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Packing Life and Love Into an Old Ford

Fire: Holdouts in Colorado scramble to choose what to save from burning. Watercolors and photos are salvaged. So is half a cow.

June 12, 2002|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROXBOROUGH VILLAGE, Colo. — She packed the towels while he packed the tools. She ran downstairs, then upstairs, then downstairs, stuffing toothbrushes and books and bars of soap into pillowcases, while he stayed downstairs, hauling the pillowcases out to their old black Ford.

Their next-door neighbor had already cleaned out and gone. Their neighbor across the street was just now peeling away in his Jeep. They waved, sadly. Then they went back to packing and tried not to panic, though they could taste the smoke and feel the air turning thick in their throats.

Tuesday was evacuation day for Tony and Joyce Martinez, along with 14,000 other residents of Roxborough Village, a middle-class neighborhood just 20 miles southwest of downtown Denver but directly in the path of the biggest wildfire ever measured in Colorado. It was a day of mass exodus. But first came a thousand small, wrenching, decisions. What to take, and what to leave? How to distill the contents of a life into a cardboard box, and how to forsake the rest to fire?

For days, while officials gave explicit orders to residents of other towns along the fire line, they only encouraged the residents of Roxborough to leave. So most Roxborough residents stayed put. They couldn't bear to leave their tidy, sturdy houses, or their idyllic horse pastures, or their notch in the blue-black shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

Instead, they waited to see what the fire might do, and waited for officials to call and give them a clear command. And each hour that passed without the dreaded call, each night without tongues of flame licking the sandstone hogback that rims the neighborhood, gave them hope.

The fire was 10 miles away, after all.

Then came Tuesday morning, and the winds shifted, and the fire was roaring on a northeastern slant, setting a course for Roxborough. Evacuation seemed inevitable. Although the official phone calls still hadn't come, residents gave in to their fears. They gathered in their streets and driveways, said goodbye to each other and to their houses, and perhaps to a whole way of life they had come to love.

Tony and Joyce Martinez told themselves they were packing "just in case." But they knew they would probably be gone long before nightfall.

At one point, Joyce called out, "I seriously think it's time to go." Tony didn't hear.

She shoved a few more things into a sack and carefully scanned the master bedroom, her breath coming fast, as if the house were already on fire. She studied every object--washcloth, computer, shoe, Bible--and imagined life without it. "I've got a feeling we might not be coming back to this house," she said.

Suddenly she stumbled upon a photo of her and Tony as love-struck teens, hugging in front of Lake Michigan. She stopped, gazing at the photo, as if she had all week to contemplate the past. Yes, she decided, yes, that photo must come with us. She placed it carefully in a box--after showing it to Tony, with a smile--then moved quickly to the next thing: Keep or not keep? Throw it in the back of the truck, or onto a possible pyre of their possessions?

Before retiring to this outlying suburb of Denver two years ago, Tony and Joyce spent 42 years of marriage roaming the United States, following their children, and everywhere they went the forces of nature seemed bent on spoiling things. "Always the elements drove us away," said Tony, 65. "It was hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Snow blizzards in Chicago. Earthquakes in Laurel Canyon."

Now fire. The primal element.

The Martinezes never gave fire a second thought when they moved here. Few of their neighbors did either. In fact, no one believed a fire could grow so big and fast by feeding on the forests south of town.

Tony and Joyce paid roughly $300,000 for their house, Tony said, and the insurance company told them Tuesday that they would get a check for $530,000 if it burned to the ground.

"I get a check like that," Tony said, standing in the garage, looking around, "I'm going to Mexico."

Joyce, meanwhile, was upstairs, keeping her focus on the task at hand. She stood before a closet of blouses and dresses that belonged to her daughter, a flight attendant, and frowned.

"She'll never forgive me if I let all this burn," she said of her daughter. "I've got to take all this."

She wheeled and looked at the bedding, the bureau, the piles of clothes everywhere. How was it all going to fit in that Ford?

"I want to take my whole house," she moaned, spreading her arms wide, cupping her palms, miming the gesture of ripping the house off its footings.

Each time she raced down the stairs with another load of stuff, Joyce shot a glance at the American flag across the street--her weathervane. "As long as it blows that way we're fine," she said. "When it turns around, we're gone."

When the wind turned around, she explained, the fire would be right behind it.

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