Monster fire terrorizes a Colorado city

Posted at 9:29 PM, Jun 27, 2012
(CNN) — It was like a scene from a big-budget Hollywood disaster movie — a Godzilla of a fire roaring down the mountain, straight toward Brandon Hanson’s Colorado Springs neighborhood.

Winds gusting at 65 mph pushed the fire over a ridge and sent it roaring into the city. Suddenly, a blaze in the mountains threatened to consume homes and businesses and change lives.

Hanson, 29, snapped a photo from his driveway of the thick plumes of smoke, some spiking as high as 20,000 feet, and sent it in to CNN iReport.

He’d just moved to Colorado Springs in April with his wife, Maria. Now their new house, their new life, was in peril.

“It’s a lot worse than we thought,” he ran in and told Maria.

Hanson packed up his Nissan Rogue. Paperwork, passports, pictures. And baby things for Xavier, their 1-month-old son.

Every hotel room in Colorado Springs was already occupied, so he kept driving south on Interstate 25 to Pueblo.

Wednesday, the Waldo Canyon Fire had doubled in size and was only 5% contained.

The Hansons scoured through photos posted on online news sites trying see their house. Maria drew an arrow on a photograph showing their neighborhood, flames devouring houses everywhere.

“Our home,” it said in white lettering. They still could not tell if they had been spared.

The fire, fueled by high winds and hot, arid weather conditions, could be raging for some time to come. All the Hansons can do now is wait.

They are not alone. The fire has forced about 36,000 people to evacuate their homes.

One of them, Mindy Levinson, was forced to leave her apartment Tuesday, accompanied by her young son. She regrets she didn’t take photos and other mementos.

“It was like Armageddon. You couldn’t see anything but dark smoke and glowing red all around you,” Levinson told CNN’s “AC360.”

Levinson said she doesn’t believe her apartment has been affected.

The curtain of flame was moving so fast that some people just had minutes to leave. At moments like that, you realize what’s important. What to keep with you.

For Scott Deed, it was the red, white and blue fluttering outside his house.

“This flag is my son’s. I lost him in Iraq. I want to make sure I take that down,” he told CNN affiliate KCNC.

Patrick Sobecki, 18, didn’t have much time to think about what to take with him.

He had been sleeping after taking Percocet to dull the pain of having all four wisdom teeth pulled Tuesday morning.

“That’s just one more thing I am having to deal with in the middle of all this,” he said.

When his parents roused him from slumber, Sobecki grabbed his MacBook Pro laptop and a World War I book published in 1920. His grandfather gave it to him.

The family fled the Peregrine neighborhood in northwest Colorado Springs on a two-lane road that quickly turned into a parking lot. About 7,000 people were trying to get out the same way.

Sobecki said it took two hours to travel four miles. They found refuge at a friend’s house on the east side of town, away from the fire.

Sobecki was born and raised in Colorado Springs, and he’d seen fires before. But none like this. None that blazed into the city.

He thought about Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s words that it looked like nothing short of a full-scale military invasion.

“That is Colorado Springs, the city I was born and raised in, the city that is at war with nature,” Sobecki said.

Wednesday, Sobecki’s family, like the Hansons, checked online sites and Facebook, anxious to know what happened to their homes.

Mark Galley wondered whether he would see his house again in the Mount Shadows neighborhood. He wondered what had happened to his neighbors.

It was raining ash, and the smoke blanket hung so heavy Galley couldn’t even see across the street.

It was surreal, he told CNN affiliate KUSA. It was scary.

Becky Schormann made a pile at the front door of things to take with her.

But she couldn’t take everything. The fishing boat parked under her deck. The antique dishes from her grandparents. Her antique doll collection — save one, the oldest one she owned.

“I keep telling myself it’s going to be OK,” she said.

For Russ Wolfe, it’s going to take a long time for it to be OK.

Wolfe founded the Flying W Ranch more than 60 years ago, building it into a regional tourist draw. It served chuckwagon suppers and provided Western-style entertainment.

Wednesday, Wolfe had nothing left.

“With much sadness we have to report that the Flying W Ranch as well as several homes in the Mountain Shadows area has in fact been burned to the ground,” the website said. “We ask that in this sad time that you remember the Flying W and the Wolfe family who has owned and operated the Flying W Ranch since 1953.

“If you have made an online reservation or a deposit your money will be refunded at a later date when we have had a chance to gather our thoughts,” the website said. “We ask that you pray for all the families within the area and assure you we will rebuild.”

It will be another good, clean family show, Wolfe said.

Jenny Stafford, whose husband is deployed, fled her Colorado Springs home with her two young children and her cat Tuesday afternoon.

“It was like nothing we have ever seen before in our life,” she told CNN. “We turned back to look, the flames were coming over the hill. Everything looked like it was on fire, smoke everywhere.”

Meanwhile, the temperatures soared again Wednesday and the air was acrid with the smell of everything burning.

Filmmaker Joshua Keffer closed his windows, even though he has no air conditioning, and kept working at home. People were still trying to go on with life, as though that were possible.

Keffer was someone who marveled at the visual, in awe of the images of the angry fire.

“It was stunning to look at,” he said.

Especially at night, when the embers glowed hot orange against the blackness of the sky.

But the truth quickly marred the images and tore Keffer apart.

It wasn’t just trees anymore. It was homes. It wasn’t a fire somewhere out there anymore. The flames were among the people, in their city.