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Residents pack up, worry

June 23, 2012
photo - The view from Centennial Boulevard off Flag Way Photo by Don and Carmen Reed
The view from Centennial Boulevard off Flag Way Photo by Don and Carmen Reed  

For the west side of Colorado Springs and into the Ute Pass area, wildfire danger became a sudden reality Saturday afternoon when the Waldo Canyon fire flared up around noon.

In the foothills neighborhood of Pyramid Mountain Estates, the smoke and flames looked like the end of the world.

"I'm really darn scared and really sad. We built this house 18 years ago," said Dianna Wagner, helpless as the flames crept over the nearby ridge and ever closer to her home.

Fire crews were furiously cutting trees around her land while her family was taking photos of the valuables they couldn't get out. By late Saturday afternoon, mandatory evacuation orders were given.

So it went for residents in the fire's path, from the neighborhoods north of U.S. Highway 24 in Cascade to the west side of Colorado Springs.

The fire spread into a dangerous threat so quickly, Saturday afternoon plans were abruptly canceled as residents hosed down houses and packed their things.

“We’ve got a dog loose and we don’t know where it is,” said Martha Gallagher, who lives in the same area.

The fire, she said, is " much too close for comfort.”

“As soon as it’s mandatory, I’m out of here,” said her husband Jim Gallagher.

Even after the mandatory evacuation, some residents gathered at the high point of the subdivision, as far officials would allow them, to watch what looked like a monster burning through the bone-dry pine forests.

Stephen Schnurr watched as the flames neared his 80 acres on the hillside – vacant land where he hope to build a home.

“It’s probably right on the edge of my property,” he said.

He expects to find little there but “ashes.”

“I’m scared to death,” said resident Lynn Smith. “We’ve lived here 19 years it’s really scary.”

In neighborhoods under mandatory evacuation orders, Colorado Springs police cruisers rolled down the streets.

"Colorado Springs Police Department. This is a mandatory evacuation notice. Evacuate now," said a cop through speaker on car.

He was followed by two other cruisers, their lights flashing.

Some residents were packing up, including hundreds under and voluntary evacuation orders. One woman was putting pictures into her SUV. Another ran into her house to get her family.

Rory Detty said an officer approached him telling him he had about 20 minutes to leave.

Not everyone was leaving, though. Patrick Malfitano said he was going to wait before deciding whether to head out.

He said that his house is not on the cusp of the neighborhood and the wilderness. There are a few streets in between.

"That's kind of given a little bit of comfort," Malfitano said.

"But this whole place is a tinderbox, so that doesn't help," he added.

He said that he has seen wildfires before. He used to live in southern California, an area famous for devastating blazes.

This, however, is the first time Malfitano's ever had to evacuate.

Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs,  was on the campus when she learned of fire. She has lived in Cedar Heights, which under mandatory evacuation, for 14 years.

"It was mandatory by the time I got to the gate."

 "Of course I'm worried. About my house, but it's only a structure. As long as lives aren't lost, that's my main concern."

In Manitou Springs, residents and business owners watched the skies.

Christine Georgopoulos, owner of Marika's Coffeehouse, said, "I live in Manitou and I own this shop so I have a lot to lose."

She's been a Manitou Springs resident for three years. "I just don't know what to do."

Rumors swirled about evacuations and the cause of the fire.

"We're just hoping it doesn't get down here," said Carol LeBlance, a Manitou resident for one year. "I hate seeing that rolling smoke. It would be devastating if it got down here."

Matthew O'Connell, a westside resident for 11 years, didn't seem too concerned, citing the north-to-northwest wind direction. "I'm not too concerned," he said, "but we don't clear our forests ... They're open tinder boxes."

"We're sad about the destruction," said Peregrine resident Ken Schroeder.

In front of the Bookman used book store on West Colorado Avenue, near the fire command center, a woman who identified herself only as Lynn sat on a chair with her only companion, her dog Charlie.

She had been evacuated from her home in Manitou Springs, on the north side of Highway 24. She didn't want to go to an evacuation center.

"I have to be able to see," she said, as she sat and stared at the large plumes of smoke. She's lived in her home since July 4, 1976. "I'm properly scared," she said. "I hope I don't have to be worried."

The Gazette's Rich Laden and Nathan Vail contributed to this report.

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