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THE NATION

Panic and trepidation in fire zone

Colorado Springs-area residents tell of fleeing flames, and reminders of last year's disaster.

June 15, 2013|Jenny Deam
  • A helicopter carries water toward the Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs.
A helicopter carries water toward the Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs. (Michael Ciaglo, Colorado…)

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — On Tuesday afternoon Duane Jensen was driving home from a round of golf when his cellphone rang and he was told of a fire in Black Forest. A bad one. He glanced out the window and saw a plume of smoke rising in the distance.

He suddenly felt sick. He lives close to that spot. And he had been through this before. "It was like a horrible punch in the gut," he said Friday.

Almost exactly a year before, he was standing on the deck of his house in the Mountain Shadows subdivision with the glorious views and the shrubs and trees he had babied until they bloomed like showpieces. He watched a wall of fire pop over a ridge and roar toward his neighborhood.

He shoved things into his car and took one last look around. At the last minute he grabbed the cuckoo clock he and his wife had bought on a trip to Germany and threw it in the car. For more than half an hour he drove with flames lapping at the side of the road as he made his escape. His home was destroyed.

That was then, the Waldo Canyon fire. This is now, the Black Forest fire. One year and 10 miles separate the two.

Jensen, 63, and his wife are now living in an apartment in nearby Monument as they rebuild in another pretty subdivision called Flying Horse. On Thursday, Flying Horse was put under mandatory evacuation as the wind-whipped fire crept closer. His apartment in Monument was under voluntary evacuation because authorities did not know where the fire -- now the most destructive in state history -- would go next.

"God, why would you be letting this happen again?" he asked the heavens. And then he wept.

He cried as the terror of last year rushed back, and for what he knew others were now just starting to feel: How the sound of a siren, even months later, will make them jump out of their skin. How some things, overlooked in the panicked minutes of fleeing, can never be replaced.

For Jensen it is his father's golf scorecard -- his best score ever -- from the last game he played before being killed in a car accident.

His belongings are crammed into boxes, and he is ready to leave in a moment's notice. "I am just so tired," he said.

By Friday afternoon, firefighters were helped by a 20-degree drop in temperature and intermittent rain. Containment was estimated at 30%. Some evacuation orders -- which affected as many as 39,000 people Thursday -- were lifted. Officials estimated 400 homes had been lost.

The death toll is two, with the discovery Thursday afternoon of two bodies in a garage with car doors open. The victims are thought to have died late Tuesday afternoon when flames engulfed their home as they were trying to leave.

The thought chills Phil Valdez. It could so easily have been him and his wife, Rhonda.

On Tuesday he was at work when a co-worker, who also lives in Black Forest, just outside Colorado Springs, said there was a fire in their area and maybe they should both go home. He saw the haze in the air but was not terribly concerned. Reports were that the fire was about six miles from his house. Still, he called his wife and suggested she head home, too.

"The last thing on my mind was that three hours later our house would be gone," he said Friday.

After the Waldo Canyon fire the couple had put together an emergency box just in case. He put it and his laptop and cellphone on the table and stepped outside. That's when he heard explosions and crackling sounds. The sun had become a sickly orange silhouette against a darkening sky. Suddenly a sheriff's deputy was on their street yelling. "The fire has jumped Black Forest Road. Get out now!"

They loaded two dogs and one cat into the car. Another cat was missing. The fire was getting closer, but they couldn't leave without the cat.

A stranger in the line of cars pressing to evacuate called from a window: "Do you need help?"

"I can't find my cat," Valdez answered, panic edging into his voice.

The man got out of his car. Together they raced through the house, tipping sofas and pulling mattresses off beds before finally finding the cat cowering under a bed. The cat was scooped into the carrier and the stranger vanished.

As Valdez and his wife drove away he hoped he had thanked him. The wall of smoke was suddenly surrounding their house. By their guess the house was swallowed minutes later. An aerial photo later showed only a fireplace standing.

"It was then that the reality hit. We don't have a place to live anymore," Valdez said. He said his emotions are careening as he tries to comprehend what that means. "We're going between despair and hope."

The hope comes with the kindness he sees all around him.

On Thursday he was standing in an insurance line and saw someone who looked familiar. The man stepped forward. "How's your cat?"

It was the stranger who he said helped save their lives. If he hadn't helped, Valdez said, they probably would have stayed longer, and those few extra minutes might have been fatal.

The two men hugged and exchanged names. The man also lost everything.

"If I had a thousand-dollar bill -- if I had a million dollars -- I would have given it to him on the spot," Valdez said. "How can you ever thank someone enough?"

--

national@latimes.com

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