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Evacuees Are Allowed a Fast Pass Through Homes

Colorado: Driven out by wildfire over a week ago, residents get 10 minutes to grab what possessions they can, if there's anything left to retrieve.

June 23, 2002|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLORISSANT, Colo. — When there are only 10 minutes to snatch up the pieces of your life, which pieces do you pick?

Do you look for the lost cat? Clean up the spoiling food? Grab your tax documents, your mother's jewelry box, your daughter's kindergarten drawing of you? Or do you simply sit in your living room and try to remember what it was like when you lived there?

A dozen or more cars lined up at a roadblock here Saturday morning for a chance to briefly visit their past lives--before the 137,000-acre wildfire drove them from their homes more than a week ago, before home became a cot in a shelter, a tent in a neighbor's yard, an air mattress on a friend's living room floor.

Residents of the wooded creek subdivisions north of here were given 10 minutes, and no more, to drive up the closed road to their homes, see if they were still there, and gather what they needed before leaving again.

"Ten minutes goes by real fast," said Cindy Swager, who waited nearly an hour in line before driving in with her husband. "We had a list made out of the things we wanted to get so we wouldn't forget anything."

The Hayman fire, the biggest in Colorado history, entered a nerve-rattling period of uncertainty over the weekend, as the calm, moist conditions of the last few days once again gave way to warm, dry winds--the most dangerous kind of fire weather, with the potential to whip flames over miles of fire lines laid by firefighters.

"I'll be totally surprised if we don't lose it someplace," fire information officer Bobby Kitchens said early in the day. "As you can tell, I'm pretty tense. The test is coming. It's practically here.... The predictions were for winds of 35 miles an hour. Well, the winds outside are already 40 miles an hour."

For the 7,900 residents evacuated from communities on the fringes of the blaze, the weather forecasts meant scant hope of returning home any time soon. Most emergency officials said it would be at least Monday before any substantial areas were reopened for residents to return. About 800 have returned so far.

At the high school in Woodland Park on Friday night, county officials were reading lists of streets touched by fire and asking residents who lived on those streets to accompany them to a small, private room outside the gym. There, they shared photographs of burned homes in a process strangely reminiscent of the rooms at airports where relatives of dead passengers are ushered. Counselors were present. Some left the room in tears, huddled on the shoulder of a friend. Most left with long, quiet gazes straight ahead, not having anything to say.

For most of those lined up at the Florissant Grange Hall, there was the reassurance of knowing the fire was still at least two miles from their homes, possibly farther.

Still, several expressed a similar sentiment: In a region already reeling with loss and peril, they wanted to see for themselves, to lay eyes on their own house, see it still standing there in the trees--if only for 10 minutes.

"How much can you get out in 10 minutes?" asked Lance Roberson, a National Park Service employee who still had $40,000 worth of classic cars--Mustangs, Fairlanes, Cyclones and Cougars--in a garage near his house, uninsured and vulnerable. Roberson was able to move out only about half of his 18-car collection when the evacuation order came down last week.

"Ten minutes is a crock, quite frankly," he said. "I don't see how they can keep you off your own land. The whole thing doesn't make sense."

Al Dreher, a retired trucker who has lived in the Indian Creek area for 20 years, was determined to water his potted plants, and it was going to take longer than 10 minutes. He said the deputy waiting outside his door to escort him out again better not try to stop him.

"I'm going to get them watered, no matter how much time it takes," he declared. "I've got a lot of time and money invested in them, and I'm not going to lose them just because of 10 minutes."

Swager and her husband had their list. The bentwood rocking chair their children had painstakingly restored for them, some photographs, the Vita-Mix blender. "It's like the Rolls-Royce of blenders," Jack Swager explained.

Also on the list: doing something with the turkey they had left defrosting in the kitchen. "It went out the door," Swager said.

Most residents of the Indian Creek neighborhood had no time to plan their flight 11 days ago. Many said they went to work in the morning only to receive urgent phone calls from friends and relatives later in the day that the area was being evacuated.

"All of a sudden, they were coming with loudspeakers down the road, they were saying, 'Get out now!' " Cindy Swager said.

Ken and Delores Bradford took the most important items the day they left: family photos and their John Wayne videos. Now they wanted to get a few more items, but mostly, Delores Bradford said, they wanted to see the house, to make sure it still was there.

"I'm so excited to go in," she said, laughing nervously as they crept up in the line of cars.

Ten minutes later, on the way out, she was crying. No, she said, the house was fine. It wasn't that. "Even though we know it's safe, it was hard to leave," she said. "I don't know why. It's a mess! Because I've dumped everything all over the floor trying to find what we need." She raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness.

"I don't care. I'll be happy to clean it up."

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