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Gazette Premium Content WALDO CANYON FIRE: A 'surreal' time for evacuee

JAKOB RODGERS Updated: June 23, 2012 at 12:00 am

Corky and Linda Connery first saw the dark, hazy plume of smoke as they drove west of Divide, relieved that their vacation property near Lake George escaped the wrath of a fire that recently torched Elevenmile Canon.

By the nights’ end, Linda Connery watched anxiously as police evacuated her neighborhood in Colorado Springs.

“It’s surreal,” Linda Connery. “I’ve been here 25 years and I just can’t believe it’s going to happen.”

Fire-weary homeowners fled their houses Saturday afternoon after a blaze tore through a popular hiking area west of the city, sending smoke billowing as evacuees loaded up their cars.

The fire forced 2,000 to 2,300 people from their homes on Saturday from an evacuation area that stretched along the north side of U.S. 24 from Cascade to the western edge of Colorado Springs.

Twenty-six people sought shelter at Cheyenne Mountain High School on Saturday night, said Catherine Barde, a Red Cross spokeswoman. Another Red Cross  at Woodland Park High School remained empty of evacuees at 9 p.m.

The emergency calls these homeowners received sparked a mix between organized chaos and hesistation that the flames would reach their homes.

Many in the 250-home Cedar Heights neighborhood were kept from evenreturning to their houses after the evacuations were ordered.

“It was mandatory by the time I got to the gate,” said Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs “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.”

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

“It’s probably right on the edge of my property,” he said, adding that he expected find little there but “ashes.”

Those that could pack their belongings Saturday piled pictures and birth certificates into their cars, many facing toward the street to ensure a quick escape. A few turned on the sprinklers for their lawns.

Besides clothes, computer hard drives and laptops were the first things that many people sought to save.

“It’s like robbing your own house,’ said Andrew Krueger, the caretaker for a 98-year-old World War II veteran who lives in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, where 850 homes were evacuated.

But despite desperate pleas by officers announcing the evacuations through bullhorns, many held off for hours.

Among the last to leave: the 98-year-old veteran, James Downing, who survived the sinking of his ship in Pearl Harbor.

“If I see the flames coming down the ridge, I’ll know it’s time,” Downing said.

Colorado Springs police officers knocked on the doors of about half of the Mountain Shadows evacuation area — relying on reverse emergency calls and officers with bullhorns in their cruisers to reach the rest.

“It’s going to move pretty fast,” said Derek Graham, the Colorado Springs Police Department’s lead homicide detective, to Downing. “You should probably get moving.”

Downing did, but only after more officers showed up.

Fears of looting and break-ins loomed in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

Kirk Moore watched the plume of smoke billow above his brother’s house east of Flying W Ranch Road and shook his head.

“You hear stories about it,” Moore said, one of a handful of relatives to help the family of three. “I’m sure people look at it as an opportunity.”

Police managed to clear most of the neighborhood a couple hours before sunset. They were posted to keep it secure through the night.

Corky and Linda Connery were stragglers.

The two just finshed inspecting their property in the Wagon Tongue subdivision near Eleven Mile Canyon, an area evacuated last week’s Springer Fire enveloped 1,145 acres.

Connery’s property was spared — he could barely even smell smoke there on Saturday. But he shook his head at the thought of his Colorado Springs home being the target of the region’s next blaze.

As darkness descended and an ominous glow howevered in the distance, Connery watched a cop car wait outside her house. She held out hope.

“Nothing coming over the ridge yet over here,” said Connery, shortly after 8:30 p.m. “We plan to stick it out. If it starts coming, we’re ready to go.”

Reporters R. Scott Rappold, Nathan Vail, Mary Shinn, Bill Vogrin, Rich Laden and Ryan Maye Handy contributed to this report

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