Family heirlooms, photos and home movies melted and burned as the Waldo Canyon fire spread through the Mountain Shadows neighborhood.
The memory of the fire itself is one that’s sure to last for first-hand witnesses, and the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is working to ensure the fire is remembered by others for decades and maybe centuries to come.
The museum is organizing a collection of artifacts from the fire for an exhibit called “From the Ashes: The Waldo Canyon Fire,” which is scheduled to debut June 22.
“Our hope is that however you experienced the fire, when you come into this exhibit, you will be able to relate in some way,” said Leah Davis Witherow, curator of history at the museum.
Donated and loaned items include a stack of tin plates from Flying W Ranch that fused together from the heat of the fire, pieces of jewelry found among the ashes of people’s homes, melted antique guns, scorched books and a burned Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Some of the items come from one of the museum’s volunteers, Aubrey West, who lost his own home in the blaze. West, a retired history teacher, said he and his wife, Sue, lost valuable antique glass and gun collections. They gave some of the charred collectibles to the museum, along with the blueprints for the new house they’re building where the old one stood.
West will be among hundreds of those affected by the fire, including first responders, invited to an exclusive preview of the exhibit before it opens to the public.
“Artifacts tell a story and there will be a lot of stories,” he said. “Some will look at it and wonder how we survived the damage, why there wasn’t more damage, how close we came to even a (more) major disaster.”
Matt Mayberry, the museum’s director, said it was obvious almost immediately that museum staff needed to work on starting a collection.
“The quicker you can preserve and capture stories the better,” he said. “The longer you wait, memories become clouded and you don’t have access to artifacts.
The fire was an event that Mayberry expects will significantly change the community during the next few years.
“Twenty years from now, or more likely 50 or 100 years from now, whoever is sitting in my chair,” he said, “I just absolutely know is going to look back on this time and say, ‘This is a moment of reinvention of this community.’”
Witherow said she hopes the collection will be around for historians and residents decades into the future. The artifacts symbolize a range of emotions from grief and loss to hope and perseverance, she said. No item is significant merely for its ashen state.
One square of carpet the museum received was darkened around a giraffe-shaped imprint. The family who donated it left their child’s animal puzzle on the floor when they evacuated as the flames raged closer, and part of the carpet was protected from smoke damage as other parts of their home were destroyed.
“People left thinking they’d have an opportunity to come back,” Witherow said.