Aubrey West knew he was witnessing history on June 26.
As a retired history teacher, West compared the night to old news reels of cities being bombed.
“With the planes flying overhead and the smoke and the flames, I expected to see Edward R. Murrow on a corner saying ‘This is London,’” West said, referencing Murrow’s signature opening to radio broadcasts during World War II.
Six months ago Sunday, the Waldo Canyon fire was first reported. The flames below those smoky clouds looming west of Colorado Springs that Saturday would destroy at least 346 houses within three days. When the fire was declared contained on July 10, more than 18,000 acres had burned and two people were dead, killed in their home on the night of June 26.
As the weeks passed, 70-year-old West and many of his neighbors grieved their losses and tried to figure out what to do next.
They had to deal first with immediate needs — finding shelter and filing insurance claims.
In time, however, they were able to reflect — not just on what they lost but on how their small stories fit into the larger one about one of the city’s most devastating disasters.
“Even if we were a young couple in our 30s or 40s, it would still be something we would remember for the rest of our lives,” West said.
On the night the fire burned his home, West could save only a few important papers. Gone were his antique guns, which he had collected over more than 20 years and the antique glass collection his wife, Susan, had dedicated herself to.
They had been the first to buy a home on Courtney Drive, 26 years ago, and had happily watched a few generations of kids grow up, move out and be replaced by others.
West had liked to say that he’d only leave his home when he was dead, but the fire changed things, he said.
That night, 28 of the 32 homes on Courtney Drive burned to the ground. Many of the neighbors resolved to rebuild.
Others sold their lots and moved.
The Wests’ gut instinct: They couldn’t rebuild. There was too much lost, too many years of their lives that went up in flames. They were one of the more “vintage” couples in the area, as Aubrey West likes to say, and didn’t want to spend a lot of time getting their lives back on track.
They started the search for a new home but were disappointed. They wanted to live on the west side, near the mountains, but nothing seemed good enough to replace their old home, where neighbors were close friends and boys played in the street.
They checked out patio homes and senior living communities, but the lifestyle in those places was too quiet and low-key for the active couple, West said.
“Definitely not our style,” he said. “We need activity.”
Over time, they realized that their old street was special. Even if it was tough, it was worth it to rebuild, he said.
The lot they still owned, they realized, was their special spot. It was a part of their past and rebuilding on it also be part of the city’s story of the fire.
“This is history,” West said. “We want to be a part of it.”
From the start, Matt Mayberry and the rest of the staff at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum recognized the historical significance of the fire.
Often, he said, it takes time and perspective to recognize a historical event, he said. Within a few days of the fire, the museum had put a call out for people to tell their stories and to collect artifacts from the fire.
“From a museum’s perspective, it isn’t often you get a chance to collect artifacts from an historical event from the beginning,” he said.
“Usually you need perspective to understand its significance. But this one was obvious.”
There are few natural disasters that compare to the Waldo fire, he said. He mentioned the 1935 flood that killed as many as 18 people when Monument Creek flooded downtown and tore down bridges. Then there was the 1965 flood that killed 28 people across the state including in El Paso County, he said.
“I’m not prepared to say how those three events compare,” he said. “To my knowledge, in terms of wildland fires, there was a fire in the 1950s, but nothing like this. There’s been nothing like this in that sense.”
Mayberry said only time will show the long-range impact of the fire. He says he thinks the fire has the power to change a lot.
“I think in 10, 15 or 20 years or beyond, we will look back at this event as a moment the community pivoted,” he said. “I don’t know if we know yet what that pivot means.”
The west side will certainly be changed, he said. Though, again, he can’t predict how much.
At the very least, Mountain Shadows will look different. Of the 346 homes destroyed, there have been new home permits issued for 65 as of Dec. 12, according to records from the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.
Most of those homes have floor plans that reflect the neighborhood now rather then when it was built in the 1980s, said Bob Croft, of the regional building department.
“That personally doesn’t surprise me,” Croft said. “The demographics there are different. Here we are, some 20 years later and many of those homes have empty- nesters who don’t want to climb stairs anymore.”
Kerry Ann and Richard George, who are next-door neighbors to Aubrey and Susan West, redesigned their home before they broke ground in September.
They were the first on Courtney Drive to start to rebuild.
As of Dec. 12, 10 property owners had received permits on the street to rebuild. The Georges’ home is expected to be finished in mid- to late January.
Right after the fire, Kerry Ann George was devastated along with her neighbors. Since then, making plans and moving forward has made a big difference. So has time, she said.
“I think it has gotten easier,” she said. “You come to this point of acceptance. The fire happened and you have to move on.”
Aubrey and Susan West, too, are doing their best to move on. At times it’s hard, he said.
It breaks him up to think of the loss of photos of all of the trips he’d taken with his kids. His gun collection, his pride and joy, is irreplaceable, he said.
“You don’t walk into Sports Authority and buy a second model British Brown Bess with a George II Cypher,” he said.
“They don’t have them. No one does.”
Some of those remnants were donated to the Pioneers Museum and, for the first time, the history teacher contributed to a historical event instead of studying it.
“All I had to do was lose my house,” he said. “Ironic, isn’t it.”