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Gazette Premium Content WALDO CANYON FIRE: Hell in the rearview mirror

BILL VOGRIN Updated: June 27, 2012 at 12:00 am

On Tuesday, June 26, I said goodbye to my house and my neighbors and started my life as a Rockrimmon refugee.

My heart was pounding as I made one last sweep through our little house in Raven Hills. I wondered if my family would ever celebrate another birthday here. I paused at the window where we saw so much wildlife in the woods outside. Where we always put up our Christmas tree.

In the garage, I stopped at the wall where we traced our kids’ profile, measuring their heights to document their growth over the years. I took one last picture of the shark mural in my youngest son’s bedroom, grabbed my oldest boy’s high school letterman’s jacket, took a photo of my daughter at Disney World and began our escape.

I’d fought bumper-to-bumper traffic on my way home from downtown after a 4 p.m. briefing on the Waldo Canyon fire had been interrupted by a stunning mandatory evacuation order for the Mountain Shadows and Peregrine neighborhoods just west of my ‘hood.

My 12-year-old, Ben, was home with Nugget, our beloved dog. My wife, Cary, knew evacuation would mean chaos and began an urgent trek from her west-side store to reach them and get them to safety. I wasn’t far behind as I left downtown.

Neither of us could believe what we saw: a hurricane of fire had erupted in the foothills. Cary called me describing menacing flames along 30th Street and Centennial Boulevard. I figured she must be exaggerating. Then I got closer and faced the otherworldly orange glow of the swirling clouds and winced at the ash-filled, 101-degree winds.

I joined a line of cars backed up along Rockrimmon Boulevard and Delmonico Drive like I never could have imagined.

Intersections were blocked by panicked drivers trying to escape. Sirens wailed all around. I felt trapped in a horror movie.

A friend called and described houses ablaze in Mountain Shadows and urged me to join the exodus. And we did as soon as we grabbed mementos, photo albums, computers, even a cribbage board my father-in-law made.

Cary, Ben and Nugget left as I gathered all I could. Before leaving, I checked on my neighbor across the street. He refused to evacuate with his invalid wife. It was a sickening feeling to give up my pleas and get on with my own escape.

By then, embers were falling on my shake roof and I knew it was time to jump in my Jeep and flee. If only it would start. It had choked on the smoke on the drive from downtown and wouldn’t turn over.

My head exploding, I finally coaxed it to life and headed toward Woodmen Road. Except I couldn’t get near it. Panicked evacuees had turned it into a parking lot. I had to go west, toward the flames, to escape. But that route was blocked as well.

Finally, I went into four-wheel-drive, hopped a curb, blasted down a hill, across a soccer field and over a trail to reach Rockrimmon Boulevard where six lanes of traffic were headed east on both sides of the median.

And there I sat in traffic. It’s a memory I’ll never forget. I teared up as I scanned the surrounding cars. Everywhere were children, scared and crying, their parents looking deathly afraid and, in my rearview mirror, a view of the gates of hell.

Overwhelming relief rushed over me as I reached Interstate 25 and I started putting miles between me and the apocalyptic wildfire that was consuming the foothills.

I felt guilty about abandoning my home, my neighbor who refused to evacuate and all the others still sitting, petrified, in traffic.

I was one of the lucky ones. My family was safe and we had generous friends who took us in, fed and comforted us. By Wednesday morning, it seemed our neighborhood had survived. But it’s small comfort because so many neighbors have lost so much. And this catastrophe isn’t over.

To all the victims, I can only say I’m so sorry.

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