Life in A Wildfire

15 07, 2013

Life in a Wildfire Conclusion – I hope!

By |2013-07-15T06:12:26-05:00July 15th, 2013|Life in A Wildfire|3 Comments

Last blog I ended with a cliffhanger-

Rio Grande County Sheriff Brian Norton gave the all clear for residents of South Fork to return to their homes, but because the fire was ACTIVE, we’d remain under in pre-evacuation status.

???????????????????????????????If we chose to return, we should leave our cars packed and backed into our driveways ready to pull out again on a moment’s notice. The shelter would remain open for those who did not wish to return.

Tough decision.

Buster and Toby thought we’d moved permanently to the motel in Monte Vista. They’d climb in the car with us and wait patiently while we took our meals at the shelter for evacuees.

Undecided about what to do, after the Friday update, we made the trip to South Fork to check on our house. Smoke greeted us.

Heavy, mask-wearing smoke.

smoke on way home-leftWe left the dogs in the car and did a preliminary inspection. On the hill behind the house, we found a firebreak created by the firefighters.

The black area is the firebreak.
The blank path is the firebreak.

We also realized how many trees and how much dead vegetation we had around our house.???????????????????????????????

Wouldn’t the wise thing be to stay where we were until the fire was more contained?

We took the dogs and went inside. Once we opened the front door, both dogs rushed to sniff around familiar surroundings. Toby jumped on our bed and watched as we discussed what to do.

After eight days in hotel rooms, the place seemed huge. With the windows closed, there was no smoke indoors. We had plenty of room to walk around. A kitchen to prepare healthy meals. Our own bed and pillows.

We decided to wait until after the a.m. briefing on Saturday and make our decision.

But once we returned to the motel, to living out of our suitcase in a cramped space, we knew we’d go home no matter what the report said the next day.

We arrived home around noon Saturday, June 29th, nine days after we’d been told to evacuate. The smoke had lifted some.

By Sunday morning, all smoke had lifted. The dogs and I went on our usual five-mile walk. I was amazed at how normal things looked. You’d never know behind the mountain peak beyond our house nearly 60,000 acres of the West Fork Fire burned. walking 1st wk-left

We were glad we’d come home.

Then just to remind us who was in control, lightning struck a tree two streets away and caused a small fire.

lightning treeA scary sign that, while we might have a roaring inferno behind us, a small lightning strike could start a closer fire.

For two weeks, we kept one car packed with what we wanted to save. The other car ready to be loaded with our clothes, food, and dogs when (if) the next evacuation call came.

Smoke came and went. Aviation planes flew overhead dropping retardant and water buckets, weather permitting.

Now the July monsoons have arrived. The fire crews are shrinking. Few planes are flying.

Yesterday containment was up to 66%.

Today a Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team arrived to begin their initial assessments of the after effects and develop a strategy for emergency stabilization and rehabilitation.

Same as the BAER team we’re creating defensible space around our house.

We do live in a forest. By choice, our lives center on living with the fire possibility same as we live with the bears, turkeys, and deer.

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We love it!

Fires, bears, squirrels, deer, and all.

7 07, 2013

Life in a Wildfire – Part 2

By |2013-07-07T06:00:50-05:00July 7th, 2013|Life in A Wildfire|3 Comments

We arrived in Trinidad, Colorado, at three in the afternoon on the day of evacuation. We hoped we’d only be there for the weekend.

Unfortunately, the local evening news was not encouraging. We even made the national news.

The morning news offered no better outlook. Things were unchanged. The West Fork portion of the fire was spreading rapidly toward our little town.

Rather than sit in the hotel room or lobby glued to the television for news that was depressing, we decided to explore Trinidad

Lovely, lovely small town that helped divert our thoughts from what was going on.

trinidad

trinidad lake

By Sunday, we were tired of hearing about the fire situation from reporters on location. We needed to see firsthand what was happening. Plus, we’d seen the sites of Trinidad.

Praying the tourist who had come for the weekend would have checked out of motels/hotels closer to South Fork, we checked out of our Trinidad Holiday Inn (Great place to stay if you come up I-25 into Colorado, btw)

We loaded the dogs and suitcases into the car and headed back west to South Fork.

Ironically, there was also a fire burning in La Veta. The mountain pass we needed to cross to get home. Fortunately, there were no road closings.

??????????????????????Communicating between the cars via walkie-talkies, we made the three-hour trip closer to home, hoping to find a place to stay nearer Del Norte, where the Red Cross shelter was set up.

We found a motel in Monte Vista about fifteen minutes away. We also found friends and neighbors who had been there since the evacuation. Seeing friendly faces lightened our spirits.

On our way to check in at the shelter, we stopped by the Del Norte city park to see where news broadcasts were being made.

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Looking at the map and seeing how close the fire actually was to our home did nothing to brighten our spirits.

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My finger is pointing to the location of our house and the advancing West Fork Fire East that was encroaching.  Again the stark reality of our situation sent shock waves through us.

Every morning we went to the Red Cross shelter for breakfast and informational briefings by the firefighter personnel. Pete Blume, Incident Commander, or his second in command went over maps showing the position and progress of three fires and reported on control and containment of the #1 fire in the U.S.

Blume explained that meant that whatever resources were available were at his disposal, but even with all those resources he’d be unable to extinguish the fires that made up the West Fork Fire Complex.

Every day we heard that there was zero containment or control, but that there had been zero structural damage or injuries. That boosted our spirits.

We returned every evening to the shelter for supper provided by the Salvation Army. Those personnel were kind, compassionate, and did everything they could to elevate our stress at the uncertainty of ever being able to return to our homes.

???????????????????????????????On the morning of the sixth day, we went to the shelter hopeful. The night before at supper, we’d heard rumors that the evacuation would be lifted.

Blume reported that a Dozier line had been formed behind Sentinel Peak from CO 149 to CO 160. That backfire line would be ignited if the West Fork blaze moved toward South Fork. He considered that a major step in the right direction. However, the Papoose fire had flared big time over night. He posted pictures from the blaze.

???????????????????????????????The news from Rio Grande County Sheriff Brian Norton was not exactly what we hoped. The mandatory evacuation would be lifted, BUT we would be returning to an active wildfire area.

Uncertainty almost as palatable as the fear when we’d heard the mandatory evacuation order quieted room.

I heard the words “voluntarily returning to an active fire zone” and stared at this picture of the Papoose blaze.

papoose 06-27

The Red Cross shelter would remain open. The Salvation would be offering meals. We had a motel room seventeen miles away.

How could we return to our little house on the mountain knowing a roaring, unpredictable inferno that could easily erupt like the Papoose fire had loomed three peaks away with only a Dozier line to stop it?

Next blog, I’ll share what decision we made.

1 07, 2013

Life in A Wildfire

By |2013-07-01T18:32:59-05:00July 1st, 2013|Life in A Wildfire|3 Comments

If you read my blog last Wednesday, you know I am now living in the West Fire Complex Wildfire in the Rio Grande National Forest.

Yep, that’s right.  I’m living in a forest wildfire.

West Fork Fire Complex Statistics:   
Start Date: 06/05/2013
Percent Contained: 2%
Cause:  Lightning
Complex Size:  92, 176 acres
                       Windy Pass: 1,416 acres
                       Papoose: 34,272 acres
                       West Fork: 56,488 acres

Pablo Picasso said: “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”

What fodder the West Fork Complex wildfire is providing this writer!

Our adventure began with the 6 a.m. reverse 911 call on Friday, June 21st, that announced we had to evacuate our home.

Not unexpected. The community meeting the night before had warned of the possibility.

However, possibility is not reality and reality was HARD.

Looking around our little house filled with one third of what we’d had before we moved here in March and knowing we could lose it all sent lumps to our throats and tears to our eyes.

How – beyond the necessary paper documents – do you decide what to load into your cars when you only have four hours? Plus, you’d already downsized considerably to what you wanted or needed.

Wasn’t easy.

We settled on all the quilts my husband’s mother made, a wooden carving of a woman praying my father made for me, some pieces of silver from my mother’s family, a Van Briggle vase titled Lorelei that once belonged to my husband’s sister, two antique clocks, a 1840s porcelain inkwell from Vienna, and a Victorian chatelaine.

Crazy list, right? But, that’s what fit in the small suitcase or around the other stuff in the car. And, each of those items holds precious memories.

We also loaded our laptops and one printer. Tools of our trade that we couldn’t do without.

One of our friends took two of my favorite paintings by Barbara Rudolph, To Kill A Mockingbird and Tell Me A Story to his place in Del Norte until all the danger is gone.

If you’re not familiar with Barbara Rudolph’s work, check out her website. She’s an extremely talented artist who combines objects with birds and creates paintings that capture moments guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. My two pictures have special meaning to me for many reasons, and I can’t wait until I don’t live in a wildfire to get them back.

As we’re packing the cars, firefighters pull our barbeque propane tank and spare gasoline cans to the street. We’d already turned off the propane tank that serves our house and hot water heater. They’re not happy that we have so many trees in our backyard and tell us the outlook isn’t good. We need to leave soon.

We thank them for protecting our home and assure them we are leaving. We never stayed when the Gulf coast hurricane warnings said leave either.

With the two cars loaded with our most precious things and our two four-legged boys, Toby and Buster, we say a prayer for safety and protection, and lock the front door. With the smoke cloud growing, we drive away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlone in my car, I look one last time at our little house and wonder if we’ll ever see it again. Tears I didn’t want to shed in front of my husband come.

CIMG0705But, I remind myself it’s just stuff. A phrase I repeat often over the next week.

We bypassed the Red Cross shelter set up in the Del Norte high school gymnasium fifteen miles away from South Fork. Shelters don’t allow dogs inside with owners.

Facilities for small animals and large animals were available, but I didn’t want to be separated from our pets. We’d find a pet friendly motel.

We went through four towns checking availability. There were no rooms. Alamosa State University in Alamosa offered dormitory rooms, but again we’d have to leave our pets at the facility provided.

We’d gone from a big house full of stuff to a small house full of stuff to two cars with all our worldly belongings. I couldn’t leave my babies behind in Monte Vista.

We kept going until Trinidad, Colorado, nearly four hours away. The Holiday Inn Hotel there had a room and allowed pets. We unpack and settle in for the short duration, we thought.

Toby Buster chilling in Trinidad-2Amazingly, the dogs don’t even bark when we leave to go to the restaurant for dinner. They were too happy to be out of the car and with their humans.

But after a long weekend, we want closer to home so we can find out what’s going on with the fire instead of relying on the media.

Next blog you’ll learn about the next phase of our adventure living in a wildfire.