Sadness in Colorado as widespread as smoke

USA TODAY, June 27, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

Jonni McCoy saw flames in her rearview mirror as she drove away from her home and the fire that eventually consumed her Colorado Springs neighborhood.

She lost her home, her grandmother’s furniture and everything else she hadn’t stored across town when officials started warning her about the fires crisscrossing her state Saturday.

Officials don’t know how many houses have been destroyed in Colorado’s Waldo Canyon Fire, which has forced the mandatory evacuation of what the Associated Press reported was more than 32,000 people from the Colorado Springs area. They tell stories of hurried escapes, tall flames engulfing homes and thick smoke that makes breathing and seeing almost impossible. The anxiety is palpable, the sadness as widespread as the smoke.

“It just roared right through the whole section of town,” said McCoy, 54, of the fire she witnessed as she fled Tuesday. “It was like mayhem. People were just running. It was gridlock trying to get out. You couldn’t see more than 15 to 20 feet in front of you. It was just this brown haze smoke that just descended upon you.”

McCoy, her husband, Beau, daughter, Jessica, 20, and dog, Mowgli, fled to a friend’s home across town. They’re living in the basement for now.

On Tuesday night, McCoy, an author of books on personal finance, was on Facebook and saw a picture of her neighborhood. Her house was gone.

“It was horrifying,” she said. “It’s hard to believe it’s real.”

Lindsey Fredrick grasped frantically for clothes and rushed her three children out of their Green Mountain Falls home when police told her she had 20 minutes to get out Saturday.

A day earlier, the fire wasn’t that bad. She and her husband, David, didn’t imagine they would be in a Red Cross shelter in Colorado Springs with only a few important papers and belongings by Tuesday.

“I’m definitely anxious about what the damage will be and if we’ll be able to make it back,” Fredrick, 29, said. “It’s definitely stressful. All of our material possessions are there. The kids are antsy and stressed out because they are in an unfamiliar setting.”

She described a calm scene at the shelter, where people wearing hospital masks smelled of ash. Dark smoke plumes hung outside.

Her family’s evacuation separated them for days and took them across three shelters. Fredrick wasn’t worried about the fire when her husband left Saturday morning to run a quick errand. When he tried to return home, police had blocked off the roads. Three days passed before they were reunited.

Officers led Fredrick and her children, Sam, 2, Sid, 4, and Lilly, 10, through a cloud of smoke and into a car. They went to a shelter in Woodland Park for about an hour, then to one in Divide where they spent three nights, she said. On Monday, Fredrick posted an ad on Craigslist and paid someone to drive her to Colorado Springs, where her husband was staying with a friend.

“There are a lot of Red Cross volunteers who are trying to keep our spirits up,” she said. “I haven’t seen too many people cry. Most people are mellow. I guess they are just dealing with it.”

Catherine Barde, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Colorado Springs, said the organization has four shelters in the area and that hundreds of people have come through the doors.

Heather Hendricks, 25, spent most of Wednesday afternoon trying to persuade her father to leave her parents’ Colorado Springs home. The house has been in their family for 50 years, but now it is in a mandatory evacuation zone. “There’s no convincing him to leave unless the fire is lapping at the door,” she said.

Hendricks, her mother and brother saw flames engulf a home 4 miles from their house Tuesday as they drove past. “There was a huge wall of smoke,” said Hendricks, who was visiting from Denver. “It was a surreal experience.”

On Wednesday afternoon, she and her brother watched as helicopters circled their neighborhood and black smoke neared. She was still hoping her father would leave.

“Everybody is just getting ready to get out,” she said. “I’m just praying.”