HUERFANO COUNTY - The ash was like black snow, the smoke a curtain shrouding the beauty they’d known for 23 years. And over the ridge to the west, they saw a crazy red line and knew the monster was coming for them. David and Peggy Zehring had little time.
It was June 27, Day One of what would become Colorado’s third-largest wildfire. More than 200 structures would be destroyed and 108,000 acres decimated. Spanish Peaks country’s treasured scenery would be changed forever in two weeks of havoc.
From the dream home they built in retirement, the Zehrings rushed down 9 miles of dirt road to La Veta, taking refuge at the inn, where the fearful owner was on his way out. He let anyone who dared stay for free. So the Zehrings did, hardly sleeping, haunted by that red glow and the unknown.
Their minds at night roamed their abandoned rooms. Peggy’s canvases from 40-plus years of work, David’s drumset with those Zildjian cymbals. That massive painting of his wife’s, his favorite. Mementos from their travels, including the exotic rug in the dining room. A wide window faced those beautiful twin peaks between the hills.
Please still be there, they prayed to the god that seemed to have left this storied land.
Along the Highway of Legends near town is the ancient Devil’s Staircase formation, known as the rock steps that Satan took to overlook his world takeover. Elsewhere is the soaring butte that the native people knew to be a guardian, a protector from evil. Now that sentinel was losing.
About 8:30 a.m. June 30, Peggy stayed at her art school in town while David started out in the Honda CRV. Authorities no longer were blocking the dirt road home.
Seeing the green stands of piñon and juniper gave him hope through those first few miles. Ranch homes still spotted the valley. But this was before he learned about the fire’s savage dance, how it jumped from one place to the next as it so pleased.
As David turned the corners, the barren mountainsides beyond told a tale of doom.
Peggy could no longer wait. A friend drove her to the property, where she found her husband, who had no words but these:
“It’s gone. It’s all gone.”
• • •
Earlier on Day One, across the county line, Jim Kuehn got a call from a friend who lived near the sage and grass fields of lower Forbes Park.
His wife overhead. “Fire?” Jacque asked, more curious than panicked.
Jim drove down to see for himself. A darkening plume rose in the place where a man later was found to have been burning trash.
From Jim’s perspective, the blaze could be tamed, though the winds threatened, blowing toward the tree-covered slopes of the gated community. He looked to a ridge that he hated to imagine being consumed, because from there, he could imagine devastation well beyond Forbes Park, flames racing to La Veta Pass.
“Should it reach that ridge, call me,” he told the neighbor.
It wasn’t an hour before the call came.
First they grabbed their medicine and Bibles. Jacque cried as they snagged armfuls of clothes. She took photo albums and wanted to get the things she remembered her mother by, along with at least some of her doll collection. “One more thing,” she kept saying, until Jim finally said to get in the car now.
Off they went in the ‘97 4Runner with their two Corgis, leaving the new 4Runner, which had a flat tire, plus 5 gallons of paint they had just gotten that day for the house.
Later at a shelter, the Kuehns watched footage from their neighbor’s outdoor security camera. One moment they saw ash, then sparks, then total ignition.
• • •
The team is packing up from the high school, clearing base with tired eyes after what was, for many, the most trying days of their firefighting lives.
They are members of the Rocky Mountain Incident Management’s Blue Team, the squad that joined with the region’s Black Team soon before the fire’s biggest blowout on Independence Day.
It was their next stop in what has been the brutal season predicted. Onlookers feared what drought conditions across the West would wreak. Part of the answer can be found in the recent schedules of teams black and blue.
Crews helped with Durango’s 416 fire last month before attacking the Buffalo fire in Summit County. By the time Incident Commander Shane Greer and his team arrived in the Cuchara Valley on June 29, after a battle in Wyoming, the Spring Creek fire was well on its way to historical proportions.
More than 41,000 acres had burned. Containment was zero percent.
Incident Commander Jay Esperance arrived with Blue Team two days later and right away shuffled for more backup.
“I think it was three days before we started getting substantial resources,” he says.
Requests for more engines climbed the ladder of local, regional and national dispatches, but nothing was coming immediately for Blue Team.
“At one time, I had 45 on order, and I wasn’t getting anything,” says Chris Zoller, the operations section chief trainee.
He was wishing, too, for more than one hotshot crew early on. “We would’ve been able to do more with those folks in terms of structural protection,” he says. “We simply didn’t have enough people to put on some of the houses out there. That was a big challenge.”
The fighters understood that fires raged elsewhere, consuming resources. “A lot was being held back to stop new starts,” Esperance says, “and that makes sense. You’re never gonna hear me argue about that.”
Less understanding were locals who kept their eyes on the sky, waiting for bigger support.
After an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and California’s Department of Forestry, a Boeing 747-400 supertanker flew to California to combat fires that had led to one death. But the plane, owned by Colorado Springs-based Global SuperTanker Services and able to drop 19,200 gallons of suppressant, had not been cleared by the Forest Service for call-as-needed use across Colorado, The Associated Press reported.
It was in California, and there was a contract issue. That was the explanation Greer says he got after asking about the aircraft.
“One thing people should maybe keep in perspective with the supertanker, it’s not a magic bullet,” he says. “Sometimes, bigger isn’t necessarily better.”
The days were hot and dry, the terrain steep and stocked with dead timber down and standing, and erratic gusts were swelling the blaze unpredictably, commanders say. Anyone blaming the fire on the missing supertanker is “trying to make a story that isn’t there,” Esperance says.
But as he and others pack to head home before their next call, regrets are obvious. Regrets linger when one house burns, let alone 100-plus.
Victories were in the zero lives lost, and in the saving of the town of Cuchara, the region’s economic engine at the other end of the Highway of Legends.
What more could have been saved if fighters were better equipped at the start?
“We were very frustrated,” Esperance says, silent in thought before shrugging. “I think Mother Nature would’ve won that battle anyway. But I don’t know.”
• • •
They had his and hers chain saws, so they could keep brush and limbs away from the house. Peggy Zehring especially loved the two big, full fir trees by the back porch, but she knew the branches had to be cut.
These were the instructions of the three mitigation experts they had hired to inspect over the years. They made sure to get more than one opinion.
None of it mattered.
“One expert actually had parents in the area,” David Zehring says here in Middle Creek, the next residential area ravaged after Forbes Park. “He told them there was nothing they could have done, the fire was too powerful. There was nothing they could have done.”
The Zehrings are trying not to look back. “That would be unproductive,” Peggy says.
But amid the rubble, she can’t help but wish she had moved her art. She looks at those gnarled filing cabinets and can’t help but wish she’d taken their contents elsewhere — transaction records letting her know where all of her work is.
A gallery in New York called the other day to say sorry, and to say they were sending back her pieces. “They said they would ship it right away, because you need some friends around,” Peggy says. “I think that’s right. I need some friends.”
She’s working on a new one. It depicts fire, and she’s trying to make it as bold and furious as possible.
“It’s the truth of what I am right now,” she says. And she accepts that and the pain that comes with it, because, she says, “I really do believe it will make me stronger.”
There’s a Japanese term she likes: wabi-sabi. “Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness,” Leonard Koren wrote of the aesthetic. “The beauty of wabi-sabi is in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly.”
Now Peggy walks through the remains of her home, passing a totem pole that still stands but is charred beyond recognition, passing the junkyard scraps she collected for now-blackened sculptures.
“Isn’t this all wabi-sabi?”
• • •
Jim Kuehn always could fix it. He worked as a handyman, nearly breaking his back to make a living and one day afford a home in mountain serenity.
He and his wife moved to Forbes Park three years ago, however strange it was to be around mostly second homes. Jim got to work right away.
“I couldn’t afford to hire anybody to do anything, so I did everything myself,” he says. “Plumbing, electrical, carpentry, you name it.”
Now he can do nothing.
His shed is a pile on the ground, the power tools mangled, other melted pieces forming an aluminum stream down the hill to the place where he had just built wooden benches out of nearby aspen. The whole family was to come for a reunion last week.
The Lord, Jim says, blessed him with an elk this past season, and the meat was packed in the freezer, which was destroyed and invaded by maggots. No safe could secure his bows and firearms.
“I can only look at a catalog to remind me, ‘Yeah, I had one of those and one of those,’” he says. “It’s tough to remember everything you had.”
What he and Jacque still have is faith. They would read their Bibles every morning on the deck here. Now they read in the camper lent to them.
Before, they were at a shelter, feeling the anger that others harbored there. Jim one day felt compelled to tell a group about the Book of Ecclesiastes, which tells of man’s senseless pursuit of wealth and “the vanity of vanities.”
“It’s just stuff,” Jim told his little congregation. “It’s all just stuff.”
• • •
Lynn Green knows the horse as “Earth’s most delicate creature.” The fire did not spare it.
“Good girl, good girl,” Green softly utters to the mare with a bloody side.
The steed impaled herself on the fence as the herd got riled up, her owners told the staff at Rio Cucharas Veterinary Clinic. She became the next horse in a count that veterinarian Romy Nicoletta has lost track of this month.
Though her clinic was tight on space, word spread that it was taking in animals whose owners were searching for a place. As people struggled in their transitions, they dropped off dogs and cats, while firefighters brought other pets stranded in the mountains.
Nicoletta’s husband and two young boys evacuated to be with family out of town. She stayed put.
“How could I not?” she says.
How could she leave when so many others were pulling together? She learned of a woman who was sleeping at the county fairgrounds to be with livestock around the clock. She learned of a man who had hurried his 70 head of cattle there and hurried back to help fight the fire.
“We had to step up to the plate,” says Green, a longtime valley resident. “That was just it.”
She rubs the horse’s wound with ointments. She cleans and scrubs until Nicoletta comes with medicine to pour through the tube in the horse’s side.
It’s an ugly process, but she’ll make it, Green says. “Things look worse before they look better.”
• • •
Rain from the night before has cleaned the air, softening the ground. The ash moves between Manuel Molles’ feet as he steps through the gray and silenced forest, looking for something between the black and naked timber.
Ute prayer trees are “living, cultural artifacts,” he says, integral to this land of legends. He would be devastated if they, too, were lost. He’s looking for the bent trunks that the natives modified hundreds of years ago, marking important sites.
Border collie Keena, meaning “brave,” nuzzles at his knee as if to comfort him. “These dogs can sense people’s moods,” he says.
His home on La Veta Pass made it, but he’s feeling conflicted. When he tells people everything is fine, why does he feel more shame than relief?
“I guess you really understand survivor’s guilt after something like this,” he says.
Before long, he stops.
A tree unharmed, still perfectly bent.
“So wonderful,” he says. “So, so wonderful.”
And he stays to take in the miracle: in these forsaken woods, an everlasting place of prayer.