The Evacuation

The Kruger Rock Fire


Susan Waller

(original article posted on the Colorado Switchblade)


Estes Park, Colorado.

The phone rang at 7:40 Tuesday morning. I was sleeping, groggy when I answered. The caller was my friend and colleague Jason Van Tatenhove.

“So, I don’t want to alarm you,” he began. “There’s a fire in your neighborhood. You may need to evacuate.”

Out of bed, down the stairs, to the windows. Peter and I stood together, looking north. Smoke billowed in the wind. Power was out. We live in the mountains, with a well and a septic tank. When the electricity goes out, so does our water. No coffee, no showers.

“Where’s the road?” I asked. “Can we get out?”

“See the mailboxes?” Peter pointed down the mountain. “So far, the road is clear, but the fire is close.”

The mailboxes are one mile from our house down a winding road of switchbacks barely wide enough for one car. We live at the top of the subdivision. There are only two homes beyond ours; one is a summer cottage.

Scanning for emails, I had one at 7:04 a.m., from the Little Valley Homeowners Association, notifying us of fire, thought to be caused by a tree brushing against a power line.

Not surprising as the winds had been wild for a week, with gusts approaching 60 mph at times. Little Valley is heavily forested, a community nestled into the side of a mountain. Homes are on acreage; we have eight acres, most of our land a rough incline behind the house. The altitude in Little Valley climbs from 7,500 feet to nearly 9,000, where we live. Normally, the views are spectacular in a breathtaking way, but not this day.

Peter and I prepared to evacuate.

Back up to the third-floor master bedroom, I dressed quickly, pulling on the same clothes I’d worn the day before. A suitcase taken from the closet. I packed a pair of jeans, a couple of tee shirts and sweaters for Peter, with several pairs of underwear and socks. Same for me. A travel toiletry bag grabbed from a shelf, I threw in deodorant and toothpaste, a comb, toothbrushes. There were a few items already in the bag: a razor, fresh blades, a hair scrunchie, dental floss. I tossed the bag into the suitcase, along with our Kindles and phone chargers. Glancing out the east windows, lights flashed from emergency vehicles coursing the switchbacks, headed toward our house.

Cold weather was forecast. There were two coats already in a car. I grabbed pairs of gloves, and Peter’s heavy boots. No time to look for mine; most were packed away from last winter. I slipped on a pair of tennis shoes and grabbed a pair of Chaco’s.

Back upstairs to the main level, I pulled out the containers of cat and dog food and placed them at the top of the stairway. Peter had packed up the three laptops, with chargers, and had drawn the server. A Larimer County Sheriff’s deputy came up the drive as Peter loaded the cars.

“I wouldn’t wait to get out of here,” he told Peter. “If you wait too long you may not be able to get out, because of the emergency vehicles.” He tied a pink evacuation label to our address post and drove off, to the next house.

Peter had already placed the two cats in their carrier. Graham, our Golden Retriever, waited in the backseat of one car, next to the cats. Checking my purse: wallet, glasses, credit cards, a little cash. I grabbed both set of car keys, Peter’s wallet.

A momentary pause in the huge living room: the collection of original oil paintings we had purchased over the years. The grandfather clock Peter had given me in 1996, a very special birthday present. The beautiful objects we had collected over our thirty years of travel. The glass vase. The Inuit Drum Dancer carving. The African art. The stained glass parrot my father had made for me in 1982, several years before his death.

Our books. Our bed. Our life.

Likely we would lose these things. Nothing was as important as getting down the mountain. Peter and I and our pets.

We left our home at 8:30. We drove down the mountain to the entrance to Little Valley. The sight was surreal: fire trucks, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, bulldozers. Perhaps two hundred responders were gathered, ready to assault the fire. A woman with a clipboard asked my address. She wrote it down.

“All clear?” she asked.

Glancing in the rear-view mirror, Peter was behind me. “Yes, all clear.”

Reluctant to leave. Curious by nature, wanting to stay in the midst of the excitement, take photos, talk with people. Get the stories.

Peter and I met up in the Safeway grocery parking lot. He had a dental appointment in Loveland that morning, for a new crown and deep cleaning.

“At least I’ll get my teeth brushed,” he said, attempting humor. We had hair appointments in Loveland that afternoon. The plan had been to meet up, run errands, but now…the two cats and the dog were in the back seat of my car.

What should I do?

Checking emails, I learned the Red Cross had opened a shelter for the Little Valley evacuees at the fairground Event Center; that’s where I would go. The puppy had been sick, vomiting the night before, a very unusual circumstance which had kept Peter and I awake throughout the night. I needed to get him the vet. I called and got a 10 am appointment.

Coffee on the way to the fairgrounds. Chaotic winds. Smoke blew wild off the mountains. I entered the Event Center with the dog, and saw neighbors already seated at tables, drinking coffee. I was too nervous, too anxious to talk with anyone, so I took Graham back to the car and waited, drinking coffee, before driving to the vet.

Terrified. Helpless.

When I reached the veterinary, Graham was immediately seen. An older couple, veterans of Little Valley for decades, came in with their cats to board them. I decided on the spot, to board the kitties there. I had their food in the car. That would relieve the worry of dealing with two cats in a hotel room. But how safe would they be?

“What happens if the winds change, if they move in this direction, and you have to evacuate?”

The boarded pets would be evacuated too. We’d find them at the shelter, if necessary.

I didn’t look back. I worried about Eli and Magpie.

Once through the canyon, Peter secured a room at a LaQuinta. We had a place to stay with our dog. He also spoke with our hairdresser, who assured him Graham could come to our appointments. It felt odd to get my hair colored when, after all, we were homeless.

Hours to go and nothing to do. I called a friend who had lived in Little Valley, but recently moved to town. She invited me over. Tense, strung out from adrenaline, we shared a beer.

Much later that afternoon, Peter and I returned to Estes Park. We drove to the Red Cross station and learned the YMCA of the Rockies was providing lodging and meals for us. By this time, more areas east of town had been evacuated. We ventured to the YMCA, bordered by Rocky Mountain National Park, and got a room for next few days.

The fire now had a name: The Kruger Rock Fire.

Before leaving Estes, we stood at the entrance to Little Valley.

“It’s okay if we lose the house,” Peter said. “It will be inconvenient and difficult, but it will be okay.”

The winds howled. The air bit into our faces, freezing our hands. We drove to Loveland for the night.

At 7:02 p.m. Jason texted me. An air tanker, carrying fire retardant, had crashed; he thought it may have come down behind our house. Jason posted important stories that day, in the vein of if it bleeds, it leads. I was a bit jealous. I downloaded the Broadcastify app onto my cell phone and tuned it to Larimer County Emergency Services, attentive through the evening as responders worked to locate the downed plane.

A photographer had documented the fire throughout the day and reported a fierce wind gust had caught the plane. He later pinpointed the location of the crash. Once the wreckage was found, it was determined the pilot, Aerial Firefighter Mark “Thor” Olson, was dead. Olsen had been a 32-year veteran of the US Air Force and Army, and had logged over 8000 flight hours, with 1,000 hours piloting with night vision goggles.

A punch in the gut.

Wednesday morning dawned with snow on the ground, and bitingly cold temperatures. Mid-morning, we left Loveland and returned to Estes Park. The winds blew unabated, but they had mercifully driven the fire east, away from Little Valley. So far, no structures were damaged.

We checked in to the Alpen Inn at the YMCA of the Rockies. Our room was large, but rustic. There was no television, but hallelujah there was a hair dryer!

And decently high-speed internet.

On arrival at the YMCA, we learned the Massage and Spa cabin had burned to the ground overnight. The power of a mere suggestion works: suddenly I wanted a massage, I needed a massage, but there were no massages that day. Peter set up his work laptop and got busy. The puppy took a nap.

With few distractions, I mulled over the situation, and the things we had left behind. I thought of all the Christmas decorations we had: the Lennox Ferris Wheel my sister had given me years ago; the ceramic Christmas tree I’d made for my parents when I was in the third grade. My mother handed it back to me in 1994, when she sold our Miami house.

“This should be in your home, for you and your children to enjoy,” she’d said. I thought of the boxes of Santa’s and Nutcrackers and stockings and how my children had delighted in these treasures, even as teenagers, then young adults. I worried and agonized; my mind ablaze with questions.

How does insurance work if your house burns down? Is wildfire an act of God? Can you legally dispute this if you are an atheist?

We learned we could return home that evening, as the evacuation level shifted from mandatory to voluntary. We chose to remain at the YMCA.

Another fitful night. I worried about water pipes. The well pump shut off when we lost power. Should we have drained the pipes? Flushed the toilets, left a spigot open? Would we come home to broken pipes, water damage?

Should we have turned off the propane to the house?

Thursday found me teetering on the edge of a meltdown. Emotionally and physically exhausted. We went home Thursday afternoon. The temperature inside our house was 41 degrees. I was freezing, ill-tempered, poised to return to the YMCA. Peter struggled with the furnace, made calls to repair people. No one could assist that day, or for many days. We worried the abrupt electricity turn-off had damaged the furnace.

Water flowed, though. No broken pipes.

One of the repairmen he called asked about the thermostat, a NEST. He suggested the batteries had drained, preventing the furnace from communicating with the thermostat.

Yes, that was the problem. Two new AAA batteries later, I heated some leftover chili, and Peter built a fire in the fireplace. The house warmed. Gradually we relaxed. The dog and the kitties stayed close.

Throughout the night we watched small fires continuing to burn on the mountain. Those fires continue. A reminder that we live in beauty at the mercy of nature.

A firefighter we spoke with explained how they measure success when it comes to fighting fires:

If there are no lives lost, the endeavor is successful.

It is successful if there are no structures lost.

For Little Valley homeowners, the efforts of the responders were splendid and heroic.

But for us, and the community of firefighters and responders, the death of the pilot was tragic. An awful loss.

Saturday evening found us with friends, enjoying bluegrass music at American Legion Post 119. At the end of the show, each musician raised a glass, a toast to honor the fallen pilot. We raised our glasses as well.

“To Thor,” we said. “To Thor.”

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