shark-muralWALDO CANYON FIRE: There’s no place like home

Published June 30, 2012

Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

By Bill Vogrin

On Friday night, I drove home as I have thousands of times since I bought my house in Rockrimmon in 1997. But this commute was like none other.

The last time I drove this route it was in sheer panic. Traffic was insane. Terror filled the eyes of drivers around me Tuesday night as everyone was fleeing the Waldo Canyon fire, which had exploded down the foothills and into nearby Mountain Shadows.

Burning embers rained on me and my skin was stung by ashen 65 mph winds as I pulled out of the driveway and began my escape. I was soaked in sweat and my mind raced with what I’d forgotten to grab and debated the best route to avoid the gridlock of Woodmen Road.

On Friday, it was spooky calm. Streets were empty. Most houses were dark. I was one of the first to return when the evacuation was lifted.

I pulled into my driveway and felt a sense of huge relief, tinged with sadness.

I couldn’t help thinking of my friends and the hundreds of strangers in Mountain Shadows who would never go home. I felt guilty for rejoicing at the sight of my home.

But I was so happy.

I made a quick tour of the place. There was the checkbook I’d forgotten to grab. There was the gunk on the counter I’d neglected to clean up before evacuating. There was my son’s unmade bed and pile of dirty clothes.

It was so beautiful to see.

Kid OutlinesMore importantly, I looked out the window where we enjoy watching the world go by. I saw the shark murals on my son’s bedroom wall. And I again saw the outlines of my kids on the garage wall, documenting their growth.

It brought tears because those are exactly the types of things many others can never get back.

I stood in my driveway and watched as neighbors started to filter back.

It was a moment I’ll long cherish.

Neighbor Bill came up and we shook hands. Tim, who owns a nearby rental, drove by and we, too, shook. Sadly, he told me his house was burglarized during the evacuation.

Cars drove by and waves were exchanged.

Finally, my neighbor Jeff came across the street. He’d been soaking his roof with the hose when I pulled away Tuesday. At the time, we shook hands and said we’d see each other when it was over.

On Friday, we hugged.

We were thrilled to see each other. And we agreed we live in a special neighborhood.

We traded war stories of evacuation.

But all I could think about was the neighbors I didn’t see: our friend and his invalid wife.

Their house was dark. His car was gone. That never happens.

Where were they? Were they safe?

My answer came when I noticed the answering machine was flashing.

At first, I thought it was just my own call Wednesday, checking to see if the house survived. If my lousy answering machine was working, I figured the house was safe. I was right.

I punched the button and listened to a message that made my wife, Cary, and me ecstatic. It was the woman who helps care for our neighbor’s wife. They had evacuated after all. They were safe in a hotel!

The news contributed to a deep sleep.

My most satisfying neighborhood reunion came at 7 a.m. Saturday as I picked up my newspaper in the driveway.

The neighbors I had worried about were just pulling up.

I approached and he shook my hand and apologized for being stubborn.

I told him I was so worried. We all were.

communityHe is a hero to me, the way he lovingly cares for his wife and still makes the effort to toss my paper on the porch each morning, spend time with my kids, buys flowers for Cary on mother’s day, and gives my dog, Nugget, a treat each time he sees him.

He told me how “guys with guns” knocked on his door at 9 p.m. Tuesday as the wildfire raged. Someone had called police and asked them to check the couple’s welfare. (I will never admit it.) It took him 2½ hours to gather his wife and get out.

And he’s glad he did. Wishes he’d done it sooner. He’s sorry for the fuss he caused.

I don’t care. I’m just so glad they are safe.

It’s so good to be home.