Dozens of people, many of them volunteering their time, have been staffing the Joint Information Center for days by the time I visit on Thursday evening. Around tables shoved together to form a rectangle of glowing computer screens and jangling phones, they're working to answer thousands of questions.
"Where can I take my pet?"
"Is my area under evacuation, or just pre-evacuation?"
"Where's my mother?"
Mary Scott, a public information officer with the city of Colorado Springs, is coming off her third 20-hour shift. Foremost, she explains, is making sure that everyone's providing accurate and consistent information. Around the room — along with coolers of bottled water, stale croissants, and countless piles of paper — are several white boards containing the latest on evacuations, shelters, official information sources and the like.
Open from early morning to late at night, the JIC has operated out of the El Paso County Sheriff's downtown Law Enforcement Bureau building since Sunday, June 24. Dozens of people have since worked there, including federal and state representatives, as well as spokespeople from Memorial Health System, Colorado Springs Utilities, the city and El Paso County.
Most have served five-hour shifts, but Scott has stayed longer every day. "It's hard to leave, knowing what's going on," she says.
Although she's answered calls from evacuees and others who have screamed their frustration, she's also dealt with those who are hurting. One woman said she didn't know about the evacuation order in north Mountain Shadows until she got off work Tuesday, when it was too late to get back. "My dog is there," the woman wailed.
Remembering it, Scott breaks down, wiping her eyes. "I've cried many times," she finally says.
Still, most people who call thank people like Scott for making information available. Some calls, says Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer Michael Seraphin, even lend levity to the situation. One Old Colorado City woman demanded to know why she wasn't being told to evacuate, he says.
Overseeing the interagency operation is Rob Deyerberg, a retired U.S. Forest Service public information officer who started his fire career in 1973 as a wildland "ground pounder." He's seen some devilish blazes, such as the 460,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona that claimed nearly 500 homes and burned simultaneously with the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire in 2002. He rifles through a folder of handwritten notes and phone numbers, finally guessing his crews have handled thousands of calls in five days.
"The sad thing is, we're seeing it more and more," he says, referring to lost homes and structures.
When he worked in Summit County decades ago, he says, "They referred to it as the forest that wouldn't burn," because there was plenty of snowpack and healthy trees, and few homes in the woods. Now, he says, beetle kill, drought and development make the fire potential huge.
When I ask what raced through his mind on Tuesday, he coaxes me to a small window that affords a distant view of the fire where it swept into northwest Colorado Springs neighborhoods. Even three days after the fire burned 346 homes, he chokes up.
"I knew what could happen," he says.