In The Things They Carried, Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien writes about the personal possessions soldiers carried and the emotional attachments that went along with them.
Over the past week and a half, many area residents have found themselves facing a similar situation, as they've been forced to choose, often on a moment's notice, which among a lifetime of possessions will be taken from an evacuation area, and which will be left behind.
What follows are first-person reflections by Waldo Canyon Fire evacuees, as conveyed to me as well as to Kirsten Akens, Bryce Crawford, Chet Hardin, Wyatt Miller, Achille Ngoma, Matthew Schniper and J. Adrian Stanley. Some express regret for what they could not take with them. Others describe an unexpected realization that what once appeared essential suddenly seemed less so.
In either case, their experiences speak to the values we place upon the objects we surround ourselves with. And in a broader sense, they may prompt us to reconsider which of them we choose to value most in the years to come.
We had been watching the fire for four days without much worry. There was concern for those who were southwest, but no real worry for our home in Rockrimmon. It would have to blaze through miles of houses, businesses and Ute Valley to reach us. Inconceivable.
Then, as the smoke bellowed toward our house, worry crept in. Evacuations were announced for Mountain Shadows and Peregrine. We started to get serious about gathering important papers, clothes and keepsakes. We've been married for 16 years and because of our time together, we found a rhythm. Conversation was minimal, with the news playing from the computer in the office and the TV downstairs. One person loaded and organized the SUV, while the other continued to pack and set items by the door.
Titles, passports and other important documents were a given to take with us, alongside clothes, but what else?
OK, if it can be bought at Wal-Mart, don't pack it. You wouldn't find a monocle worn by my great-great grandfather or my grandma's journal at Wal-Mart, so the curio cabinet filled with family history from the 1800s was emptied, items packed. Fortunately, all things that were deemed important or indispensable were already in cases, travel tubs or curio cabinets.
With the vehicle packed, the two cats loaded, we pulled out of the driveway. An officer had driven by earlier to confirm our intent to evacuate. It was strange and very surreal driving out of our neighborhood. Most homes were empty by now, only a few people waiting to leave until the last moment, like us. Then shock hit as we came around the bend and saw the mountains above us lit up with flames. That's when we knew ... It was conceivable. — Shelley Krause, Rockrimmon
The sky was red and ashes were falling. Me and my daughters actually got burned by embers up in Holland Park. So my brother called me and told me that he was getting us out of there. Since we don't have our own vehicle we had to leave everything set, so basically we had 15 minutes to get the stuff. ...
I got my kids, nothing else matters. — Simone Covey, Holland Park
I had just gotten back from vacation in St. Martin, and my suitcase was still packed. Everything I needed was there. I realized nothing else mattered, even the things I'd spent my own energy building. It was a secret relief that I didn't mind if everything burned. I had my clothes and that's all I needed to be functional.
I wasn't too worried about pictures, because everything is uploaded in the Web. I also had all these souvenirs from years of traveling, but I just didn't care anymore. It reminded me of the Kerouac quote about "no matter where I live, my trunk's always sticking out from under the bed, I'm ready to leave or get thrown out." — Xavier Fretard, Manitou Springs
At 4:15, my neighbor called, hysterically crying and informing me that the fire was in our backyard and was racing down the mountain. My pets were in the house so I left work and raced home, telling the officers at the roadblock that I had a teenage daughter in the house (even though I knew she was not) as they were turning everyone else away at Centennial and Flying W Ranch Road. He allowed me through and I flew up to my home.
I can't describe what I saw in any way other than complete Armageddon. None of the pics or videos really demonstrate how deep and thick the smoke was in my neighborhood, how close and fast the fire was moving, and how much ash was in the air. ...
All I had on my list to save were my two dogs, three bunnies, and my kids' baby blankets. I always assumed that in a crisis I would be level-headed and prepared. Unfortunately, that was not the case at all. I never considered grabbing legal documents such as birth certificates or Social Security cards. I didn't think of grabbing clothes or pictures. I think I was so focused on what could not be replaced, and what carried the most value to my kids. — Amanda Enloe, Mountain Shadows, next to the Flying W Ranch
[I left] some angels that were grandmother's. The first thing that I thought was, "Oh no, I forgot my angels." It came down that hill so fast, you didn't have time to think. They were ones that I had gotten her, and then I got them back, so they are very special to me. — Lori Davis, Mountain Shadows
We were just about to go, and we got a phone call. And it was automated; and Bob [my husband] yells out at us, "You're not going anywhere. We have to go now." And at that time we had everything at the front door.
But it's like, "Do I take this? Do I take that?" Oh my gosh — I'm looking at the house and thinking, "Everything has to go," you know? But we got the cats and the dogs.
Oh, and then right after that the power shut off, just like that. It was instant. So then I said, "We have to get going, get everything in the car," and Bob's saying, "The garage door — we can't open the garage door." ...
And then, so, we're leaving, and [my son's] standing looking at our curio cabinet — just standing there looking. And I was like, "Jason, we've gotta go." And he goes, "Wha, wha ..." In his mind, he doesn't know what to take, either. And I said, "We just have to go. Come on. Let's just go." — Virginia Smoot, Rockrimmon
My daughter and I started sorting through what to take on Saturday night, so we kind of had a plan. We took all our photos out of frames, and I packed up all our important docs. It all sat in the garage till Tuesday. Everything else we felt was replaceable.
The only thing I regret is, in the panic on Tuesday, as I filled up my car already full of tools, I didn't have room for my lizard tank. So we put Ringo, our bearded dragon, in a box and, not knowing what was going to happen, drove around trying to find a pet store that was open and would give him a good home. We found one in Fountain. They waited for us. — Triton Gulczynski, Lower Rockrimmon
My neighborhood has a lot of elderly and retired folks. My first thought was making sure they knew about the evacuation and they were OK. So I ran around to several townhomes in my complex before I even started thinking about packing.
Once I got back home, I had limited time to figure out what to bring. In the rush, I forgot major things like the title to my car. That could have been pretty important if I had lost the house. ...
I had a very eye-opening experience as I stood in my house after receiving the reverse 911 call to evacuate. I was thinking and looking through all the crap that I have, realizing there is nothing that important to me.
Yes, I like my stuff and it would be expensive to replace it all, but I could also live without any of it. I found that once you start grabbing things you think might be important, where do you stop? — Toby Lorenc, Pine Cliff
I would say that the kinds of things [we left] were not things that are just heartbreaking. You always have some things that you just really like. ...
We lived in Belgium for three years. We have a lot of special memories there ... we were stationed over there, so we got some really cool pieces of furniture there. [Starts crying]. I don't know why I'm crying, it's all still there. ...
It's not the house and the stuff. It's the people. — Rita Burns, Hunter's Point (Upper Rockrimmon)
There's a few little things. Like pictures, like my dad passed away, so there's pictures that I had with him that I'm still not sure if they're replaceable. But I'd had those. I'd had a guitar that was my dad's, and stuff that I'd had in the basement. There were just so many things around that by the time we got pre-evacuation and it went straight to mandatory, there was no possible way I was going to have a chance to go grab it.
So since then, there's certain things that over a period of time that I've been like, "Man, I really wish I had done that." But I made a commitment with [my wife] and I told her that anything that's gone, it's gone. It's in the past, there's no bringing it back, no sense in kicking ourselves up for it. — Jason Hopper, quarry area near Centennial Boulevard and Vindicator Drive
There were two items that I was very upset about being left behind.
[One is] a picture of my grandmother from when she was 18 or so. It is a black-and-white bust. She gave it to my grandfather as a present to him when they were dating. I have always loved this picture. When I was young I would make my grandmother display it, and when she passed away it was the only thing that I asked for. It now sits in my baby's nursery because Thelma, my baby, was named after Thelma, my grandmother. I was heartbroken when I thought it was going to be destroyed.
The other item is my 1969 AMC AMX. It is in our garage, and I just really love that car. I have had it since I was 18 and have nothing but good memories with it. — Shandra Sweet-Winans, Peregrine
We're art collectors and there were some substantial wall-mounted pieces of art that were too big to take down, or they were hanging from the ceiling or whatnot, that we had to leave behind — even though we got more than a hundred pieces out. ...
I [also] forgot to bring a jade Chinese seal, you know, those red seals they put on paintings, that my late father designed for me. My husband forgot to take ... a lifetime of finished poems, first drafts, and poems in the works. — Una Ng-Brasch, Mountain Shadows
My primary concern was to get my kids to safety. They were worried about their things, so I gave them each a trash bag and asked them to quickly gather their most important possessions.
The difference between what I would consider important and what they considered important was obvious. While I would have grabbed clothes, they were gathering stuffed animals.
In my haste to get the children out of the house to safety, I managed to forget to pack anything for myself, aside from some pants for an important interview — and I didn't even remember to lock the door on the way out. So when reports came of looting in my neighborhood I was horrified. All of my possessions were in an unlocked house in a neighborhood full of looters.
So Wednesday night we decided to try to sneak into our neighborhood to lock the house, completely unaware that the neighborhood was crawling with National Guard and ATF agents, one of whom caught my son and I sneaking toward the house. He was nice enough to escort us to my home and let us lock up. So I guess getting busted by federal agents has become part of our family legacy. — Ted Russo, Rockrimmon
A couple of years ago I inherited my father's Harley-Davidson, a '96 softail, and that's still sitting in the garage. On Tuesday when it looked like my neighborhood was going to burn down, I was watching it on television and they were showing my house and the fire was really close. At that point I really regretted not taking the time to get that out.
And then some photo albums. My daughters are now 14 and 12. When they were first born we used a lot of film instead of digital, so those early photo albums with those early pictures that would have been difficult to recover. — Laura Eurich, Mountain Shadows
I wish I'd remembered the notebook where I wrote down all the shit I was supposed to be doing this week, because now I've forgotten it all. Also my camera. — Dolo McComb, Piñon Valley
I sneaked past the police barricade three times, the first time on foot, and the last two times in a vehicle.
The first time I went through on foot — about a mile away from my car — I got everything that I needed to get me just through the next tour: all the instruments I would need (guitar, cornet, accordion), my laptop, and a full box of LPs to sell. [Note: Liam is a musician who performs under the name Dear Rabbit.]
The second time I went through with my sister in her vehicle, I got the remaining inventory of Dear Rabbit LPs.
The third time that I went through with a photographer friend who wanted to document it. When we arrived, he realized that I lived in the same neighborhood as a friend; they would not let her back to get her dog. So we saved a dog's life; that gives me joy and is certainly more important than anything of mine that I left behind.
Some people were saying that I should get my important papers, but I can never remember where I keep them, and that stuff just stresses me out anyway. I got pretty much everything that I consider important to me. If I had more time or knew for sure my house was gonna burn, I'd like to save my piano and tuba, but that's about the only thing I would have done differently. — Rence Liam, Piñon Valley
My cat! I couldn't find the cat ... — Lynn Smith, Cascade
I went to my jewelry box. I debated for a while if I should take my wedding ring from my recent divorce. It was really freeing to say no.
I moved my way to the basement for photo albums. I grabbed one photo album from when I was a child, but purposely decided to leave an entire container of miscellaneous photos from my "past life."
I think the biggest question I asked myself was, why do I have so much unneeded stuff? I really realized that everything is replaceable. — Gabrielle Waters, Manitou Springs
We were hearing ambulances and fire truck sirens as we were packing up, so it was definitely getting scary. I told my kids that they could each fill a backpack with some toys. As my son, Liam, walked down the stairs with a bin of Legos, he asked, "Mommy, how long will we have to evaporate?" I had to smile within the chaos of the moment. ...
We had time to leave with our personal belongings. We had just had a yard sale two weeks before, so I knew where most of our important boxes were: baby books, photo albums, journals, kids' artwork. But when it came to actually leaving the house and locking up, it was hard to choose what to bring and what to leave behind. It was a good lesson in prioritizing.
I kept finding things as I would walk in to rooms at the last minute: pictures on the wall, a card my son had just made his dad for Father's Day. I was stuffing them in to any random box or bag as we were walking out. I eventually had to tell myself, "It isn't worth it. It isn't worth it. Just get out."
As we were driving away, we remembered my son's snails from school that we were taking care of for the summer. I made my husband go back and grab them.
My heart goes out to those people who didn't have that sort of time.. — Kathleen South, over the ridge of Rampart Reservoir
One who stayed behind
Thursday, Kelly Strong watched all day as the C-130s swooped deep into Ute Pass.
"It was amazing," she says. "You can't stop. It's like an accident; you can't stop watching."
Friday was much calmer; Strong spent some of it next door, tending to her neighbor's chickens.
Such was life in Woodland Park last week for someone who defied the mandatory evacuation order that had been issued Wednesday. Strong readily admits her neighborhood, south of U.S. Highway 24, was otherwise empty. In every driveway, in fact, the police had come by and spray painted an "X" to indicate that the house had been checked, with the number "0" beside it.
In Strong's driveway, that number was 6. As in, six people inside the house. Or six bodies to look for.
Speaking by phone over an aggressive and obnoxious rooster, Strong says that the three members of her family decided to stay put because they could easily track the movement of the fire. In fact, friends who'd been evacuated from Cascade decided to stay at her place even though it was still in an evacuation zone.
"I could see where it was coming from," she says. "I can understand why the other people in my neighborhood left, because they can't see."
Her house was so well-positioned to survey the blaze, she claims, that "everyone would stand in my driveway — even the police — every day until we evacuated. I can see Pyramid Mountain; I look down along all of Rampart Range. I finally had to close my gate, because lots of people were coming up to my property to take pictures."
Strong makes it clear that she's not opposed to evacuating, entirely: "If this fire were to cross 24," she says, "I would leave."
In fact, she adds that she and her family could quickly do exactly that. The cars are packed, and the horses were evacuated on Sunday. But, as the fire is steadily being contained, it appears that Strong won't have to go anywhere.
"The police were really nice," she says, when she told them she wasn't evacuating. "But I wouldn't want to encourage other people to do it."
— Chet Hardin