In the preface to “Evacuee, Behind the Lines of a Firestorm,” J.S. Cooper warns his readers: “For those of you who want to get straight to the action, you may want to skip ahead to chapter three.”
In this story about the effects of a disastrous wildfire on one man and his extended family, Cooper bares his soul and opens the eyes of many of us who have not undergone such a trauma. The High Park Fire, which burned for more than three weeks in the foothills west of Fort Collins in June 2012, destroyed more than 250 homes and left countless other dwellings and buildings damaged.
The physical structures at Ohana, the “family campus” in Buckhorn Canyon where Cooper lives with his wife, son, father, mother and father-in-law, brother and sister-in-law and their family were not consumed by the fire. But Cooper’s experience trying to maintain his work and care for his family and property during an extended period of evacuation nearly caused him to crash and burn.
It’s impossible to skip those early chapters because that’s where Cooper shares his early life, describes his relationships, what is important to him and the volatile nature of his personality. These chapters lay the groundwork for what is to come. The man we learn about lives hard, works hard, cares deeply, doesn’t easily take “no” for an answer and can be laid low by excess stress and frustration.
Beyond his personal story, Cooper tells the larger tale, one that is now understood by thousands of Coloradans who have experienced the recent rush of wildfires but only dimly imagined by many who may have breathed in some smoky air and seen some dramatic images on their electronic devices, but have not come face-to-face with the fallout, immediately and over time, from a major fire close to heart and home.
Evacuated from his home and living in a warehouse connected to his business in Fort Collins, Cooper and his wife and son keep their eye on the path of the fire that stubbornly refuses containment. When the power is cut off to Buckhorn Canyon and Cooper can no longer communicate with his father who has elected to wait out the fire in his mountaintop retreat at Ohana, Cooper panics and decides he must go to his dad. There is no “legal” way to return to Ohana, now dangerously close to the fire’s path, so Cooper seeks out a back way through the foothills. His effort to reach Ohana becomes an exploit worthy of the best action-adventure movie as Cooper, all the while talking to himself, maneuvers his truck through seemingly impossible terrain to his destination.
Cooper knows how to tell a tale; how to slow down the action to keep the reader in suspense; how to tug at his/her emotions; how to provide the details to make his story become real. He doesn’t hesitate to look with complete honesty at some of his decisions and to appreciate the kindness and understanding rendered by his friends, family and strangers.
Evacuee is on one level a latent coming-of-age story, precipitated by the fire and told by the author about himself. It is one person’s reaction to the trauma of the fire and at the same time, shares many feelings that are universal to victims of a natural disaster.
For Cooper, writing the book is surely part of a healing process. The final note, in Cooper’s words, is a positive one: “The earth and the human race have both seen disasters worse than ours…time and energy have healed them all.”
Mother Nature wasn’t yet through with Cooper and his family. After fire came the flood, in mid-September 2013, filling, then overflowing the beloved pond at Ohana, totally wiping out the large family garden and creeping into the garage and basement of his in-laws’ home. When flood waters spilled over the culvert near the entrance to the property and washed out the road, Cooper said, “We got a break. The water level on our property went down 2 feet almost immediately.”
Damage to their homes was minimal, mostly a layer of mud, but the family was trapped by washed out roads. No surprise that sooner rather than later, Cooper found a way to climb across the culvert, entice one of his employees to drive a car to a spot where he could reach it by foot, and thus had a way, a very long way, to get to town by driving up Buckhorn Canyon to Stove Prairie Road and down Rist Canyon into Fort Collins.
He’s still traveling that route daily in order to keep his flourishing business going. Now with five employees, he sells upscale limited edition movie merchandise, all over the world from his Fort Collins warehouse/office.
This time, during and post disaster, Cooper is calmer. “I’m older,” he said. “I’m handling the aftermath of the flood much better. But this time it’s easier because my dad isn’t stranded by himself at Ohana and I can get back and forth more easily.”
What he knows for certain is that he and his neighbors are sticking together and staying put in their mountain homes. “They can bury me here,” he said. “I moved 15 times between the age of 18 and when I settled here, and I’m here to stay.”
There are some crazy stories coming out of this flood, Cooper said, and he wants to find a way to tell them, perhaps by collaborating with his friends and neighbors to write a book.
He can’t get over the kindness of people. Late in September, not one, not two, but all six county employees working on the road near the entrance to Ohana got off their machines to help Cooper’s dad, 76, climb up the culvert so that he could get out to the road. Cooper was touched deeply by their concern.
He marvels at what water can do. “There’s a 7-foot hole on our property scoured out by churning water and big enough to stand in,” he said. “The road from our place to Masonville was washed out in at least 30 places.”
He’s everlastingly grateful to his neighbors, as firm as he is about repairing their property and staying on it, come what may, and his friends from town, always ready to help him out when they’re needed.
“We love our life in the mountains. We’ve been here for nine years now. All the family was over for dinner at our place last night. My 4-year-old son gets to see his grandpa every day. None of that is going to change.”
Evacuee is available in paperback, as a limited edition signed paperback and as an ebook at: www.EvacueeBook.com. Fifteen percent of proceeds from sale of the book go to the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department.