Tuesday, July 24, 2012

One Month Later

Yesterday was the 1 month anniversary for the start of the Waldo Canyon fire and the day we evacuated. Thursday is the 1 month anniversary of the day it jumped Queens Canyon and came down the mountainside into our side of the city.

Looking back is kind of surreal. We've had some rain since then, but the temps and dryness is back to where it was during the fire. Everyday I leave work through the door facing the mountains. The one I stood at as I watched the flames come over.

One of the things I've been reflecting on ties back to when I was 13, almost 14 years old. That was when we left Africa in a hurry.

My Dad was on his motorcycle headed into the bush to visit a remote village when he hit a pothole hidden on the other side of a rise. The bike flipped dumping him hard on the ground and then landing on him resulting in severe broken bones and burns from the hot tailpipe. The next seven hours were spent getting him to a hospital via at least 3 different modes of transportation. The hospital had an X-ray machine, but no way to develop the film. So it was sent over the border to another hospital where the doctors there looked at it and conversed over a radio. Mom could hear them, but had no way to respond. Bottom line, Africa didn't have the level of care that Dad needed.

Mom and my 7 year old sister packed up our house in 3 days. Then they headed to Jos via a 3 hour drive on 4-wheel-drive roads and a 4 hour flight in a small plane. My 8 year old brother and I were in boarding school in Jos and when Mom, Dad, and my sister got there we found out we were going back to the States. All we could take was what fit in a suitcase. We thought we would come back, but we never did. We left things that I often think about and sometimes wish I had; especially when I see what others have from growing up that I don't.

A month ago, when we were walking around the house pulling together what we thought we should take to evacuate, we were thinking in terms of 3 days. One thing I realize now is that I also got into the same mindset I had when we left Africa. Only one suitcase. That is all I could think of. So I took enough clothes for 3 days, my computer, and only a very few things that were precious to me. The things I had brought with me from Africa in that one suitcase, the jewelry my husband has made for me, and a couple other things.

Fortunately, my husband doesn't suffer from the same barriers and history that I do. He took out 3 loads in the truck, including things that I should have grabbed and didn't think of until he had done it for me. He grabbed my spinning wheel and the stuff that went with it including the project itself. That moved me to tears because I didn't realize it was precious until I saw that he had grabbed it. He also grabbed all of my jewelry. All of it, not just some. He's bought a lot of it as gifts for me. He knew that some of the things I had left were precious and didn't need to be left behind.

So sometimes the past can come in and limit us but then there is often someone, usually a spouse or other loved one, who comes in and fills in the gaps for us.

A month later, life has mostly returned to normal around us. But there is a friend who lost her home in that fire and she has no family here to help her. So the loved ones helping fill in the gaps in her life are her friends and team mates. We've sifted through the ashes of her house looking for things and now we are helping her take time to work through insurance issues and other paperwork. And when the time comes, we'll help her get new winter clothes, new furniture, and new memories to replace the ones lost.

That's what love is for. Taking care of one another.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday With Advocates

Today is the Advocate Conference at Compassion International and my job was to show off and explain the DIY displays we developed.

A few months ago we were approached by the Advocate's marketing group to create some easy to make displays that would cost $30 or less. We did, then wrote instructions for building them and talking points that help the Advocates to talk about wholistic child development in a way people can understand.

Today we are showing them what they can do and where they can get what they need to get started. I'm excited to see what people do with it!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

3 Weeks After the Fire

Tuesday (July 17th) was the 3 week anniversary for the day that the Waldo Canyon Fire jumped Queens Canyon and came down the mountain to the northwest side of Colorado Springs.

Tuesday was also the day I went with my coworkers to work as a volunteer with Samaritan's Purse to sift through the ashes of our friend's home. We arrived at the designated meeting point at 7:30 a.m. to fill out paperwork, get instructed, and receive our t-shirts. From there we drove to a second meeting point. There we were given more instructions and carpooled up the hill to where our friend's home is.

When we got there I took a few photos of what I saw around me. Mostly it looked like this one. Grey foundations filled with ashes, rubble, and rusted metal. At first that was all you could see, then we started seeing what some of that stuff actually used to be. Cars in garages, a vending machine, washers, driers, stoves, pipes...

We were given tyvec suits and face masks to wear since the fire reached temperatures of between 2000 and 2700 degrees in these homes. That kind of heat can change chemical compositions and make things that used to be harmless into things that are toxic.

These two photos are from the Samaritan's Purse Facebook page.

Our friend wanted to find 2 things in particular. Her cast iron skillet and her mother's wedding rings. So since the kitchen had been above the basement, a group went down there and shifted the rubble of a bedroom that had been above the kitchen. They found quite a bit down there including the cast iron skillet, a filing cabinet with papers still in it, a Bible, a cookbook, and a lot of porcelain both broken and intact. The rest of us looked for the wedding rings. The bedroom had been on the second floor above the bathroom and mudroom. So we sifted through that and found fingernail polish bottles, some shells (intact) that had been decoration in the bathroom, a pile of tiles over what had been the bathtub, buttons, zippers, and scraps of cloth from a closet, some costume jewelry, and finally the wedding rings. They were still in the jeweler's box and were covered in ashes. But when the ashes were brushed away, both rings were there with minimal damage.

Sifting through ashes is probably a lot like how they do archaeology. A person with a shovel very gently gathers a pile and puts it in a wood frame with a mesh bottom. Two people agitate the frame to get the ash to fall into the bucket or wheelbarrow then look through the rubble that is left for anything that might be an object that survived. When you're done, you dump the rubble into the bucket with the ash and begin with a fresh batch from the shovel.

I only did a half day. It's hard work and I knew I wouldn't have the physical stamina to go all day. I went home after eating lunch with the others at the second meeting place and took a nap. I was wiped out physically and emotionally.

I'm still tired. I'm still not sleeping as well as I need to. Last night I couldn't get to sleep for awhile again. Then I woke up at 6 a.m. this morning smelling smoke. It was only the remnant smell of the burned areas around our neighborhood, but the instincts don't register it that way. I got up and turned the fan off and it smelled like home again, but I couldn't go back to sleep.

Friday, July 06, 2012

My Last 2 Weeks

Life hasn't exactly been normal around here.

The story begins on Saturday, June 23rd, 2012. Honey and I went out to run errands and noticed smoke over in the mountains above Garden of the Gods around the middle of the day. It started out as very black and we initially thought that maybe a car on Hwy 24 (Ute Pass) had caught fire or something. Throughout the afternoon, while we ran errands, it got whiter and bigger. By the time we got home, the plume had gotten quite large. We turned on the TV and heard that there were evacuations in place. By late afternoon they had mandatory evacuations starting about a mile south of our home all the way down to Old Colorado City. Our area was under voluntary evacuation.

Due to how confusing the evacuation press conference was, it wasn't clear for about an hour if we were part of the mandatory area or voluntary. We decided to go ahead and evacuate to my parent's home that evening. We gathered the cat, clothing for 3 days, the laundry, some mementos and other things dear to us, and important stuff like our computers, the bills, etc.

Later that evening we figured out that we were in the voluntary evac area, but decided to stay where we were at. Sunday, the 24th, we returned to our house, cleared out food from the fridge, grabbed more clothes and a few other things. Monday evening Honey decided to go back to the house and stayed the night there. He worked from home Tuesday the 26th since his work was in the mandatory evacuation area. Later in the afternoon he took another load of things out since the fire was getting closer on the other side of the ridge. He went straight back and got home just as the fire came down and over going 65 miles an hour. He quickly loaded a few more things, checked to be sure that our neighbor's wife had gotten home to collect her husband all right, and left. He just missed the traffic jam out of our area.

Meanwhile, I was standing outside work watching the flames rapidly descending the mountainside toward our neighborhood. That's something I will never forget. There is a large quarry right above our neighborhood and I realized that it might be the only way our house could survive. Honey called and asked me to head to Mom and Dad's house right away. 15 minutes later the whole city was engulfed in thick black smoke and stayed that way for about 30-45 minutes. It very got difficult to breathe.

The flames were diverted by the quarry like a rock in a river. They went primarily to the south side and right into a very highly populated area called Mountain Shadows. A small piece was diverted to the north.

The southern diversion is the most tragic. Many aerial photos have been posted on-line by the Denver Post and others that show that area. It is startling and amazing to see both the devastation of what was destroyed and the miracle of what was saved. Those fire fighters worked with super human strength, intelligence, and determination to save anything that could be saved. And I am thankful to them beyond words.

We could find no formal confirmation in the form of photos that our house was okay, but we had a lot of hope from many sources. The first came from Dad. He has been volunteering with the Sheriff's office and checked where the fires were at. He confirmed that our neighborhood was safe. Wednesday morning the updated maps of the fire were posted and that also indicated that our neighborhood was untouched. Also, no news was good news. The photos and videos that surfaced focused on the homes that burned. No one was talking about our neighborhood. And finally, a neighbor up the hill from us checked on his air conditioning and found it still working. Apparently he had just installed a new one and he can control it remotely from his phone. It struck him to check and when it told him that the temperature was 72 degrees in his house (meaning the WiFi is working and the house is still there) he turned it off. No need to cool an empty house.

So we waited. There were still fires and hotspots to worry about. But we got a little rain, it wasn't as windy, and was a little less hot. That seemed to help. Later the fire shifted in the other direction so that the city of Woodland Park was added to the evacuations of western Colorado Springs, Ute Pass towns of Green Mountain Falls, Cascade, Chipita Park, and the northern towns of Monument and Palmer Lake.

I ran out of adrenalin Thursday evening, the 28th, and kept going purely out of stubbornness. Maybe the list was what deflated me. The list of streets with homes lost was posted that day and our street wasn't on it. That made it official that we still had a house.

Sunday, the 30th, we were given permission to return to our home to stay. Not knowing what to expect, we bought a bunch of baking soda products to help deodorize the house. I just naturally assumed everything would smell like smoke.

We pulled into our neighborhood a little before 8pm and it was rather surreal. It was so normal. Our neighborhood is hemmed in on all sides. Ridges running off the mountain to the north and south, the mountain on the west, and a bluff on the east. From our house, you couldn't see the devastation on the southern ridge. So the one indicator of a fire were the charred sticks on the mountain above the quarry.

There was all this turmoil of emotions and stress I was dealing with inside and it just didn't match what we saw.

The house was just as we left it...messy. The winter clothes that I was going to put away were still on the couch. The weeds in the yard kept growing even though we've had little to no moisture. The kitchen was still dirty from day we left. The bed was still unfixed. There was no hot water yet. They were going to go around to turn on the gas and light each pilot light Monday afternoon, but they didn't make it to our house before Honey had to leave.

Tuesday night we visited home and began doing some of the chores left undone. When I returned to Mom and Dad's house and went to bed, I quickly drew what I kept trying to sort out in my mind.

I drew our house down in the corner, small with bright green trees surrounding it, untouched and pristine. Above it rages the fire with the quarry overshadowing and protecting my home. In my mind I kept seeing the flames and then our green, beautiful neighborhood. In the drawing I was able to put those thoughts together in a way that made sense.

We returned Wednesday, July 4th, to continue cleaning and getting the smoke smell out of the carpet. That evening we went to the Waldo Canyon Fire Benefit Concert with Mom and Dad. They offered free tickets online and I decided we needed something fun to do. The Flying W Wranglers, Michael Martin Murphy, the Philharmonic, Isaac Slade, and Flash Cadillac performed. The rather astonishing thing about it is that the sponsors are....drum roll please....Focus on the Family and The Independent. Those two organizations are about as far apart as you can get on just about every level. Amazing what happens when crisis strikes. When it was over we were amazingly relaxed and refreshed. And we had been told that the fire was 100% contained in Colorado Springs and 90% contained in the county.

I woke up more refreshed on Thursday morning than I had since we had evacuated. And now it's Friday, July 6th, and we're going home to stay tonight. Mercifully, we still have one when so many others don't.