High Park Fire: There is no way to fully prepare for a natural disaster of this magnitude

June 23 — The first version of this story was written when my family was under High Park Fire pre-evacuation orders. Pre-evac in Glacier View Meadows meant all of your most important belongings were packed in boxes and bags waiting to be loaded up at a moment’s notice. It meant jumping sky-high every time the phone rang. It meant that every trip into town was taking a risk of not being able to return. It meant meetings at the fire house with other nervous neighbors. It meant helicopters flying overhead and billows of smoke from the other side of the mountain. It meant caravans of weird looking firefighting machines going up and down 74E all day. It meant that everyone with an RV loaded up and headed down the mountain, leaving the rest of us to wonder if they knew something that we didn’t. It meant parking a U-Haul in the driveway just in case. And it meant not knowing, except that we did know that we were the lucky ones.

We Glacier View residents had almost convinced ourselves that the worst was over, that the spot fires had been contained and that our neighbors in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th filings would be coming back home. I’d just wrapped this story and sent it off to North Forty HQ when we got “The Call,” the reverse 911 call on June 22 that informed all of the rest of Glacier View that they had to get out. The mad scramble that followed as the fire approached proved once and for all that there is no way to fully prepare for a natural disaster of this magnitude.

My husband Dan and I are usually well-organized people. We labored under this illusion as we re-packed our bags and boxes, rounded up our two dogs and one cat and packed my very small car with an astonishing amount of stuff while the latest of the giant smoke plumes that had been such a part of the landscape loomed over our heads. With the cat yowling away in her cat carrier, we headed down the mountain. As we drove past the Western Ridge Restaurant and Resort, we saw flames chewing up the mountain directly behind it. At the Lone Pine trailhead, a long line of horrified residents, who had been headed up the mountain, were being told that they would not be allowed to return to their homes.

When we met Dan’s son at The Forks, the landmark at the entrance to 74E, we discovered one of our first mistakes. We were supposed to have driven his car, which he’d packed with all his stuff, down the mountain along with mine. We’d seen the car parked at the barn as we’d left and neither Dan or I had thought to drive it down.

We were to discover many other mistakes and omissions once we’d landed at a friend’s house and began to unpack. I had packed up my iMac, my printer, the modem and our PC tower but had brought hardly any clothes. We were missing important medications. We couldn’t find our toothbrushes or our ever-so-important prescription nasal sprays. I’d emptied the contents of our refrigerator into two coolers but had forgotten about the onions and potatoes in the lower cabinet. I had failed to pack up any of my cookware. No dishes either, not even a fork or a spoon. I’d left behind a full bottle of olive oil. But I had seen the looks on the faces of neighbors who had not been able to return to their homes for anything at all and I still felt like one of the lucky ones.

This story was supposed to have been about the heroic efforts of the volunteer firefighters and our beloved fire chief, Greg Niswender. Glacier View Fire Protection District has 18 firefighters and eight support staff to cover the 60 square miles that encompasses the Glacier View Meadows subdivision and the many, many square miles beyond that. In addition to actual firefighting, the volunteers have had to take all the usual calls, from medical emergencies to traffic accidents to calls from the locals who may have seen the beginnings of another fire.

In my June 20 story, I wanted to make a point about the dedication of the volunteers, who were taking time off of work and losing their own incomes in order to fight the fire. I did interviews. I went to press conferences and meetings. I took photos of important people and made sure I knew their names and that those names were spelled right. I felt like I was doing my part for the Glacier View Fire Protection District.

Now I’m another evacuee with a long list of my own needs and can’t be of any help to anyone.

In the future there are a number of things that Glacier View Meadows residents can do to make the job easier for the firefighters. In my interview with the two assistant fire chiefs, Tom Bizzell and Bob Isaacson, they made a few recommendations.

Tom said the community has been very supportive of all the firefighters — and that they really appreciate it — but that many of the residents don’t have particularly visible addresses on their houses, a detail which is very important to the structure-protection effort. He and Bob Isaacson also agreed that Glacier View residents should never hesitate to call if they see something unusual. Glacier View has the advantage of altitude and very broad views. Since most of the fires in the district are caused by lightning, vigilant locals are some of the best sources of information available. Lastly, they wanted to remind the locals that the best defense is defensible space and never to assume that their homes are safe. The strong winds can send glowing embers great distances from a source of a fire and conditions being what they are, new fires can begin anywhere at any time.

This is one of the biggest disasters to ever affect Larimer County and, as of this writing, it doesn’t look like there’s an end in sight. Mother Nature is in charge of this one and all we can do is respond. Between the dry grasses and the extent of beetle-killed pines, all of us must be extra cautious and supportive of each other and our fire departments. And all of us had better pray for rain.

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