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Gazette Premium Content WALDO CANYON FIRE: Survival stories from evacuees

MARIA ST.LOUIS-SANCHEZ Updated: June 27, 2012 at 12:00 am

'All our kids grew up there together'

Brian Fox figured his house was gone when he saw a photo of his block in flames. On Wednesday, a police officer confirmed that it had burned to the ground.

“We’ve lived there for 15 years and put blood, sweat and tears into it,” he said. “A house is just a box that holds a bunch of things. But it’s been our home. That’s the hardest part. Losing your home.”

Fox came home early from work Tuesday when he noticed how bad things were getting outside. His family – wife Kathy and kids Ben and Emily – also were home and they were watching a 4 p.m. news conference about the fire when a neighbor called.

“They said that the fire had come down over the ridge and we knew we had to leave.”

Their home had been on the edge of the earlier evacuation zone so their cars were already packed with their most important belongings. They were out of the house within 10 minutes, the flames visibly approaching.

They went his uncle’s house and tried to get any news they could from the fire.

“It was clear that it was quite bad,” he said. “We stayed up all night watching the news.”

Eventually, a Denver Post photo surfaced. Taken outside of Wilson United Methodist Church, it showed his block in flames.

On Wednesday, he and his neighbors met for what they jokingly called the “Mountain Shadows Refugee Association.” A neighbor had a police officer friend who checked on their homes. Three homes were standing, but not his.

“It was heart breaking. You go through all of the stages of grief right away,” he said. “But at least I know. That’s better than most people. Not knowing has got to be horrible.”

He wanted people to know that it wasn’t just houses that burned, it was a vibrant community that his family was invested in. His wife was PTA president at the kids’ schools. His engineering consulting business is nearby.

“All of our kids grew up together there. There wasn’t a week when 10 of them weren’t playing in the street,” he said, breaking down in tears. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen now. It was a strong community. I want people to know what a loss it is.”

'I don’t even know if I have a home'

As Dana Huff was receiving an emergency evacuation notice at his Mountain Shadows home Tuesday afternoon, a police officer was pounding on the door telling him he had to leave immediately.

“I thought I would have time if there was an evacuation,” he said. “We didn’t think it would happen that quickly.”

He took 10 minutes to get out of his house, but it wasn’t easy. Huff, who had his left leg amputated after a staph infection seven years ago, wasn’t wearing his prosthetic leg at the time. To make matters worse, his electricity had just gone off, trapping his car inside his garage.

He had just enough time to grab two small plastic bags of belonging – mostly medical supplies for his leg. When he got out of his house, the sky was glowing and he could see the fire descending. He got a ride from a neighbor who had driven his vehicle through his own garage door to get out. The neighbor dropped him off at a Village Inn restaurant and staff there took him to the Red Cross shelter at Cheyenne Mountain High School.

On Wednesday, his adult daughter from Greeley arrived at the shelter to take him home with her.

“I don’t know how long it will be,” he said. “I don’t even know if I have a home.”

'Praying that we were spared'

Gail Hickert, CEO of Mount Saint Francis, said they had a plan in place to evacuate but never imagined things would happen so quickly. The Mount, which runs a nursing home with 104 residents, had a 1:40 p.m. notice to be on alert to evacuate. She figured they would leave if they were put under a voluntary evacuation, but that didn’t happen.

“We went right from precautionary to mandatory,” she said. “Everything seemed to be working in double-time and outside of course it was extremely windy and smoky and there was an eerie orange cast that made it hard to tell where the fire was at.”

The nursing home residents had bags packed with clothes and medication, but complications came when the vans and ambulances that were supposed to pick up the mostly wheel-chair using residents got stuck in traffic.

What is normally a 10-minute drive took “much, much longer,” she said.

“It was stressful because I really didn’t know how close the fire was and it happened so quickly,” she said. “There were roaring winds and this wall of orange-tinted smoke and I though ‘oh my gosh this is happening much quicker than anticipated.’”

In time, the residents made it to the nursing homes and Penrose Hospital, which all stepped in to house them. Hickert was one of the last to make it off of the Mount, and as she left, she saw flames approaching.

She doesn’t know if the facilities – the nursing home, a church, a retreat house and residences for the nuns – made it through the night.

“I’m just hoping and praying that we were spared.”

Returned to sleeping in car

Margrit Born thought her luck was changing for the better a couple of weeks ago.

In the middle of June, the homeless woman met a kind couple in a Wal-Mart parking lot who noticed that she was living in her SUV with her dog. They offered to let her live in their Pinon Valley home with them and their elderly mother until she could get back on her feet.

“Now they might be homeless,” she said, breaking into tears Wednesday morning.

Tuesday afternoon, the couple was at work and Born was at the home with the elderly woman. About 5:30 p.m. the power went out and they couldn’t keep track of the news or make phone calls from their land line, and they didn’t know they were under a mandatory evacuation. Their cell phones had spotty service and Born had trouble reaching the couple. A neighbor told them they had to get out, but Born said they needed the couple’s vehicle for the older woman, who is on oxygen.

The couple was stopped at a roadblock, but eventually convinced the police to let them through. The family went to a hotel, but Born opted for the Red Cross Shelter so they wouldn’t have to pay for a room for her.

She was treated kindly at the Southeast YMCA but her dog was agitated and she didn’t want to leave him in one of the kennels. Tuesday night, she returned to sleeping in her car.

'They won’t let him burn'

Jason Pluger’s mind has been pre-occupied for a big day on Thursday. That’s when he’s supposed to join the newest class at the Air Force Academy.

“We got here early to try to get acclimated to the community,” he said.

“And did we ever,” added his mom Maureen Pluger.

The pair is from Michigan and got into town Sunday night. They heard about the fire but assumed they were safe in their hotel near the intersection of Interstate 25 and Rockrimmon Boulevard. They noticed the smoke thickening at the academy on Tuesday afternoon and then, when they tried to return to the hotel, learned they were evacuated. With no local hotel rooms to be found, they stayed the night at the Red Cross shelter at the Southeast YMCA.

“Don’t feel for us,” Maureen Pluger said. “We don’t feel that put out. What we brought with us is what we have. We are not at all stressed. I just feel bad for the people who could have lost their homes.”

Jason Pluger said he’s not sure what his first few days at the academy will now be like.

“I’m still excited. I know that the Air Force will take care of everything. It’s just that something like this has never happened before.”

Maureen Pluger said she’s not worried either.

“They’ll make him run, but they won’t let him burn.”

'It was pandemonium'

With a 3-year-old daughter and a wife who is 8 months pregnant, Mario Trujillo didn’t want to take any chances getting out of their Rockrimmon apartment if an evacuation order came.

He packed up the family’s belongings early Tuesday and they were out the door within minutes of the call. That’s when he hit trouble. The family lives only a block from Interstate 25 and that single block was a 20-minute drive.

“It was pandemonium,” he said. “The smoke was disorienting and it was just grid lock the whole way.”

He said they were fine once they reached the interstate and they spent the night at the Cheyenne Mountain High School Red Cross shelter. On Wednesday, they headed to Pueblo to stay with family.

'I’m taking it seriously'

Karen Hawk of Monument barely slowed between trips to her car Wednesday while emptying her home of her most important possessions.

Like other Monument residents, she’s only under a pre-evacuation notice, but she wasn’t taking chances.

“I was up in Mountain Shadows as the fire was coming down yesterday, so I’m taking it seriously,” Hawk said in her driveway on Creek Valley Circle.

Many of Hawks’ neighbors in the Valley Ridge neighborhood followed suit Wednesday afternoon and spent the afternoon packing, some with U-Haul trucks and flatbed trailers. All said they were concerned about smoke rolling off of Blodgett Peak to the south and by tales of the Waldo Canyon Fire’s rapid, ruinous spread into Colorado Springs, where it has consumed more than 200 homes.

One of Hawk’s four sons, Justin Little, came to help her pack, and her dog, Lady, tagged along as they gathered photographs, important papers, computers and Little’s videogame system and games.

Hawk said she was taking care of another son’s home in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood before fire came down a ridge and began burning homes, cementing their worst fears.

“At the time it was so gridlocked you couldn’t get out,” she said. “It was scary looking back at the mountain and seeing that.”

A street of ‘double evacuees’

Mike Hollis, a research scientist based at the Air Force Academy, was among several “double evacuees” in the Monument neighborhood. Until Tuesday, he had been at an extended stay hotel while finishing a grant project.

An evacuation order Tuesday night sent him to the home of an Air Force Academy faculty member in Monument – and he awoke to Wednesday’s warnings that he may still be in danger.

As he spoke, Hollis warily eyed a dry thunderstorm that sent a lightning strike into the foothills to the south.

Hollis said he’d stay for the time being – but only while it’s safe.

“I’m a pilot. I know how the winds are at the academy, and 55 mph is not that unusual,” he said.

He saw it himself at the Air Force Academy on Tuesday, as fire crested a ridge he was assured would hold the fire in its place.

“You could see it just coming down,” he said. “It looked like a fireball coming down the mountain.”

Down the street, two more refugees from the Air Force Academy were loading two dogs and a cat into the back of a pickup, getting ready to take them to a temporary shelter.

Air Force Master Sgt. Anthony King said he and his family were forced out of their home in the academy’s Douglass Valley area Tuesday night and went to stay with Master Sgt. Vincent Villanueva, an Air Force colleague, on Mountain Lake Drive in Monument.

Although the men intend to stay through the pre-evacuation phase, they spent the afternoon loading belongings in footlockers and rucksacks, and taking care of their pets in case they get word to evacuate.

“We’re in the military. We know how to follow orders. When they say go, we go,” said Villanueva.

Tree trimmer’s phone rang early

Phew.

That was the obvious response late afternoon around the Pleasant Valley neighborhood, about a mile southeast of Garden of the Gods, when the skies began clearing and the wind died down.

After a pre-evacuation order was issued Wednesday morning, tons of residents began cramming belongings into their vehicles.

Truck campers that had sat unused were pulled out of storage. Cluttered garages were picked over. Pillows and blankets seeped out the windows of economy cars.

A number of houses had sprinklers running in their front yards, owners obviously hoping to slow any flames that may reach their lawns.

Several homeowners worked on clearing branches and brown-ish plants, after officials had warned that dead foliage helps fires move faster.

Many even hired tree trimmers. One worker, who was tossing branches into a large trailer, said his phone started ringing at 6 a.m., and he’d been earning much more than usual.

The wind in Pleasant Valley got worse as residents packed, and many moved quicker as it did. The wind blew strong enough to bend trees, and smoke from the fire clogged noses.

At a 4 p.m. news conference, officials said they hadn’t lifted the neighborhood’s pre-evacuation order.

But an hour later, the weather cleared. The sun came out. The wind stopped. Though helicopter rotors could be heard to the north, birds chirped in Pleasant Valley.

Reporters Lance Benzel and John Schroyer contributed to this report.

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