Winning Against Wildfires

Colorado Springs faces hundreds of homes and millions of dollars lost to the record-breaking Waldo Canyon fire, but with a renewed spirit of togetherness

By Sarah Padbury

(WNS)– On Tuesday, June 26, a three-day-old wildfire on the northwestern edge of Colorado Springs screamed out of control and roared into the city, forever changing the landscape and the reputation of the community known as much for its idyllic mountain views as for being an evangelical mecca for Christian nonprofits.

The Waldo Canyon fire burned through 18,247 acres to become the most damaging fire in Colorado history. Hundreds of families only had minutes to flee when sudden, 65 mph winds blew 100-foot walls of fire into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood and western parts of the city, destroying 346 homes, damaging dozens more, and killing an elderly couple trapped at home.

But even though 32,000 people evacuated at the height of the disaster, only 300-400 showed up at emergency shelters. Where did everybody go? I went to Colorado Springs last week to find out.

From the air, Majestic Drive used to look like a gently curving flower stem that had a dozen cul-de-sacs branching off with houses like petals. Ten days into the blaze, the picturesque setting had turned apocalyptic. The air reeked of burned wood and chemicals. Two-story homes lay reduced to piles of ash with what used to be metal beams and furniture—here patio chairs, there what used to be a set of bunkbeds—twisting in the sunlight. Blackened tree trunks looked fake, stripped of leaves or needles in midsummer.

The silence too was eerie—no birds singing, no crickets chirping. Even homeowners met with insurance adjusters in hushed conversation. To the west, 67 houses in a row were gone. East, 72 houses were missing. A block over also was devastated—there 18 homes had vanished.

At his home in Mountain Shadows, 15-year-old Jonathan Hammerstrom sat scrolling through Facebook on the Saturday afternoon that the Waldo Canyon fire started. He saw a picture of smoke posted by a friend and recognized the landscape.

“I wondered if it was a fire from a long time ago near my house,” he told me, “but then I noticed it was posted just six minutes ago. A couple minutes later my dad came and got me.” Doug Hammerstrom, a family practice doctor and church elder, snapped into action. His wife Jodi was away at a wedding on the East Coast, leaving him to handle the crisis and their three children by himself.

Doug grabbed his camera and began snapping photos of every room in the house for insurance records while dishing out instructions. His greatest concern was Sarah, the couple’s 20-year-old daughter, who is wheelchair bound. A rare brain infection at birth left Sarah with cerebral palsy, deaf, and functioning at a 3-year-old level. Sarah’s certified nurse assistant (CNA) was on hand to pack her things, and Jonathan called his mother to ask what items in the house to save. Daughter Lauren, 22, at work just down the hill at the Flying W Ranch, helped frantic staff load animals and antiques onto trucks as the fire marched closer. When the smoke turned into visible flames coming over the ridge, Doug called Lauren and told her to come home. Time to go—now.

Two weeks before the fire, Jessica McCoy, 20, had a nightmare three nights in a row where fire came down and burned the west side of Colorado Springs. She dreamed she fled to a friend’s house for safety. In the second dream she couldn’t find her cat during the fire. And in the third dream, she blew off the fire to go be with friends and then couldn’t get home to save something very important.

Jessica told her family and friends about the dreams, but only her mother took them seriously. When her family first evacuated, they stayed with the friend Jessica had fled to in her dream. Her cat, probably terrified by the strange smells in the air, disappeared. She found the animal hunched in the back of a closet.

Because of her dreams, Jessica and her mother Jonni McCoy—author of Miserly Moms and a popular speaker and blogger—made a pact that one of them would be home at all times until authorities made evacuation mandatory. Whatever the “something important” was in her third dream, someone needed to be there to save it.

But neither Jessica nor Jonni was close to home on Tuesday when the fire suddenly blew into an inferno, bearing down on their neighborhood. Both hurried home, but within 15 minutes of their arrivals, police halted traffic into the neighborhood. When the phone rang, it was reverse 911 calling to announce they had to evacuate. Time to go—now.

In the master bedroom, they discovered Jessica’s dad sleeping. Beau McCoy, a contractor at Schriever Air Force Base, had worked the graveyard shift and was supposed to sleep with his cell phone by his bed, but forgot. With the roads closed and no phone access, there would have been no way to let Beau know it was time to evacuate if mother and daughter had not returned home. Jessica’s third dream may have saved her dad’s life.

Colorado Springs has endured disparagement as a red city inside a blue state. Fifteen years ago the state became one of the first to pass a citizens initiative blocking discrimination laws based on gay rights. Amendment 2 was struck down by the Supreme Court in a landmark case, Romer v. Evans, and liberal social activists had a heyday portraying the city, home to Focus on the Family, as mean and backward. But as disaster struck and a large portion of the city had to be rescued, Colorado Springs, with its population of over 416,000, mobilized. From pastors and ministry leaders to the Starbucks baristas and hotel front desk clerks, everyone I talked to either took a family into their home or knew someone who did. Some people took in several families at a time, and some took in strangers.

“There’s a sense out there that our city is broken up by liberal and conservative [people]. That just isn’t true,” said Steve Holt, pastor of Mountain Springs Church. “I’ve lived here 17 years and I’ve never been in a more caring community.”

When headquarters for The Navigators came under evacuation orders, Focus on the Family provided space for 50 Navigators employees. Focus partnered with the liberal-leaning Colorado Springs Independent to put on a benefit concert for the fire’s victims and firefighters—a July 4th event that brought in over $500,000. The Mission Training International campus evacuated dozens of trainees to Vista Grande Baptist Church. Village Seven Presbyterian Church and several other churches pitched in to provide supplies. New Life Church received several truckloads of nonperishable food from Gleaning America’s Fields, a relief organization out of Virginia. Hundreds of high-school students helped unload supplies into the church lobby where they were sorted and given away. Church pantries and food banks across the city threw open their doors and pooled resources.

By the time El Paso County Department of Human Services asked Mountain Springs Church to organize a toy drive for children who came in with dislocated families seeking assistance, the church already was hosting 300 evacuated students from the Summit Ministries campus. “Frankly, I wasn’t sure if we should ask our congregation to do more,” confessed Holt, “but in the end they gave over and above. Whatever we asked for, they gave twice as much.”

Five days after the evacuation, Mountain Shadow residents were allowed to visit their property for the first time. The McCoy family stared at the flattened ruins that used to be their 4,400-square foot home. Picking through the rubble, Jonni found a small pot Jessica made as a child. They also realized how many irreplaceable things they forgot to save, including an 1865 Singer sewing machine, antique quilts, and the Christmas tree ornament set.

Friends from church housed the McCoy family until they rented a house. Thirty of the 33 homes on their street burned. All but two families have pledged to return and rebuild the block.

“Somewhere in the Bible it says God sends rain to the just and the unjust,” Beau McCoy reflected. “So we have to take our knocks with the unbelievers. Throughout our life, God has been good to us. … It’s enough to know my family is safe. I’ve been stripped naked: What does life mean? What’s important? My family.”

Jessica, however, said she still goes through “the seven stages of grief” several times a day, and though she’s grateful God used her dreams, she is still confused about why God let her house burn down, yet saved others.

Several miles north, the Hammerstrom family returned to find their home spared from direct fire damage, but needing months of cleanup before it can be occupied again. The view behind their home is gone, burned up along with the Flying W Ranch.

“People smile and say to us, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?'” Doug said. “But I say, ‘No. It’s not good.’ If your house burns to the ground, you can start over with insurance. But if it doesn’t, insurance won’t cover [all your losses].” But Doug is grateful for other provisions. A pastor from his church immediately took the family in, despite their daughter Sarah’s special needs: a first floor bedroom and wide doorways for wheelchair access. The family recently moved into another donated home for a month. Where they will go after that, they don’t know.

“I’m grateful to have the 100-year-old hutch passed down through the family and the 25 years of things that made our house a home,” Jodi said, “but I’m devastated about going to live [again] in a place that looks like Mt. St. Helens erupted.”

Property damage from the Waldo Canyon fire is expected to exceed $110 million. And while authorities said the Waldo Canyon fire was 98 percent contained by mid-July, 100 percent of Colorado is in a “severe” drought. Over a dozen wildfires have hit Colorado already this season, the worst in a decade. And other Western states are battling blazes brought on by regional drought conditions, including Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

Like hundreds of other Colorado Springs families, the Hammerstroms and McCoys will need ongoing assistance to rebuild their lives. But city residents and organizations have shown themselves up to the task. “This is the end of the era where Colorado Springs will be remembered for Amendment 2,” said Holt. “Instead, we will be remembered for the Great Commandment: We loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

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