Memories of fire and a lucky day

Less than a quarter mile from my house, the ridge spewed choking black smoke. Ashes drifted through the air like evil confetti.

The fire was close. Way too close. But only minutes before, I saw the raging flames but they were at least 3 miles away. On the other side of the Colorado River. Between my house and the fire was the river, railroad tracks, an interstate highway and a two-lane frontage road.

I was safe, but I suddenly learned how wrong I was.

A sheriff’s deputy sped down my driveway, opened his car door and screamed “GET OUT, GET OUT NOW!”

Then he was gone. The fire was next door.

I zoomed through the house grabbing photos, scrapbooks, mementos and as many of my favorite T-shirts as I could hold. In less than five minutes I crammed my small pickup full of belongs. Then I grabbed the small travel kennel stuffed my feline buddy named Sprocket in and peeled out. Fortunately my dog was out of town with my wife.

As I glanced in my rearview mirror, I saw flames, smoke and ashes. In my mind, I knew my house would soon be gone.

Sprocket stared at me with terrified eyes. He saw the same look in my eyes.

That was June 8, 2002.

The Coal Seam Fire whipped into Glenwood Springs like a drunk uncle during the holidays, wreaking havoc and destruction in his wake.

The Coal Seam Fire burned 29,000 acres and destroyed 29 houses.

When Sprocket and I fled, all I saw was a wind-swept wildfire and my house with a bull’s-eye on the door.

When I returned four days later, my neighbor to the south had nothing left but a burned skeleton of a home. The house to the west of mine, was a pile of ash and rubble. The house a few hundred yards to the north was gone.

My house was untouched.

The trees 50 feet away were singed but the wind had pushed the fire past my house.

I still remember the odd guilt I felt when I talked to my neighbors, my distraught, devastated neighbors.

It was a nightmarish four days that has been burned into my memory.

A nightmare that turned out to not be a nightmare. For others, a pure unmerciful nightmare. A home gone, pets gone, belongings annihilated, years of rebuilding.

As the Weber Fire ignited at 4:15 p.m. Friday, June 22, the memories of Coal Seam flickered back to life for me.

A co-worker was evacuated, along with hundreds more. As I watched and listened safely from 17 miles away, I hoped that The fire would spare everyone’s homes.

And it did. A godsend.

As fires burn or burned all over he state, hundreds of homes were lost, there were even lives lost. Here in Southwest Colorado, the nightmare turned out pretty well.

Evacuees returned home, memories of the massive worry they all experienced still lurking in their minds.

Wildfire is ruthless and difficult to contain.

Images of the homes unscathed in the middle of a blackened, charred landscape serves as an amazing example of how well firefighters battled the Weber Fire and protected homes.

It was inevitable — 2012 was gong to be another 2002. Little snow this winter, a dry, hot and windy spring — wildfire was inevitable. And it hit all over the state.

I remember the amazing feeling of relief when I saw my home still standing back in 2002. Overwhelming relief and joy.

So close, but for some reason, my home was spared.

Joyous relief.

Six weeks later the rains came and a river of mud, ash and debris came pouring into my driveway and yard. For weeks, I shoveled and stacked sandbags, hoping to divert the onslaught. It was brutal.

As I shoveled and sloshed the fire-cooked pudding into my truck, hauling it away, I thankfully looked at my home that was spared.

Many residents impacted by the Weber Fire will have to deal with those mudslides.

It’s what comes next following the wildfire.

The Weber Fire came and went, and thankfully, all homes were spared, thanks to the tremendous work of the firefighters.

A quick look to northern Colorado and Colorado Springs shows the hideous toll wildfire can extract. In 2002, it was the Hayman Fire, Missionary Ridge and Coal Seam that destroyed homes and ruined lives.

I still remember June 8, 2002 and a long, tormenting four days. I remember the joy and relief of Day 5. I remember it all.

I’ve always said that the Coal Seam Fire will always be a great memory. But it’s only great because my home was spared. For the unlucky others, it was a nightmare.

Every year when the summer heats up and a wildfire ignites, I think about that day in 2002, when I was lucky and others were not.

The Weber Fire is now gone. Mudslides will continue. Memories of wildfire will remain.

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