This was supposed to be an easy, uneventful week in Colorado Springs.
Most of the city’s business community was focused on the annual State of the City luncheon. Mayor Steve Bach intimated that, in his speech, he’d introduce his newly minted 2013-2015 comprehensive plan, after wrapping up his first year in office. Many also were looking forward to learning the recommendations of the Urban Land Institute’s visiting panel of experts, preparing a list of possible directions for downtown.
That’s all out the window, at least for now, thanks to the Waldo Canyon fire. Bach’s State of the City was postponed, as were dozens of other events.
The comforting, predictable rhythms of life in the Pikes Peak Region have been disrupted. As of Wednesday morning, 32,000 residents of the region had been forced to evacuate, and hundreds of homes and other structures had been consumed by the fast-moving fire.
The age of innocence ended abruptly.
It took us by surprise. On Tuesday morning, a parade of officials from various organizations appeared at a morning press conference with fire updates. The blaze was still “uncontained” but the tone was upbeat. As in a military briefing, fire officials described multiple force deployments and the creation of defensive barriers to prevent the fire from spreading to neighborhoods such as Cedar Heights, Peregrine and Mountain Shadows.
Every speaker praised the smooth cooperation and collaboration between local, regional, and national public safety personnel.
Eight hours later, all that confident talk became inoperative. Driven by fierce, swirling winds from thunderstorms beyond its west edge, the fire suddenly breached two containment lines and rampaged through northwestern residential neighborhoods. Wind-driven embers ignited new fires a half-mile from the fire front.
Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown called the event “an unparalleled fire storm of epic proportions.”
Wednesday morning, the fire bosses were still optimistic, if guardedly so. One thousand firefighters were deployed, as well as hundreds of fire trucks and other apparatus. The incident commander gestured knowingly at a map and described the morning’s projected force deployments in detail.
Yet, many of us have fled our homes, and some have lost all.
On Tuesday night, a woman who had been evacuated from her house in Peregrine sat at the bar in Springs Orleans with her husband, daughter and grandson. A TV above the bar showed burning houses in a northwestern neighborhood.
“It’s all gone, I think,” she said. “You know, when you just have a few minutes to pack things, you think of clothes, makeup, things like that, as if you’re going on a trip. But you’re not. You’re going into a new life, so forget little things — just take what’s important to you, and let the rest go.”
City Councilor Tim Leigh, reached Monday morning en route to New Mexico, initially dismissed the fire.
“There’s been very little direct cost to the city,” he said, “and I don’t think that the impact will be lasting or permanent. Once the smoke clears, I think it’ll be forgotten.”
Many of us might have said the same thing — on Monday.
But now it’s different. Things will never be the same.
Burned houses will not miraculously rise from the ashes. Our green, pine-scented mountain backdrop will not regenerate overnight. Uprooted families may never return to their neighborhoods, and lost jobs may never be recovered.
We won’t be able to measure the full effects of the fire quickly. Will tourism be affected permanently? Will Mountain Shadows and other fire-swept neighborhoods rebuild, or will owners take their insurance checks and go elsewhere? Will mountain subdivisions unaffected by the fire experience falling property values, as skittish buyers opt for safety over scenery? Will local residents and newcomers alike abandon the common dream of a mountain getaway? Will insurance companies decline to renew homeowners’ insurance for houses along the urban/wildlands interface?
Will city tax revenues take a major hit, dousing any hope of restored funding for parks and other city services? Will already-struggling small businesses be able to survive another lean year after this peak-season interruption?
Could this catastrophe have been avoided? Would tougher regulations regarding shake shingle roofs and fuel concentration saved houses? And though local, state, and federal authorities had created detailed emergency and evacuation plans that may have saved scores of lives, did governments provide them with enough resources to deal with the emergency when it came? Will voters have to choose between permanent economic decline or raising taxes?
There will be plenty of time for those debates. In the meantime, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the men and women on the front lines of this war, and we need to acknowledge the large-spirited generosity and charity of so many of our fellow citizens.
As of Tuesday, 32,000 people had to leave their homes — and most of them found places to stay with friends, friends of friends, and strangers. Social media played a crucial part in accommodating this once-unimaginable exodus, but few cities could have absorbed such disruption.
That bodes well for the future. Maybe we’ll give up our partisan quarrels, our judgmental ways, and our petty resentments. Maybe we’ll be able to let go the little things, and just take what’s important with us.
Maybe we can even live up to the vision statement that leads off Bach’s new comprehensive plan.
“With America the Beautiful as our heritage, hard work as our foundation, and western optimism as our guide, Colorado Springs will be a successful city where people love to visit, work, and live.”