Day 2. Sleep was difficult. I curled up with my puppy (and when I say “puppy”, I mean 90 pound dog…). Tossing and turning all night, then drifting to sleep but waking every time my dog twitched, I finally gave up the thought of sleep sometime before 5am. Fortunately, fresh coffee was already brewing, as Jessica’s husband Steve is an early riser. Turning the computer on, I began searching for updates. Finally at 6:48am, I found this post:
From the briefing this am:
Fire size between 3050 and 3500 acres
15-25 homes lost
1 fatality (Unknown if this was fire related or not)
Forecast for day is for 30-40 MPH gusts
expecting 450 FF on the line by the end of the day
2 tankers one guide plan and 1 helo on order
A type 1 incident team en-route
I began spreading the word. Texts, calls and emails start pouring in. “How are you?” “Do you know anything?” “We love you.” “Our prayers are with you.”… I am attempting to keep up with the kindness and love being expressed. I am not sure what to do; it feels like more wandering from room to room. David and I keep checking in. It seems best that he stay put in Seattle for now as he has a full day of work. I keep thinking about the enormous, billowing, black cloud – yet picture it moving in a different direction, turning away from our oasis. I pray for my neighbors. I pray for my home.
Fortunately, I am distracted by Jessica’s enchanting little girls. The oldest joins me early and sits on my lap. I spend 20 minutes with my nose resting in her hair, inhaling her presence. She is delightful, sweet and seems content just to be with me. I take great comfort in the warmth of her small body. Time has a strange essence. Minutes pass, or are they hours. An hour later, it seems like forever. I don’t know what to do with myself.
At 11am, I email David’s mom: “Wanted to give you an update. A controlled burn that clearly wasn’t properly extinguished go out of control and quickly went form 1 acre to 5 to 15. We were evacuated later in the afternoon. Tigger and I are staying at my friend Jessica’s. Another friend has Bill the cat and another friend has Roscoe. We don’t have much in the way of updates. We know some of our neighbors lost their houses.” I don’t even notice my typos… my brain doesn’t seem to be functioning. I am sure she understands.
I email my mom next with a link to a map of the burning area and say, “looks way to close. Scroll down to see the map. May of our neighbors already know that they lost their homes.”
I begin to monitor the Jeffco Sherriff blog site, at 11:15am, the post reads:
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Lower North Fork Fire Update 3/27/12 1115
Second Fatality Confirmed Within the Fire Zone
A second fatality has been discovered within the fire zone near the location of the first. Both fatalities are being investigated by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
The fire has grown to 4,500 acres. Sixteen structures have burned thus far; that number is subject to change. The Type 1 Incident Management Team from the Great Basin Area of Montana is expected to arrive this evening to assist in the management of the incident.
Colorado Lt. Governor Garcia is expected to visit the fire zone today.
The next press briefing will occur at 4:00 PM at Elk Creek Fire Station #1.
Blackhawks and more tankers are on the way.
I meet my friend Kristina for breakfast, take the dog to the off-leash park to get outside for a while. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the wind has started to die down. I begin to hear specifics on neighbors who know there homes have perished. Each time, the reality of the beast becomes more real.
I make a plan. From our home, we have glimpses of the North Fork of the South Platte River winding along a distant road. I will drive up that road and see what we can see. Some years before, David and I saw what we believed to be our neighbors’ barn and roof. If I can find it again, maybe we will know if our house is ok. All other roads leading in to the area are closed – so my friend and I embark on this adventure hoping to make it far enough to know something.
On the way out, we stop at Staples. The parking lot has become a relay center for rescuing animals. Chickens are crammed in dog crates, horse trailers are everywhere. It has become the place to leave extra vehicles (including our plow truck that Shawn drove out which now has a flat tire) as well as an update station with the latest maps. Knowing it’s not an exact science at this time, we view the map, seeing my road and the general location of my home. Is it in the burn, out of the burn, is the map correct, is it off… a slight shift in the fire boundary leaves me puzzled. No real answers are here so we drive on.
The roads are eerie. It looks like a war zone (not that I have ever seen one except on TV). Sirens, fire trucks of all shapes and sizes, tankers hauling water, news crews. One neighbor donated his hay field as the helo-opps center. The small community of Conifer is buzzing with activity.
Kristina is good company. Quite witty, so fortunately, so she takes my mind off of my angst. We snap pictures of the ironic sign on the side of the road which reads “Fire Danger High”. We hope to be allowed to drive far enough to give me a sense of knowing. We drive into dense clouds hanging in the air that cloud my car with smoke and briefly wonder about the health qualities of that.
At last, we make the turn on the road that parallels the river where I hope to get a glimpse of my land. As we approach, I realize that it will be difficult to see anything, even with the binoculars I borrowed. The smoke is thick up against my mountain and I am not sure where the exact spot is where I might catch a glimpse. Dismayed, we keep driving until we come to a blockade. A very large, yet thoughtful, state patrol officer approaches the car. I notice how kind all the authorities are when I say, “my house is up there”. He wishes he could let us pass, but says he can’t. We chat with him for a while, comment on his dramatic half-sleeve tattoo and turn my car around. Heading back, I angle the rear view mirror so I can see behind me and maybe catch a glimpse of my property. Not a very safe way to drive, but we are moving slowly and there isn’t much traffic way back here. I stop a few times, get out and look but don’t see anything. Then, after one bend in the road, I stop again. Getting out, hopeful, I peer through the smoke up the side of the hill. I barely make out what we have always thought was my neighbors property - his red and white barn roof and the green metal roof of his house. I tell Kristina, that I think we might be ok.
As soon as we are back in cell range, I call David. I ask him how sure he is that what we had seen before and again just now was our neighbor’s property. He thinks he is sure, I say, “Then, I think we are ok.”
Kristina and I skip going to the high school where the next update is happening and head back to Jessica’s. I feel relief and some survivor’s guilt.
I see the latest update online:
4PM News Conference Update
2 confirmed casualties, one person is missing
23 homes damaged
4,500 acres at this point, not much growth today which is a good sign
SEAT and helicopters from Buckley assisting
Pre-evac order issued to 6,500 homes as a precaution to gain a power curve in case the fire gains momentum
200 FF on scene now, more resources up to 450 by end of day
0 percent containment
New type 1 team coming in tonight and will activate tomorrow am
Asking that no further food donations be made. They have that covered.
I wonder who is missing, who is dead. My phone rings and it’s my neighbor Sharon. At this point, I have heard about her house and talked to her a few times including prior to evacuation. During the confusion of pre-evacuation, we talked, attempting to share updates and decide what to do. She said, she was going to hook up her horse trailer. I said, “That’s a good idea.” Her husband was out of town too.
Now, Sharon asks how I am. Somewhat guiltily, I reply: “Better”. And begin to tell her about my drive and what I think I saw.
She stops me, and says, “Kristen, your house was on the list.”
“List?” I say, “What list?”
She says, “I was just at Conifer High School. The head investigator, a captain from the Jeffco Sherriff’s office was reading a list of homes that were lost. He had your address… and your name.
Not able to take this in, I kept asking the same question, “Are you sure?”
Sharon patiently replied, “Yes, Kristen, I am sure.” She gives me a number to call.
Hanging up, I needed to see this list myself. I started making calls, searching on line and could find no list. The sheriff’s office had no information. Finally, after an hour of searching, Jessica and I head to Conifer in search of “the list.” Everything was changing rapidly, we go to the High School but the command center had moved locations. We drive to Elk Creek Fire to find the parking lot clogged with TV vans and fire trucks. We enter, I give my name and address and they lead us to a bench to sit down. Not a good sign. A very nice deputy comes and said it would be a few minutes. I hoped they would send us on our way and tell me not to worry.
Last night at our temporary home, we watched “Water for Elephants”. Early in the movie, there is a scene where the main character is given the news that his parents were in an accident. The shot of him walking into the hospital captures a mood.: those final moments before everything is about to change, where life is still the same, but information that you don’t want to receive is right around the corner. Time stands still, we grasp at moments to hold on.
As I sit there waiting, I study the hallway. There is a buzz of activity. They are propping the door open with a 5-gallon water bottle, a lone lamp is in the hallway, seeming out of place, and we sit on a wooden bench tucked against the wall, people walk by and smile kindly. Then, the lead investigator comes and sits down next to me. I brace myself.
He shows me my name and address on “the list.” At this point, nothing has soaked in. He describes it as “either a total loss or damaged beyond repair”. I cannot remember this simple description and ask him to say it again no less than 5 times, finally writing it down. We call David and I have him say the same to him. The investigator is kind and patient with us. He answers all questions he can and then we spend a few minutes helping him with phone numbers of other neighbors on the dreaded list. As we leave, we are warned that the parking lot is full of media. We choose to avoid the blaring lights of cameras and makeshift reporting stations.
When we reach the car, the Captain calls. He says, “I have good news. I just saw a note on your property. Your barn with the metal roof survived.” I respond, “Our barn doesn’t have a metal roof… that’s our neighbors’.” He says, “I’m sorry. I hoped I had some good news to give you.”
I don’t remember the drive back to Jessica’s. I don’t remember much about that night. I remember being numb – and little thoughts of precious things popping in my head. I can’t bear to think of my beloved home. I push it out of my mind, and it sneaks back in. I cling to the hope of maybe, just maybe, they made a mistake. Maybe they didn’t make it all the way back to our house. Maybe maybe maybe…
Sleep doesn’t come easily. I toss and turn. David is headed back in the morning, not able to get a flight out that late. We miss each other dreadfully. He feels helpless to be so far away. I snuggle with Tigger so glad to have him with me. I stare at the ceiling, feeling the void.