Published: July 20, 2013
On the night of June 13, during the height of the recent Black Forest fire, a few residents of the densely forested Woodmen Valley were drawn outside their homes by barking dogs.
The residents were shocked to see a patch of ground and a tree ablaze and a suspicious car racing away down Westwood Road, one of only two roads into the valley.
Quickly the neighbors grabbed garden hoses and shovels of dirt and extinguished the fire before strong winds could spread it to the valley's 190 or so homes. But the flames ignited passions in the valley that night.
"We had a close call on Westwood tonight," Kevin Bush of the Woodmen Valley Fire Protection District wrote to residents, telling them that fire officials were unsure "if it was accidental or intentional."
Without the quick actions of the neighbors, Bush said it could have been a catastrophe equal to Black Forest, which killed two and destroyed 488 homes, and the Waldo Canyon fire a year ago that killed two Mountain Shadows residents, destroyed 347 homes and forced the evacuation of 30,000 including everyone in the valley.
"With the strong winds heading east, it could have easily consumed the entire valley," Bush said in his note to residents. "We narrowly avoided a major disaster."
Residents were so scared that they spent the rest of the night stopping cars leaving and entering the valley and aggressively quizzing the occupants in a wild search for a suspected arsonist.
The next day, when emotions cooled, the neighbors took a more thoughtful approach to protecting their private, unincorporated neighborhood tucked between Woodmen Road and the Air Force Academy just east of Peregrine.
Led by longtime valley resident Laura Whiteside, neighbors have launched a multi-pronged approach to watch for fire and strangers, prepare to fight another fire and even plan for evacuation in the event of a disaster.
Seems the possible arson fire was a real wake-up call.
"We've lived here 28 years and we've always worried about fire," Whiteside said.
The valley has experienced a couple grassfires. But they didn't prompt the kind of response seen since the recent close call.
"People were very scared that night," said Wendy Geisler, a newcomer to the valley who has energetically helped Whiteside get the neighborhood organized.
Every night since, teams of residents have patrolled the valley. Some carry flashlights, fire extinguishers, cameras and cellphones. They even put strobe lights on the roofs of their cars to let folks know they are watching.
"We considered hiring off-duty sheriff's deputies but it was too expensive," Geisler said. "So one of the men organized neighborhood patrols.
"We have people signed up every night for the next six months at least."
They are doing much more.
Residents pooled their money to buy and erect security cameras at the two access roads in the valley so they can track suspicious vehicles.
They've formed committees to study evacuation strategies, such as designating safe areas and "evacuation buddies" for isolated residents. And they've mapped four-wheel-drive evacuation routes and even negotiated with an adjacent neighborhood to create a new access road where none exists in the event of an emergency evacuation.
Neighborhood crews have done fire mitigation along the roadways, clearing brush and cutting tree limbs. Folks are discussing FireWise techniques to create defensible spaces around homes.
They've designed and distributed car decals to identify the cars of valley residents and distinguish them from vehicles that don't belong in the area.
Geisler even secured corporate donations of 200 five-gallon buckets and nine tons of sand, which are being placed along valley roads to extinguish fires. She's also seeking air horns to place with every bucket, fire extinguishers and other items they believe will help sound an alarm and protect them from future fires.
"We're making a visual statement that this neighborhood is watching," Geisler said. "I felt so helpless watching Black Forest go up in flames. Now, we're taking small, reasonable, preventative measures to protect ourselves."
I marveled at the nightly patrols and the dedication they require.
"I've gone out six times," Geisler said. "Everyone goes in pairs. I take a cup of hot chocolate and make my rounds. It takes about half an hour to make one round."
If a fire or stranger is spotted, the protocol they've established is strict.
"The purpose of the patrol is to look for fire," Whiteside said. "No one gets out of the car. There are no confrontations. If you see something suspicious you call 9-1-1 and leave."
In light of two suspected arson fires started last week in Fox Run Regional Park in Black Forest, I think the Woodmen Valley folks are smart to be concerned and keep their eyes open. I'm guessing they'll all be safer and come out of this a much closer community.
See more photos on my blog at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets