Mahala Gaylord/The Denver Post
Mahala Gaylord/The Denver Post
COLORADO SPRINGS – The first signs of trouble – the kind of devastating trouble that would ruin lives, displace thousands, kill two people, destroy a record number of homes and unleash one of the worst natural disasters in Colorado history – appeared about 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.
It was June 26 on Colorado Springs’ northwest flank, and winds were pushing the Waldo Canyon Fire to the one place where the potential ramifications were feared by everyone.
“It’s starting to drop down into the canyon,” a firefighter blurted over the radio, a message no one on the fire line wanted to hear.
Less than four hours later, the worst scenario was reality.
The goal that day had been to contain the fire to an area west of Rampart Range Road – and out of Queens Canyon, a drainage that leads to a mountainside quarry above the city.
Workers in bulldozers spent the day digging a line in the dirt, cutting down to the mineral earth. Firefighters with chain saws ripped away trees and shrubs, removing anything flammable from the fire’s path. Air crews used helicopters to douse spot fires and tankers to paint the hillsides red with retardant.
The Waldo Canyon Fire had confounded fire managers for three days – defying normal wildfire behavior, making nightly runs when most blazes sleep and dancing with erratic winds.
Propelled by gusts reaching 25 mph and fueled by historically dry timber, the blaze dived into the canyon.
During the next hour, the wildfire would do what managers feared the most – creep down to the bottom of the V-shaped canyon before jumping into treetops and racing up the other side.
Once on the ridgetop, the fire exploded into the city, creating a seldom-seen tornado of flames that destroyed 346 homes, killed a couple in their 70s, forced thousands to flee for safety and left firefighters to take courageous stands to save hundreds of houses.
If a lesson is to be learned from Waldo Canyon, it is this: Nature holds the power. And, at times, man has no choice but to get out of the way.
“It is not a soft or sympathetic message for those who have lost everything,” said Todd Richardson of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “The fact is, we can build all the stuff we want, but Mother Nature is stronger than anything. And until you experience the emotional and physical connectivity of it all, you will never understand a fire this big.
“It is phenomenal.”
Last week, firefighters secured containment lines around the 18,247-acre Waldo Canyon Fire. In the coming weeks, crews will work to completely extinguish the fire as rehabilitation specialists take steps to restore the land.
As it stands, the 2012 season is already the most destructive in state history. Fires with names such as Weber, Treasure, Little Sand, Hewlett and Springer erupted throughout the state from Pagosa Springs to Leadville, Last Chance to Fort Collins, Montezuma County to Boulder, Grand Junction to Estes Park.
Six people have died; more than 600 homes have been destroyed.
A total of 220,728 acres in Colorado have burned this year. In 2002, Colorado’s worst fire year by acreage, 619,000 acres were scorched the state.