SATURDAY, JUNE 23, 2012
Yet another blazing hot June day in a month of record high temperatures and drought. Early in the afternoon I stepped out on the deck after seeing a crawl on the TV saying there was a fire in Waldo Canyon. What met my gaze as I looked to the northeast was a huge growing plume of black smoke, shaped much like a mushroom cloud, moving closer and closer.
The telephone rang. The caller ID said “Reverse 911”. A voluntary evacuation order had been issued for Cascade, Chipita Park, and Green Mountain Falls, three lovely, contiguous, old communities strung like jewels along Ute Pass. My piece of paradise.
For a few minutes, all my carefully laid mental action plans fled my brain as the first surge of adrenaline hit. “Where will I go? Where will I stay? What should I take? How will I load the car with my back?” Then sanity returned, and I began to pack with one eye on the plume of smoke and both ears listening to the TV. (That's not entirely true. I stopped long enough to post a comment in J Town at 2 PM.)
We were told to be prepared for a 72 hour evacuation at most. (Who thinks these things up?) My first thought was for my two pooties, so I gathered up carriers, pootie pads, their heated bed (don't ask), medicine, cat litter, litter pan, dry food, gushy food, Gerber's, and vet records.
My records were next: medical records, financial records, tax records, will, power of attorney, durable power of attorney for health care, birth certificates, a pile of unpaid bills, checkbooks, phone directory, stamps … all that and more got dumped into an expandable file with sturdy handles.
I went into the bathroom. I'm a disabled old fart, so I have a small fortune in medications, supplements, first aid supplies, lotions, potions, salves, and miscellaneous shit. I took the meds and the things that would be most expensive or difficult to replace.
I packed personal care and hygiene items. Again, I grabbed some things I wouldn't need but couldn't replace easily, like a small fortune in cosmetics and a few pieces of jewelry.
I took a laundry basket into the bedroom and filled it with underwear, t-shirts, scrub pants, one sweater, my community quilt, and a loaded pistol. (I thought I might end up sleeping in my car at some point.) With that thought, I topped off the laundry basket with a pillow.
All this and a supply of water and snacks got dumped by the front door. While I was scampering around I was listening to the TV and deciding where I should go, i.e., up the pass or down the pass? I could go down the pass to Colorado Springs, a much longer drive and one that would take me right past the parking area for Waldo Canyon. I didn't have a place to stay there and I knew prevailing winds would keep most of the smoke pushed into the Springs. My other choice was to go up the pass a few miles to Woodland Park, the little town I shop in. I knew from the TV chatter that a Red Cross shelter was being opened at the high school, so at least I'd have access to food and medical attention, even though I heard they wouldn't take pets. Woodland Park it would be, then. All I needed was a motel room.
Suddenly, the winds shifted and the plume of death stopped moving this way. I could take a moment or two and think. A few neighbors were packing up and leaving right away, but I have “issues”, as they say. Packing up my car meant multiple trips up and down a flight of uneven outside stairs carrying heavy loads with a back so unstable and painful that I'll be having surgery later this year. I could do it in half an hour, if necessary, but I thought I'd wait and see. There's a fire in Waldo Canyon at least once a year, and the firefighters always seem to put it out in short order, so I sat on my deck and watched and listened.
As darkness came, so did hope. Wildfires almost always “lay down” at night. I felt sure I could sleep in my own bed and, with a little bit of luck, never have to evacuate.
SUNDAY, JUNE 24, 2012
It turns out this fire never read the book on proper fire behavior. I awoke at dawn, turned on the TV, and discovered to my horror that Manitou Springs was evacuated at 1:30 AM. A door-to-door, “grab your keys and haul your ass, ma'am” kind of evacuation.
I put a few things in the car.
At 6:53 AM my mandatory evacuation call came. Right on its heels came a call from my son in Texas. “Mom! What can I do?” “Get on the internet and find me a motel room in Woodland Park, one that will take Jim Bob and Tommy.” I made a few more trips down to the car.
“Mom, you've got a room for two nights at the Woodland Country Lodge. Here's the address and phone number. The only thing is, you won't be able to check in until 2 or 3.”
Eight hours until check-in? Yikes! Plan: load the car except for the pooties, purse and nurse. Piddle around at home for as long as humanly possible. Run the sprinkler, drown the house plants, finish the coffee, lock up the windows, do a mental review of what's packed, what might be lost forever. Pray for rain (Ha!) and favorable winds. I got neither, and at 7:45 I posted in J Town, “I'm bugging out – gotta go.” I jerked eight cords out of the back of my PC and put it in the car, took one last tour of my home, loaded up, and headed up the pass.
With hours to kill and cats yelling from the back seat, my first stop was the Red Cross shelter to check in. I already knew they weren't doing a damn thing for people who can't or won't be separated from their pets, but I decided to give them some crap about it:
“During Katrina, I saw an old man drown when one of your shelters turned him away because he wouldn't give up his dog. He swam back into the flood waters, went under, and never came back up. I thought the law changed after that, that you folks have grown a heart. Why am I wrong?”
The Red Cross volunteer said, “Well, we now have to take service animals. But we can't do what you're asking, because some people are allergic to animals. If a kid got scratched by a cat or a dog bit someone, we'd get sued.”
I drove around Woodland Park for five endless hours. It was too hot to stop and turn the car off with animals in it. I went to the hotel and gave them my cell phone number, asking that they call me the minute my room was available. That worked for about ninety minutes before cell service stopped working, so I'd drive for a while, go to the hotel and check, drive some more. I have a dumbphone as there's no signal in my neighborhood, so I was completely off the grid for those hot hours. Finally, finally, I was able to check in, unload the car, carry everything up to the second floor, and let poor Jim Bob and Tommy out of their carriers.
At 8 PM Manitou Springs residents were allowed to go home. “Yippee!” I thought. “We're next!”
THE WEEK FROM HELL
After a bad night (wrong bed, anxious pooties) I began to settle into a routine. Most of the time I was in my room, glued to the TV feed and taking phone calls from family and friends and Kossacks. Every couple of hours I'd go for a walk and talk to the other evacuees. I learned that the hotel usually only rents three rooms to people with pets, but the owner and manager decided to take as many evacuees as they could – even if they had their pets. The hotel was filling up with dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, gerbils, hamsters, and turtles. Other families came with infants, afraid to expose them to shelter living. Many of the evacuees were older people like me, some disabled, many with medical needs. Quite a few had scraped together a bit of money for a night or two, hoping the evacuation would be brief.
The American Red Cross shelter in Woodland Park closed and moved to yet higher altitude in Divide, CO. Here's the thing about high altitude living: a person who has adapted to one elevation won't necessarily do well at a modest increase. My fellow evacuees live in Ute Pass at elevations ranging from roughly 7000 feet to 8000 feet. Woodland Park (8400') left some people and dogs gasping, so Divide (9200') would have been much worse. Guess who suffers most from changes in elevation? People who are ill, people who are elderly, people who lack good physical conditioning, pregnant women, and infants – especially babies born prematurely. Every single group mentioned was represented at the hotel.
Monday was a bad day. Woodland Park filled with smoke. Highway 24/Ute Pass was closed and would remain closed for days, cutting us off from the East. Highway 67 closed during a fire at Rainbow Falls, cutting us off from the North. Gas stations ran out of everything but diesel. Most restaurants closed. The Waldo Canyon Fire was burning towards us. The fire, only 5% contained, was burning in Cascade. The Red Cross shelter in Divide might as well have been 1,000 miles away as we evacuees hoarded what gasoline was in our cars and tried to stay out of the smoke.
Every night a plane would fly over the fire and take infrared photographs to map its spread. We learned at Tuesday's 8 AM Fire Report that a long finger of fire was reaching toward Woodland Park. The city was placed under pre-evacuation orders. I went out once for food and did see one fuel truck, but the only gas station open had long lines. A few evacuees, I later learned, headed for campgrounds in the forest because they were out of money for lodging.
We all know what happened Tuesday evening. The fire turned away from us and raced into Colorado Springs, burning the Flying W Ranch and destroying 346 homes in Mountain Shadows subdivision, where an elderly couple died in the flames. I had my fingers in my mouth as I watched the live feed of smoke filling the city during evening rush hour with, at one point, six miles of Interstate 25 closed to allow residents to flee the flames.
Half of Woodland Park was evacuated on Wednesday, based more on the fear of seeing a repeat of Tuesday's fire activity than any real growth in our direction. We remained in the pre-evacuation area, still hoarding our gas and counting our pennies. Fire containment remained at 5%. A few evacuees were allowed to double up in rooms.
Thursday was a bad day for me, emotionally. The Fire Reports barely mentioned Ute Pass/Highway 24, aside from saying they were holding the lines on the north side of the road. As I was leaving the hotel for a provisions run, I saw a fire marshall pulling in. Afraid he'd come to evacuate us, I stopped to talk to him. “Are we being evacuated?” I asked. “No ma'am, you're not. In fact, things are going so well I've been called back to home base in California.” He said he couldn't see any reason why we couldn't be allowed back to our homes for a peek and to pick up things we wish we'd taken on Sunday. That kindness never happened, of course.
On Friday morning the fire was reported as being 15% contained. By the afternoon report, containment had increased to 25%, with the strongest lines along Highway 24. Yay! But … they also said 24 wouldn't be open again until Monday at the earliest. Our spirits crashed. President Obama flew in for a brief look at the Mountain Shadows damage, talked to firemen at command headquarters, and visited one of the shelters in Colorado Springs. His visit was very slick and low-key, with protection provided by the Secret Service and the military. Local airspace was never cleared, allowing the choppers and aircraft to continue their efforts uninterrupted. I heard loud cheering at every stop he made.
Containment grew to 45% by Saturday. As a result of calls made by a Kossack, large sacks of dog and cat food were delivered to the lobby with a sign saying, “Free! Take what you need.”
I'm sorry to report that was the only evidence that the efforts of this wonderful community had a single impact on our plight, with one late exception. Because of Wings' intervention, a young Red Cross volunteer was dispatched from Amarillo, TX with rather garbled notes. He called and told me he was coming to rescue several Indian elders who were trapped in a motel in Colorado, and would I give him the room number of the Indian Holy man? I explained to him that the dispatch originated with an Indian Holy man, and that the term “elders” applies to anyone of a certain age, regardless of race, religion, or gender. Since he was driving across the panhandle of Texas with plenty of time on his hands, I gave him an earful about how his organization had both abandoned us and refused all pleas for help. “I'm on my way!” he assured me. “I'll see you in the morning, Nurse Kelley.”
Sunday morning's briefing brought amazing, blessed news to our band of evacuees – we would be allowed to go home that very morning! I took a long shower, expecting the gas to be cut off for an undetermined period of time, and packed up. Our heroic manager, Scott, personally loaded my car and hugged the stuffing out of me. With howling pooties once again crated up, I drove the few miles down a virtually deserted Highway 24 to a State Patrol roadblock and showed them the address on my license. They waved me through. A few more miles brought me to the entrance to Green Mountain Falls, where our volunteer firefighters were lined up in their turnout gear, waving and shouting, “Welcome home!”
Switchback roads were not meant to be driven while bawling.
I arrived home one week and one hour after leaving. My house was filthy inside and out, but the power had never gone out, the gas had never been turned off, and clear cold water flowed out of the kitchen faucet. The week of drought and neglect had killed my lawn and all the flowers in containers that had lined my deck, but my little house was untouched.
That Red Cross volunteer from Amarillo, TX did, indeed, make it to the hotel about an hour after I left. He and two other volunteers paid me a visit Sunday afternoon and let me beat them up – or, rather, they let me beat up their organization. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the volunteers; they see the same commercials we do of the Red Cross going into disaster zones and, being people with big hearts, they want to help. The people calling the shots, however, don't have enough sense to make bread, much less wise decisions.
Four days after returning home I drove past our little elementary school, closed for the summer. There were four Red Cross trucks, six or seven Red Cross volunteers, an awning and chairs, and one woman from the neighborhood. I was hot and hungry and it was lunchtime, so I stopped, hoping they'd have something useful like a sandwich. HA! No such luck! Two of them were nurses who, upon learning I'm a nurse, wanted to know how I fared during the week's evacuation.
ME: You don't want to ask me that question.
RC: Yes we do! How were things in Woodland Park?
ME: Your shelter left us as soon as the air got smokey. They went up the road to an elevation we couldn't reach, both because of the altitude and the gas shortage, and they never came back even after they knew there was a hotel full of evacuees. Like it or not, there are people who won't leave their pets during an evacuation, and you don't give a flying fuck. Some of those people are so poor they went into the woods to camp – the woods! That's a safe place during a forest fire! I met people who weren't eating because they were spending their last dollars on shelter and food for their pets. Did the Red Cross bring us meals? NO! But when I told the hotel manager about the situation, HE fed us. If it was so damn easy to get to the shelter in Divide, why didn't the shelter bring us food? Supplies?
Where were you dang nurses then, I'd like to know? I met a woman in a broken wheelchair who needed a simple part to fix it. I met a man whose oxygen concentrator was breaking down. Should he have driven up another thousand feet in elevation with low oxygen saturations, or should one of your people have gotten their ass down to him?
I met a woman on Tuesday who'd had skin cancer surgery on her face and whose stitches were getting infected because they'd been in too long. Where were you then? Do you know how I felt as a nurse, knowing I could help her if I'd just had the sterile supplies that were sitting up in Divide? She couldn't drive up there, either. She had two rescued German Shepherds in her room, dogs not allowed in your damn shelter. Had she left them behind to go to Divide, she wouldn't have been able to get back if the fire closed in. Damn y'all for that! Just by the grace of God, the local ER hadn't closed yet.
There were babies in the hotel, infants too young to tolerate higher altitude and crowded conditions. Did a nurse come check on them and see if they had medical problems or enough formula and diapers? NO! NO ONE CAME!
Most of the evacuees were older people. They were scared, stressed out, not eating right, and low on medications. Do you have any idea what it would have meant to them to see a Red Cross truck pull up and a nurse step out?
I've heard the “party line” about pets in shelters, by the way. I absolutely agree there should be a shelter just for people, but not because you might get sued. Some people have very real allergies to and phobias about animals. [They nodded vigorously.] Well here's an idea you can take back to headquarters: Open TWO fucking shelters! Better yet, open three: one for people only, one for people with dogs, and a third for people with the little critters – cats, birds, hamsters, bunnies, whatever.
RC: We couldn't possibly do that! Do you know how many disasters we cover, how expensive they are? We don't even get paid! Why, you're lucky we had ONE shelter nearby.
ME: You make me sick. I've seen little kids standing on street corners in Colorado Springs, giving their piggy banks to the Red Cross. People all up and down the Front Range are opening their hearts and their wallets to you, because they think it's the best way to help those of us impacted by the fires. You're raking it in, yet you didn't do squat for us. Do you know who helped us? A hotel manager and his staff, and a bunch of blogging Democrats, most of them poor people, who were prepared to pony up to keep people in their rooms, feed their pets, and feed them. [By now I was crying and having flashbacks] I will never again give one red cent to the American Fucking Red Cross, and I'm going to make sure people know what happened in Woodland Park, CO during the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012.
They just stared at me as I got in my car and drove off.
Thank you, Daily Kos. If we hadn't gotten out when we did, I have no doubt we'd have been helped.
And our care packages would have been wrapped in orange paper. ♥