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Through fire and flames

Joe Terrell: An eyewitness account to history

Published: Thursday, July 5, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07


Joe Terrell -- THE BATTALION

The Waldo Canyon wildfire burns thousands of acres of land while spreading dangerously close to Colorado Springs on June 19.

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Through fire and flames

Joe Terrell: An eyewitness account to history

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When I learned I had been accepted into an internship program with Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, I had no idea I would be forced to evacuate and embroiled in the middle of the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.

I had been anticipating a summer full of hiking, rafting and scanning documents.

Prior to June 19, the Waldo Canyon fire was nothing more than scant plumes of smoke hovering above the mountains that form the western border of Colorado Springs. It was more of an allergen and sinus irritant than anything else. That changed that Tuesday when the fire unexpectedly flared up and consumed thousands of acres within the span of a few hours.

On that fateful Tuesday, I stepped out of my cubicle around 4 p.m. and walked out to the parking lot to get a bottle of water out of my car. We heard reports of fires brewing in the west for several days, but were assured by the authorities that Colorado Springs was in the safe zone. The first thing I noticed upon stepping outside was the light flurries of ash falling from the sky. Puzzled, I looked up to see a massive pillar of smoke and flame cresting the mountain range. The firestorm looked poised to overtake Rockrimmon valley within a few hours, the location of my host home.

    After making a call to my supervisor, I drove off into the direction of the fire. During my 15-minute drive, the city issued mandatory evacuation notices to the Pinon, Woodmen and Rockrimmon valley neighborhoods. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive the memo.

    Driving into my neighborhood was like visiting a Hollywood film set. Helicopters roared overhead carrying fire-retardant chemicals while families frantically packed their possessions into waiting vehicles. I pulled into my host home driveway and gathered everything that could fit into two suitcases.

    Securing the suitcases in my backseat, I then made the worst decision of the week. I drove a mile west up the mountain to get pictures of the fire.  I found myself on a ridge less than couple of blocks from the fire line with a group of equally foolish spectators.

    After five minutes of taking photographs, the wind abruptly changed direction. I later learned the weather service recorded wind speeds in excess of 65 mph. There was a gasping noise from the fire and the flames surged forward in our direction.

    In that moment, I knew we didn’t have hours, we had minutes. Me and the group of amateur photographers frantically stumbled down the ridge toward our vehicles as the landscape at our backs bloomed orange.

    Upon reaching my car, I was immediately overtaken by a thick cloud of smoke and debris. Day turned to night in a matter of minutes. Flicking on my headlights, I began my surreal and slow journey back down the mountain. The road was filled with fleeing deer and other wildlife. At one point, a flock of birds dropped dead from the sky. Overwhelmed by emergency and military responders, cell service plummeted. It honestly felt like the end of the world.

    My escape grounded to a halt when the road outside my neighborhood became gridlocked with traffic. Stuck in one spot, smoke began to fill the interior of my car. I poured water over a towel and wrapped it over my nose and mouth.

    I broke free from the fire line half an hour later. In my rear view, Colorado Springs was shrouded in thick black smoke. It looked like a scene out of the book of Revelations.

    Later that night, I stood on another balcony 3 miles north of the fire line watching flames tear through residential neighborhoods. Of everything on fire, homes burned the brightest.

    During the following days, firefighters and emergency personnel beat back the flames and saved thousands of homes, including my host home. Unfortunately, more than 300 houses were lost in the blaze. 
    Even though I don’t live in Colorado Springs, I witnessed a diverse community pull together to support one another in a time of disaster. Supplies and aid poured in from the country. Thousands of families and businesses opened their homes and buildings to the evacuees.

The past week has been one of the most devastating, exhilarating, and poignant experiences of my life. Even in the face of cataclysm, nothing can compare to a community’s will to survive and rebuild.


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