Our Story – The Waldo Canyon Fire
Our Story – The Waldo Canyon Fire
“Hundreds and hundreds of bolts of fabric are stacked everywhere” read the yellowing newspaper article, cut-out and taped to the wall of our shipping room. It was one piece of paper among many that decorated the wall – a picture with the president of Ebay, Ebay seller achievements and awards, a few rare orders that went to exotic places in the world, and a few other mementos worth the occasional moment of reflection. But the article from our local Colorado Springs newspaper was one of our favorites. It meant to us that we were part of a community.
The same newspaper three years later to the week read “a fire sent a huge plume of smoke high into the sky west of Garden of the Gods”. The onset was a troubling idea to grapple with. “Hundreds and hundreds of bolts of fabric” was just the beginning to describe our operations (which were thousands of bolts). It would have taken an entire news article – no, the entire newspaper! – to dissect our network of inventory, tools, and administrative gadgetry. We can’t blame the reporter, the story wasn’t about the fabric labyrinth but rather in the work of the people behind it. Still, those people behind it had a labyrinth on their hands. And trying to relocate this labyrinth would’ve read in the news as “Ants seen attempting to put Rome on their back and truck it across the continent.”
So there grew a plume of grey smoke that stretched into the sky beyond us, like a mythical giant taunting at the gates of our community. If you were quiet enough, you might have been able to hear the garble of every television in the city listening to the same channel – a city-wide choir of one voice cautioning and compelling us with every twist and turn of the fire’s maturation. By evening, the fire dragon had two tails, and over 2000 people had been evacuated. We had evacuations on one side of us and pre-evacuations on the other. But amid vague reports and inaccurate warnings, repetitive confirmations were made that our neighborhood was under no immediate or potential state of emergency.
The next day we were introduced to our defenders. We had special units from all over the US coming in to aid us, and we were getting regular reports from a select group of their heads. As they filled the screen, they stepped into our living room. Almost physically. They were in our house to protect and inform us. The reports that day were highlighting that the southern head was flaring up and making dangerous movement. It scared us, because we had friends in that direction that were being affected by evacuation orders. But at the same time, it meant that our north-eastern direction was losing its level of intensity. Busy threatening our distant neighbors, the giant had turned its back to us.
The next day was more of the same. Were we evacuating? Were we in pre-evac? At this point 11,000 people had been displaced. But the threat was still south. It seemed like we had spent weeks watching the same southern ridge of houses on the TV serving as the door that the giant was knocking on, but that our defenders were able to draw the line on and strongly fortify. That image will never leave us. Every person in our city watching the news was forced from repetition to dwell on that imagery. We knew that the houses were empty. An empty house means so much less than a house that’s being lived in. Still, to those houses’ families that were now living in a high school gym, or a family member or friend’s house, or a hotel room, they were forced to look at something that to them wasn’t just an empty house. It was their home. It was a part of them. And it’s image on the TV was being used as a symbol to the entire nation of the fire’s looming threat. It was the front line. And it felt like the brink of a war. Houses that had been retreated from. Men in uniform aggressively setting up fortifications implementing their commanders’ strategies. If we kept that ridge, we won the war.
The next day, our advice came in the form of recommended debris removal. Which, when you have several pine tree’s that have lived there maybe longer than the city has existed, means you have stratum after stratum of natural history to dig through. So, we got our gloves and (not quite archaeological) tools out and we dug. Every clump that we dug into felt like a blow against the fire. It’s a meager action, true enough, but it carried heavy emotional release from the confinement that our fears had boxed us into. And along with the news that the only structure still burned was a storage shack at a lake in the middle of nowhere that we had never heard of, and that the firefighters had announced their first 5% of containment meant that we were headed in the right direction. Tomorrow could only bring more containment.
Finally, a night of real rest. At this point, the giant had our sympathy. He wasn’t a threat. If anything, he was a natural marker. That thing in the distance that you drive towards to get home. Always in the distance. Honestly, he could stay there forever if he wanted to. At this point, our superhero team of defenders on the TV were laughing during their updates. We laughed with them. Like a toddler that doesn’t cry when they fall until they see the concern on their parents face, we looked to their reactions to understand how we should feel. They were happy, so it meant that we could be happy again. Today we were going to get a whole heck of a lot more than a 5% increase in containment. We had several friends being let back into their homes. Numbers are always attached to disasters. That 11,000 evacuation number would be the one remembered for the Waldo Canyon fire. That and the one structure burned, that we could all laugh at because it was hardly a structure at all and it made the fire sound worse than it really was. That housed ridge was already looking like the spot we’d look back on as the victory that won the war.
Our ridge was a much better one to be behind. Winds were acting weird and unpredictable, but the defense team was showing us how protected we were because our ridge had a deep valley behind it and then another ridge beyond that. Two lines of defense. And everyone knows that heat rises, and so fires burn upward. They’ll go up a ridge but they certainly won’t crawl down the other side. Even if they did, not only do we have the two ridges but we have two extra lines that were cleared. The 4pm press conference that had just started detailed that the fire hadn’t moved into the other canyon, but the words across the ticker at the bottom of the screen that had become the permanent frame of our television seemed to say that we were in pre-evac. The neighborhood above us had been in pre-evac for 3 days, and many evacuated areas had been let back in. And calls for pre-evac and evac were constantly wrong and corrected over the past few days. In any case, there was surely time to finish putting orders together for our customers that were comforting us with their purchases that called for routine action from our life before the giant showed up.
15 minutes after the press conference started, the doorbell rang. It was our neighbor trying to tell us that we were in mandatory evacuation. But they were cut-off by a phone call from our other neighbor telling us the same thing. What did the TV say? The fire team representatives that we had welcomed into our living room through our TV stopped talking. Someone was up there whispering to them. The next second they were rushing off the left side of the screen and out of our living room – leaving us alone. So we looked to the right, in the direction that they retreated from, and saw through our windows that the giant was gone. Where could a plume of smoke that raised straight up into space go in a matter of minutes? We had been fooled. It wasn’t a giant at all. That plume laid straight down, jumped on 65 mph winds, and revealed itself as the dragon we feared it could be, already engulfing the ridge behind us in fire as it began its swooping decent into our densely inhabited canyon below.
Another fifteen minutes and our sky was gone, replaced by a blanket that stretched black towards the city and glowed orange towards the mountain. We could see the street up from us, but the very next one above that was swallowed up in the orange ambiguity. Those houses could have been burning as violently as every molecule in them could muster to burst apart, or they could be sitting relaxed and untouched enjoying a uniquely colored day. Heavy winds, ripping in numerous confused directions were bending over every bush within sight. The very words from our mouths held an odd muffled quality, as if we were speaking in a closet.
We left our neighborhood as some of the last ones to go. We saw cars left behind. Items strewn on lawns. Pockets of vision where trees were burning so bright that it wasn’t even color, it was action. We passed men of bravery, standing vulnerable to the environment, guiding us out or knocking on doors. For miles the traffic moved slower than the smoke cloud overhead. We escaped our home, but we couldn’t seem to escape the dragon in the sky. Eventually, as with all things imagined, the dragon met head on with reality.
In the days that followed we learned of our complete loss, shared by the families of 345 other homes. Our neighbor next door. Our neighbors on the next street, the next block, the next neighborhood. We shared with all of them. Our family and our friends shared with us. And our customers shared with us. A whole quilting forum shared with us. Our manufacturers and fellow shops shared with us. The heat from fire is so violent that it reshapes a molecule – it redefines it. Our house and everything in it was redefined into six feet of ash. But our word “community” was redefined too. The writer of the, now burned up, article got it. In the title, she didn’t write about building around bolts, she wrote about building around love. We’ve experienced its strength, and you as a community have supported us. We are so thankful, and proud, to be able to reapply ourselves at this point towards once again sharing in the community that we love.
So, from all of us here, thank you.