One year ago today, I endured one of the most traumatizing and horrific days of my life. One year ago, I headed off to work in Nederland, only to spend the afternoon in full crisis mode, evacuating our home here in Nederland and ending the day as fire refugees at our friends’ home in Morrison, Colorado. The following is an account of those initial moments of the Cold Springs Wildfire when the fire broke out:
The piercing scream of a fire engine cuts the silence as it blasts through the Nederland traffic circle, sirens blaring, lights flashing. That is the second one in a matter of minutes. Must be a bad car accident on the Peak to Peak Highway. They are so common during the summer months with all the tourists on the road.
Suddenly the sound of my cell phone ringing breaks through my thoughts. The strumming sound reverberates off the stone walls of the museum. As I look down to see who’s calling, I’m surprised by the name. It’s my husband calling me at work. That never happens.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“I’m in Boulder and I see smoke up the canyon. I was wondering if you had heard anything.”
“No, but I just saw two fire engines come through the circle. I’ll call Ned Fire to see what they say.”
“Ok, call me back when you know something.”
My heart sinks. That’s why the fire engines zoomed through town. I call Nederland fire department to ask about the smoke and fire.
“Hi, I live here in Nederland and saw some smoke, and was wondering where the fire is.”
“There’s a wildfire off Cold Springs Road.”
“We live off Ridge Road, what should we do?”
“I don’t know. We’re really busy responding – maybe you should call 911.”
Oh shit! This is the worst possible scenario. Cold Springs is just down the road from our home. I spring into action, telling my staff member, John, “I have to go home right now, there’s a fire in our neighborhood.”
“Leslie, I’ll be fine, do what you need to do.” John, ever the exemplary employee is calm and collected. Me, not so much.
Ever since we moved to Nederland six years ago, we’ve known the risks of wildfire in the area. Just six weeks after we moved here, the biggest wildfire in Boulder County’s history, Fourmile Canyon Fire, destroyed over 160 homes.
But we’d taken dramatic steps with both our property and home, as well as our neighborhood to work diligently on fire mitigation. Still, in that instant, none of it seems to matter.
I grab my car keys, and head out of the parking lot, racing towards home. It feels like everyone on the road is a tourist and driving way too slow. In my impatience, I honk my horn to get them to either pull over or move faster.
Driving up Hurricane Hill, I turn onto Ridge Road at breakneck speed. Another person is driving along at a modest speed, and I finally pass them, accelerating up to 50 miles per hour on this windy road. What is normally a 10-minute drive feels interminable – I am desperate to get home, to get to our pets and get the hell out of here before the orange inferno takes over. As I come upon the intersection with Cold Springs Road and Ridge Road, I sense the anxiety of others, as cars barrel down Cold Springs Road leaving a plume of dust behind them.
As I drive the final mile on the dirt road, I see the mail man stopped at a bank of mailboxes, methodically and carefully shoving stacks of mail into the boxes. What the heck is he doing, calmly delivering mail as the smoke collects in the sky above him. Doesn’t he know this is the beginning of the end?
Finally making it home, I empty the bin I had with catch all item I have in my car and hurl it into the living room. First things first. Grab the dogs and load them into the car with their leashes. Then get the cat carriers and round up cats. Grab laptop computers. What else?
Go to back bedroom and grab our “fire boxes.” The boxes we’ve packed with our personal photos and irreplaceable mementos. They’re now in the car. I remember from our evacuation six years ago, I had forgotten pet food and cat litter. I quickly empty the large bag of dog food into a bin and grab it as well as the cat food bin. Two litter boxes.
I glance out the window — Bryon is here — they must not have blocked the Summer Road yet. Thank God he is here. Two cars mean more room to put things. He packs up the last cat. We grab some clothes and throw them in our suitcase, sweeping toiletries from the bathroom into a large bag.
“What about important documents?” Yes, let’s get the stuff from the safe as well as our insurance papers. In a last ditch effort to take as many clothes with us, we grab our laundry hamper, filling it with clothes and throw it in the back of his SUV. For some reason, I have a sinking feeling we will be gone for awhile.
The light is eerily orange with a weird glow to it. The acrid smell of smoke is in the air, burning my nostrils. We take one more pass through the house, glancing at each room to see if there is something more we should grab. We take a few pictures off the wall, Bryon moves the propane tanks off the deck and rakes some needles from the foundation and we leave. Tears well up in my eyes as I contemplate the gravity of this moment. Will this be the final time we see our home standing?
As I get in my car, I suddenly think of my neighbor, Susan, two doors down who has two cats and a dog. I call her cell phone, getting her voice mail.
“Susan, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a fire that broke out in Cold Springs. We’re all evacuating the neighborhood.” What else is there to say?
We get in our cars and pull off onto the dirt road, joining a caravan of cars heading down the Summer Road. I guess someone knew this day would come. The reason we have The Summer Road, a short half-mile road that provides a shortcut to Boulder Canyon, is to provide emergency egress in case of wildfire. Another way out of the neighborhood other than heading west. Yep, they knew this day would come.
A brightly colored yellow kayak is lodged in the ditch alongside the road, witness to the fact that it was important to someone, but also showing the urgency of which they were driving that their kayak fell off and they didn’t even stop to get it. I muse whether they will come back to get it after the fire.
Heading back to the museum to check in on my co-worker, I find the power has been cut to town. This is standard protocol during fighting wildfires, to protect the firefighters from downed power lines. It is chaos in town and around the traffic circle, the main intersection where three main roads converge. The shrill, ear-piercing sound of fire engines is everywhere, their sirens blaring every few seconds.
I call my boss to let her know what is going on. It’s hard to convey the situation that is unfolding – with the pyroque, the mushroom cloud growing ever larger and blacker in the sky.
I can hardly focus on the words my boss is saying. She asks about who will staff the museum tomorrow. Inside, I snort with disgust. Opening the museum tomorrow, that’s the last thing on my mind. Besides, with flames shooting up in the sky, and black smoke billowing into the blue sky, we won’t be opening the museum tomorrow. People are deserting Nederland like rats deserting a sinking ship.
My boss requests I close the museum. Having no access to a computer or a printer, I grab a marker and scrawl out the words as legibly as possible considering my hand are shaking. “Mining Museum closed due to ongoing wildfire operations.”
I thank my co-worker for holding down the fort during my dash home. As I am talking to him, the phone rings.
“Hi Leslie, it’s Ed, your neighbor, I heard there is a fire. I’m out of town in California and the dogs are at home. Can you get the dogs?”
“Ed, we already left home and we’re in town. I don’t know if they’ll let us back in, but Bryon will go and see if he can get them.”
Bryon jumps into his car and heads back towards our neighborhood.
The phone vibrates again – it’s another neighbor.
“Leslie, it’s Annie, your neighbor. We’re on our way back from Winter Park, we came over for the day to mountain bike. Ed’s dogs are still at home – I was taking care of them while he was gone.”
“Annie, I know. Ed just called us – Bryon went to see if he could get them, but we’re not sure we can get back in. Annie, it’s really bad.”
“I know – we could see the smoke from Winter Park. We’re driving as fast as we can.”
Winter Park is on the other side of the Continental Divide, 15 miles due west of Nederland. Being able to see the smoke from over there is not good – the fire is getting bigger and hotter by the minute.
Bryon is back. No luck, they’ve now blocked off access to the neighborhood and wouldn’t allow him back in, even to get Ed’s dogs.
With nothing left to do at the museum, I send John home, promising to keep him posted about the fire and our house. He tells me he will be thinking of us, and gets into his car to drive back down towards Boulder.
Bryon and I head to the high school – the emergency shelter designated for those evacuated from their homes. We pull into a parking space, rolling down the windows to provide air for the pets. Normally I worry about someone breaking into the car if the windows are too low, but not here, not today. That would be just plain wrong.
We spot our neighbors, from two doors down. I feel grateful to see someone else who is in the same boat as us, someone to commiserate with and be anxious with.
As we are talking, news trucks start to arrive. I want nothing to do with them right now. I feel as I am made of glass, ready to break at any moment. I don’t want to be on the air, with tears streaming down my face. It all seems too much.