People, animals evacuated from Black Forest fire find comfort among volunteers

By: Alison Noon and Linda Navarro The Gazette
June 12, 2013 Updated: June 12, 2013 at 7:30 am
photo - Looking north Tuesday, June 11, 2013, towards downtown Colorado Springs and the Black Forest fire burning out of control northeast of Colorado Springs. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Looking north Tuesday, June 11, 2013, towards downtown Colorado Springs and the Black Forest fire burning out of control northeast of Colorado Springs. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

The student body president of Palmer Ridge High School saw the smoke rising from Black Forest while on his way home from coffee with an Air Force Academy recruiter Tuesday afternoon. When he heard his high school was hosting fire evacuees, 17-year-old Erik Sabelstrom went straight there.

He signed onto a lengthy volunteer list and added the Palmer Ridge Student Council, who he said would be there in a second if needed. But the shelter already was overstaffed.

"It seems like they've got it under control," Sabelstrom said about 5 p.m., when five families had visited the center that opened about 3 p.m.

"I just wanted to make sure that if they need any help, they have it."

Red Cross organizers and volunteers from the school, including maintenance workers, faculty and parents, were prepared to house up to 300 people.

Cheryl Ernst visited briefly and was quietly comforted. She had woken from an afternoon nap to her husband calling her out of their house near Holmes and Vessey roads in Black Forest.

"We pretty much grabbed the dog and left," Ernst said, referring to 14-year-old Lucky, a mutt she found in Utah.

People offered her water, food and comforting words as she sat outside Palmer Ridge to gather her thoughts.

She soon left for a friend's house, not knowing the condition of her home.

By 8 p.m., upwards of 10 families had found temporary shelter at the school until they could make arrangements with a friend or hotel.

"Most of them had to just get out and get to air conditioning," said Robin Adair, spokeswoman for Lewis-Palmer School District 38.

The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region designated the school as the location for evacuees who wanted to remain overnight with small pets, spokeswoman Katie Borremans said. Dog and cat crates were provided by the society and volunteers.

Animal drop-offs also were taken at the society's Colorado Springs location, 610 Abbot Lane.

Larger animals were directed to the Norris-Penrose Event Center, where horse trailer after horse trailer lined up to deliver animals evacuated from Black Forest. By 6:45 p.m., 32 horses from Desert Skye stable on Buckskin Lane were being settled into stalls.

And just as last year during the Waldo Canyon fire, Julie Woods from the El Paso County Sheriff's Office put her animal rescue plan into action.

Woods took official IDs from owners and explained they were the only ones who would be allowed into the barn area. Owners would be responsible for feeding their horses twice daily and walking them.

Cayce Gambill, one of the first to bring in her horse, provided bananas, sandwiches and other snacks for the volunteers and evacuees.

Large trailers from the Air Force Academy brought multiple horses from Desert Skye but smaller personal trailers, saddles, bridles and halters had to be left behind.

"As long as my horse is here, it's OK that I don't have the other things," Ellie Brown said.

One owner pulled in with his horse, Frosty, a 22-year-old Arabian, and a trailer loaded with everything he could escape with, including hay.

He told Woods he was going as fast as he could trying to get up to speed with the heavy load, and drivers on Interstate 25 were irritated at him.

Others were busy gawking at the fire in his neighborhood - which irritated him.

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