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A Relentless Fire Chars Evacuees' Hopes, Psyches

Colorado: Self-sufficient residents, now living out of their cars in a parking lot, feel powerless.

June 20, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND PARK, Colo. — Most of the weary stragglers squatting on this high school parking lot are at their wits' end, beaten down by the tyranny of a wildfire.

Some already know their homes are burned to the foundations, others merely fear it. They're living out of their Chevys, they're grubby, their children cranky, and still the fire comes.

The ferocious Hayman fire has for 11 days shoved families out of their houses. By Wednesday, more than 8,900 people from Colorado's heavily forested midsection were on the move. Some ended up at this barren lot in front of Woodland Park High School.

"What's it like? I can't begin to put it in words, the heartache and the pain of sitting here every day and looking at that ridge and that smoke and not knowing if it's your house or your neighbor's house that's burning," said Debra Butler. She has been camped here for nine days with her husband, their two children and two massive dogs they refuse to put in a kennel.

"I'm not sure we can keep doing this," Butler said, gazing fondly at the two panting dogs occupying the front seat of the family car.

Even this temporary refuge is not safe. The town, seven miles from the fire's edge, is under an evacuation warning. The Hayman fire has burned 136,000 acres and is still erupting, driven by hot, dry winds.

The squatters have gathered here for more than a week, creating a makeshift community of tents, campers, recreational vehicles and cars packed to the roof with family treasures.

Extended families huddled their vehicles together, neighbors found each other and ordered their camps so they have the same next-door neighbor here.

Adults sit in lawn chairs, sharing coffee and stories. Children frisk on the blacktop as if it were their new frontyard. Boys with sticks in their hands build forts under pickups. A little girl wearing a surgical mask steers a pink bike with training wheels. She rides up to a stranger and flips up the mask. "It stinks!" she declares, and waves a pudgy arm at the curtain of thick smoke that has descended on this bustling mountain town.

The parking lot is filled with proud, self-sufficient mountain folk who can't manage to accept the Red Cross' hospitality, available at the school across the street.

Of the thousands displaced, the Red Cross reports fewer than a hundred are spending the night in its shelters. The evacuees have dispersed to the homes of friends, family or small hotels on the fringes of the burn area.

The Butlers fled their mountaintop home June 11, directed here by sheriff's deputies. They soon found Sherri Humphrey and her family. Neighbors. The families arranged their assortment of tents, trucks and campers together and have relied on each other since.

Coping with bored children, increasingly unhealthful air and the general uncertainty has worn Humphrey's nerves raw. She cries easily and apologizes profusely.

"I've had it," she said, sitting on a concrete parking barrier and sighing. As she watched her two young children, she said quietly that she knew she didn't have the luxury of crumbling.

"Look at me, I'm camping in a high school parking lot. You never think your life will be like this, you see disasters on television and never think it could be you. Wow."

The parking lot denizens watch the movement of clouds, closely monitoring the weather. Each wind shift can mean a subdivision comes under threat. In particular, they keep an eye on a young aspen sapling staked in a grassy median. Its shimmering leaves tell the wind's direction, and thus, the fire's path.

"This poor little tree," Humphrey said, petting its trunk. "We look at it and it brings us hope. But if it bends the wrong way, we're gone. It's so bad, always running away from your home."

Across the parking lot, Joe Elliott is elbow-deep into the side of his trailer, replacing a hot water sensor. His family has been here eight days. The worst part for them, he says, is all the people.

"We're used to being up in the mountains by ourselves," he said, picking up a screwdriver and gesturing. "It's tough to get used to the people."

Without friends or family to impose upon, Stephanie Willett-Shaw has relocated to an inexpensive motel with her cat, Sparky, and a twin bed full of possessions.

This is not the first time she's run from fire.

After she lost everything in an apartment fire in San Francisco, Willett-Shaw moved to Colorado to start anew. She bought a hilltop home on 5 acres with a view of the mountains and the valley below. She planted a garden with strawberries, lilacs and herbs, and started looking for a job as an office manager at a law office.

Within four weeks of moving to Colorado, three fires erupted within 10 miles of her house on Night Hawk Hill near Sedalia, south of Denver.

Then the Hayman fire roared in.

"There were big chunks of charcoal falling out of the sky. The sun was a weird copper red all day, it was the creepiest thing I've ever seen," she said. By nightfall on June 9, everyone in her area was ordered to leave.

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