Fire lays siege to city; Westside at brunt

       A wildfire that has proven unpredictable and devastating erupted on the western edges of Colorado Springs June 23, forcing thousands of evacuations and looming large over local residents' lives for unknown days to come.

From a vantage point off Mesa Road and 19th Street, looking northwest over the Garden of the Gods, the fire-afflicted mountains overlooking the Westside could be seen this week. The smoky area at left is above the Cedar Heights subdivision, while partially obscured at right is a ridge near Mountain Shadows, where numerous houses burned.
Westside Pioneer photo

Rich Harvey, the Waldo Canyon Fire's U.S. Forest Service incident commander, describes firefighting strategies during a community meeting June 25 at Cheyenne Mountain High School.
Westside Pioneer photo

Sparked by flying embers from the Mountain Shadows area, a grass fire burns south of Centennial Boulevard at Mule Deer Drive around twilight June 26. Firefighters kept the blaze from spreading.
Courtesy of Cynthia McGrath

       “I've done this for a long time and I've never… seen this before,” said Rich Harvey, a Nevada-based U.S. Forest Service fire official who was called in late June 24 as “incident commander” when the federal government took over what's been named the Waldo Canyon Fire. Clearly frustrated, he made the comment at a June 27 press briefing in reference to the way the wind-driven blaze had changed direction each day (south, then east, then north) since he arrived.
       Mysteriously ignited in Waldo Canyon (off High-way 24 between Manitou Springs and Cascade), the fire has burned hundreds of houses in the Mountain Shadows area to the east and continues to threaten the Westside to the south, Ute Pass communities to the west, Woodland Park to the northwest, the city's Rampart Range Reservoir (a water supply) to the north and the Air Force Academy to the northeast.

A hot spot sends up a smoke plume on a ridge above Cedar Heights.
Rioux Jordan photo, special to the Westside Pioneer)

Winston, one of five Rock Ledge Ranch horses, visits with ranch manager Andy Morris (right) and foreman John Winters during an exercise session at the Norris-Penrose Event Center. The steeds have been temporarily housed at the center because of the Waldo Canyon Fire; nevertheless, Morris plans to have the historic site open for its annual "Family Fourth" event July 4. See STORY, Page 3
Westside Pioneer photo

       No definite end was in sight and locals have been told to brace themselves for a long ordeal, although fire officials seemed encouraged by late-week forecasts after days of fickle, gusting winds and high-90s temperatures.
       More than 1,200 people are fighting the fire, along with an array of equipment and air support. In response to appeals from area officials, local units (including military aid) have been augmented by those from elsewhere in Colorado, along with special teams from around the country. The equipment staging area is the Coronado High School parking lot, with most of the out-of-town firefighters setting up camp at Holmes Middle School.
       Coronado was also being used for the twice-daily media press briefings, but that ended June 27 after its location (near Kissing Camels, north of Fillmore Street) was added to the mandatory evacuation area.
       As of press deadline, neighborhoods in western and northwestern Colorado Springs - with populations totaling more than 32,000 people - had been evacuated. These included the Westside neighborhoods of Cedar Heights, Holland Park (west of Centennial Boulevard) and Kissing Camels. Police have been posted in these areas to counter looters.
       Pre-evacuation notices were given June 27 to Pleasant Valley and Grandview and Holland Park (east of Centennial).

With smoke billowing in the background, a helicopter flies over Lone Duck Campground near Green Mountain Falls, which is being used as a fueling location in the battle against the Waldo Canyon Fire.
Courtesy of Sallie Clark

       Authorities were also urging people living anywhere near the fire to at least begin planning what they might take if they have to evacuate.
       Several phone numbers have been created to allow citizens to get information. Any of the following can be used:
       520-7058.
       (720) 402-7935.
       (720) 202-4510.
       (720) 237-9947.
       (720) 237-3417.
       The Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) has created a new web page - Visitcos.com/fireinfo - that lists lodging locations (including contact information) with confirmed availability, a CVB press release states. “The list will be updated as the lodging properties provide us with current information. Additional fire information and links to relevant community resources are also on this web page.”
       All residents - not just those evacuated - are facing new hurdles. Traffic has been cut off, principally along Highway 24 (which was closed between Manitou's Cave of the Winds access and Crystola). Other main roads with blockages were Garden of the Gods Road west of Centennial Boulevard, Mesa Road north of Fillmore and 30th Street at GoG Road.
       Also, the city's fixed-route transit service has been in flux because of potential needs for emergency evacuations, a Mountain Metro transit official said. For updated information, call 385-7433.
       Three major Westside-area attractions - the Cog Railway, Cave of the Winds and Cliff Dwellings - were forced to close their doors while the fire was nearby. This has hurt local retail sales, according to Cyndi Fallon, co-owner of the Piramide clothing shops in Manitou and Old Colorado City.
       On the Westside, the city has closed Rock Ledge Ranch, Garden of the Gods Park and its Visitor Center, Red Rock Canyon Open Space and Section 16.
       The annual, nationally known Pikes Peak Hill Climb auto race, scheduled July 3-8 (including practice days), has been postponed because of the fire. Race spectators would need to use Highway 24 to reach the Pikes Peak toll road (which the race uses and which is also closed now).

The encampment for visiting firefighters outside Holmes Middle School. According to District 11 spokesperson Devra Ashby, the crews come with their own cooking and showering facilities, so typically the only use of the school interior is in the school gym, where firefighters who work the night shift sleep during the day.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Area fireworks displays for July 4 have been cancelled. A campground burn ban has been ordered, and citizen use of fireworks has been banned countywide.
       The county's Citizens Service Center on Garden of the Gods Road had to close when that road was shut down west of Centennial. Services have been temporarily relocated. One of these, the economic and food assistance unit, has been moved to the older Westside, at 17 N. Spruce Street (the former DHS building).
       For updated information on government-related fire impacts, go to the city's website: springsgov.com; or the county's: elpasoco.com. Fire-status updates and a map can be found at a Forest Service website: inciweb.org/incident/2929.

Evacuees from Holland Park west of Centennial Boulevard and the neighborhoods north of Garden of the Gods Road join others in watching the fire from the intersection of GoG Road and Centennial Boulevard.
Westside Pioneer photo

       As of June 28, no fire-related injuries had occurred.
       For citizens, smoke issues are a factor, with El Paso County Health officials urging people to stay indoors if at all possible.
       The Waldo Canyon Fire has gained attention at the highest national level. President Barack Obama is scheduled to fly in to the area to show support Friday, June 29.
       It is not known how long the fire smoldered in Waldo Canyon before taking hold, but when the smoke rose above a ridge line visible to Colorado Springs around noon June 23, local fire officials were inundated with so many 911 reports that they issued public appeals for people to stop calling.
       In the early hours, the fire was estimated in the range of 100 acres, but it quickly grew in the steep, forested areas despite efforts by ever-increasing firefighting resources to contain it. The acreage as of June 28 had ballooned to 18,500 acres.
       Cedar Heights was the earliest populated area to be threatened. It's a private community of about 200 custom homes on 1,000 mountainside acres neighboring the Garden of the Gods on one side and National Forest land on the other.
       Cedar Heights residents were praised by area leaders at a community meeting on the fire June 25 for having initiated a fire-mitigation plan several years ago. In cooperation with City Fire, “brush-clearing has occurred on about 100 park acres - plus nearly 50 acres of community property adjacent to homes and along an emergency escape route,” according to an article in the Westside Pioneer Feb. 12, 2009.

This photo was shot of the then-distant fire from the Mountain Shadows neighborhood (northwest of 30th and GoG Road) June 23, before the fire struck that area and burned numerous homes June 26.
Rioux Jordan photo, special to the Westside Pioneer)

       Dick Standaert, one of the leaders of that effort (and now an evacuee), noted before the meeting that the current fire “is a good test of our mitigation.”
       On June 24, El Paso County and the City of Colorado Springs issued joint declarations terming the Waldo Canyon Fire a “local disaster.” According to El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, the declaration “heightens the seriousness of the fire and the threat it poses and it opens the gates for additional federal support and assistance.”
       Manitou Springs was an early mandatory-evacuation zone. Most of the city's residents were informed by knocks on the door at about 2 a.m. Sunday, June 24, which forced them to make connections with family, friends or public shelters. A blockade for westbound Highway 24 was set up at that time at 31st Street. However, that evening the city went back to voluntary evacuation status (at least this was the case through June 28), at the request of its city government, while the highway blockade was moved west to the Cave of the Winds access.
       A wretched turning point occurred June 26. Until then, the fire had grown only marginally since the day before. At the June 25 meeting, Harvey had even announced that 5 percent containment had been achieved and expressed hopes of “flanking” the fire and “taking the offensive.” A full containment prediction of July 16 was even posted on springsgov.com.
       At the time, Mountain Shadows - an area not called “Westside” but where numerous Coronado High School families live - was three miles and two ridges from the eastern edge of the blaze, and the wind seeming to be pushing the fire south.
       But on the afternoon of the 26th, the winds began blowing powerfully to the east (up to 65 mph with burning embers being tossed up to half a mile, according to Harvey). Within a few hours, the fire was roaring into Mountain Shadows, with ember-caused fires breaking out in neighborhoods north of there and evacuations even ordered in part of the Air Force Academy.

Denied access to the Garden of the Gods because of the fire, tourists do the next best thing: take pictures of each other outside the entrance. Note: Photo (taken June 26) looks west. Fire is out of view to the north.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Estimates were still unverified at press deadline as to the actual number of Mountain Shadows homes burned. Authorities said they would not reveal exact sites until they had talked first with the victimized homeowners. Mayor Steve Bach confirmed at the June 28 press briefing that the total was in the “hundreds.” Published Denver Post aerial photos showed widespread (though hodgepodge) damage, with spared houses amid ones that burned.
       Confirmed in the Mountain Shadows conflagration was the loss of the famous Flying W Ranch, which had been a cowboy-style attraction for over half a century. Its owners have pledged to rebuild.
       In the midst of the crisis, a number of area citizens were seeking upbeat aspects and ways to help out. Although several Red Cross shelters have been established, many evacuees are being taken in by friends or family members, and new friendships are being made or old ones re-established.
       Donations to aid the fire effort have been coming in and are welcomed. A major boost has come from the El Pomar Foundation, which announced that $2.5 million “will go to support human service providers and first responders involved with Colorado's wildfire outbreak,” a press release states. “Included in the funding is $100,000 to establish the Waldo Canyon Fire Victim Assistance Fund, which will be administered by Pikes Peak United Way.”
       Products to aid fire victims can be delivered to Care and Share (water and non-perishables) from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 2605 Preamble Court (careandshare.org); and Goodwill (1-855-603-4357 for info).
       Also accepting donations are the Pikes Peak Community Fund, the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Their websites are ppcf.org, redcross.org and imsalvationarmy.org.
       Support for local officials and firefighters was evident at the June 25 public meeting, which featured frequent applause for their efforts from a crowd of more than 200 people, mostly evacuees.
       “They've done an amazing job,” said County Commissioner Sallie Clark. “It gives us confidence in a difficult situation.”

Westside Pioneer article