High Park Fire evacuation in Poudre Canyon came as a surprise
Gary Kimsey lives in Poudre Park, 10 miles into the lower Poudre Canyon. Here's his story, and a lesson about how fast things can change.
Gary Kimsey took these pictures, top, during and after the High Park Fire's tear through Poudre Park. An infrared photo of Poudre Park taken a day after the fire, below, shows the fire's damage. The red areas, including Kimsey's home, were not burned.
Not long after the High Park Fire started in the Rist Canyon area eight miles to the south, I stepped out to the Poudre River that flows by my backyard and took a photo of the setting sun, a dramatic view awash with yellows and yellow-browns, colors coming from the mingling of sunlight with thick clouds of smoke from the fire.
That was at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 9.
I went to bed at 10 p.m. and, even though there was a raging wild fire far away, my tiny corner of the world felt safe and secure.
An hour later I was awakened by loudly clanging wind chimes outside of my bedroom window. Wind had started gusting incredibly hard.
I got up and saw lights on in the firehouse for the Poudre Canyon Volunteer Fire Department. The firehouse is across a dirt road from my place.
So I strolled over there to talk with volunteer firefighters. Among them was Mike McDonnell, a tall, friendly, community-spirited fellow who works as an EMT for Poudre Valley Hospital EMS. He also volunteers for the fire department.
Little did Mike know then, standing in front of the volunteer firehouse, that how he would spend his time the next few days was about to be dictated by the High Park Fire.
The firefighters stood in front of the firehouse staring south, where we could see a dull-yellow glow beyond the top of the mountains directly across Colorado Highway 14 a few feet away.
The firefighters said the last they'd heard the High Park Fire was still eight miles to the south in the Stratton Park area in Rist Canyon area. The plan was to evacuate Poudre Park late Sunday morning, if necessary.
At the very moment those words left their mouths, the forested crest of the mountain directly in front of us burst into flames.
Huge winds had unexpectedly carried the fire fast through the miles of forested mountains from the Rist Canyon area.
Within five minutes all of the mountains south of the highway running along the edge of Poudre Park were blazing with 100-foot walls of flames. The fire spread to mountains to the west, making it look as if the westbound highway was blocked.
At the east end of Poudre Park, a giant fist of fire reached out and grabbed the southern slope of a huge mountain named Rainbow Ridge. The heavily forested mountain has that name because its top is shaped like a rainbow and often, after a late afternoon rainstorm, there will be a beautiful rainbow spanning over the mountaintop. I've always thought it was a beautiful, serene mountain, one of my favorites.
When I was 13 years old, I climbed to the summit and hung an old white bed sheet from a tree at the highest spot. The bed sheet was donated by my grandparents who lived at Sunnyside, the name of our property, and I meant it as a signal to let them know I had made the arduous three-hour trek to the summit.
Now, on Saturday night, the blast of air in front of the fire on Rainbow Ridge was so hot that it ignited fires on tree tops every 50 yards or so, making it look like the wild fire was delightfully playing hopscotch across the mountainside. The fire spread a mile across Rainbow Ridge in less than two minutes.
The property that we call Sunnyside has been in my family since the 1920s and most of my life has been spent there. I've seen more than a dozen forest fires in the lower Poudre Canyon. But never as close up as this. It is one thing to view big flames from the far distance or on TV news, but it's completely different when blazing walls of fire tower upward on mountains directly in front of you.
The wild fire had come so fast that there hadn't been time for evacuation alerts. I went back inside my home. Patty Jackson, a close friend whom I'd known since we were 14 years old and had attended junior and high school with, had just arrived the day before for a visit. She grew up and lives in Independence, Mo., and they don't have raging wildfires there.
As calmly as possible, I told her we're leaving in less than a minute. Don't take anything but what you're wearing, I said. Now, I suspect that for a moment Patty thought I was either crazy or kidding, or both. I considered adding a quip to lighten up the situation: "Oh, by the way, welcome to Colorado."
The electricity suddenly went off and we were in complete darkness. I quickly searched for a flashlight but couldn't recall where I left it (now, there's a good lesson learned).
On the way out, we tried to find my five cats to take with us. Four were hiding -- probably under the beds, maybe in closets or under the sink or even inside a couch; these are all the favored hiding spots -- but I knew we didn't have time for an extensive search.
A black-and-white cat, Joey, was smart enough to be waiting by the front door ready to go, so I grabbed him. I hated leaving the other cats, as well as a white ring-necked dove in a large cage that doesn't fit in my vehicle. These were the beloved pets of my wife of 29 years who died in early 2011 (and I know she had loved them so much that she might come back to haunt me if anything bad happened to them), but it was clear that we had no time to search.
Optimism and locked doors
Thinking back now, I find it amazing how certain unexpected thoughts intruded on my mind in those minutes of emergency. A few days earlier I had re-read some Robert Frost poems, and some phrases from his Fire and Ice rushed in and out of my thoughts as Patty and I hurried to leave. Here's the part of the poem that came and went:
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire.
I decided on the spot that I didn't favor fire.
I yelled goodbye and good luck to the cats and bird, and shut the door behind us. At that moment, I expected that whenever I returned to Poudre Park my house would be gone and so would the pets.
Now, looking back, I remember wondering, "Should I even bother to lock the door?"
A bit of optimism crept in: I locked it.
Outside, the mountainside fires were so bright the night was lit up like a sunny noon. The air shimmered with waves of heat. Car doors slammed nearby as my neighbors began evacuating. A long, groaning roar came from the fires.
At the time, all I had on were my jammies (tattered gym shorts and severely wrinkled t-shirt). Patty was similarly dressed in night clothes. Joey was scared out of his wits; sharp claws were deep into the skin on my shoulders as we rushed to the car.
Since the river is on the north side of Poudre Park, the only escape route was east along the highway past Rainbow Ridge. The evacuation had to be done right away because the fire on Rainbow Ridge was still hopscotching, scurrying down toward the highway. Once to the highway, the fire could make escape impossible.
Within a few minutes almost all of the Poudre Park residents, about 40 people, were in their vehicles rapidly streaming out of the hamlet and passing by the fire as it burned through mountain forests on the south side of the highway. This went on for about two miles east of Poudre Park. In some spots the fire was down to the highway and, even though our car windows were up, we could feel the radiant heat.
It didn't matter that there had been no time for an official evacuation notice. Almost everyone in Poudre Park just woke up and saw what was happening.
Two guys, each in a different house in Poudre Park, slept through the early stages of the evacuation. Neighbors and volunteer firemen woke both of them. One of the gentlemen had partaken of too much brew earlier in the evening, and neighbors and volunteer firemen had to break into his house to wake him.
During the next few days, we learned that 18 volunteer firefighters from the lower and upper Poudre Canyon, including Mike McDonnell, had remained throughout the night to keep the fire from jumping the highway and spreading through Poudre Park. They were on their own. Firefighters from Poudre Fire Authority and the Forest Service were busy elsewhere.
If not for the efforts of the volunteers, I'm sure my house -- as well as two rental homes I own in Poudre Park -- would now be ashes.
The volunteers also fought a blaze in Fall's Gulch at the west end of Poudre Park. The gulch goes south from the highway and is extremely narrow, making firefighting conditions nearly impossible. There were 18 homes there. The firefighters saved all but five. The five homes were at the far end of the gulch where the fire first arrived.
An ironic twist
During the last two years one Falls Gulch resident has been the leader of a vocal anti-volunteer fire department campaign over an issue related to property taxes and the construction of a new fire house last year in Poudre Park. His house would've been burned if not for the efforts of the volunteer firefighters who saved it.
After reaching Fort Collins, I left the frazzled Joey at the small apartment of one of my adult children. Patty and I rented the last accommodations in town, at the Marriott. On Sunday afternoon, we bought new clothes since we had nothing but jammies. We remained at the Marriott for the next two nights, incorrectly thinking the evacuation would be called off and we could return to Sunnyside.
However, what one expects in life doesn't necessarily mean things will turn out that way. On the fourth day after the evacuation, it became obvious that this would be a long haul before Poudre Park residents could return home.
Liz Westers, executive administrative assistance for Kevin Unger, Poudre Valley Hospital president and CEO, had just moved into a beautiful lake-side home on south Lemay. She and her husband invited us to stay there in an outbuilding that has a comfortable living space and (what every guy dreams of) a large wide-screen TV. (By the way, I haven't told Liz yet, but I'm thinking about changing my last name to Westers so I can permanently stay at Casa de Westers, my nickname for their home. It's a grand place.)
Four days after the Poudre Park evacuation I made a temporary journey back into the lower Poudre Canyon with another long-time resident, Bill Sears. We were there to take an inventory of what structures still stood and which ones didn't.
A sheriff's deputy at the road block at Ted's Place allowed us into the canyon because Bill is board president of the Poudre Canyon Volunteer Fire Department and I'm the volunteer public information officer -- which in itself has an ironic twist. I volunteered to be the PIO just a couple of days before the Hewlett Gulch Fire in May and, so, now here's the High Park Fire -- I wonder if my offer to be PIO jinxed things.
I expected the fires to be out in the lower canyon. But they weren't. There were spots of uncontrolled fires dotting many mountains. In some areas fires were dancing along highway shoulders. Firefighting crews with eight fire trucks, including ones from the volunteer fire district, were trying to put out spot fires.
Plumes of smoke towered out of the forests. The air was dense with smoke. Visibility was only 100 yards in some places. At one point the smoke was so thick and acrid that I thought I'd suffocate.
Bill and I drove along bumpy roads into side gulches, through forests of fire-blacked pine trees, to check on this person's home and that person's cabin. Most still stood.
The fire was a trickster.
At one house, about a mile off the highway, the fire scurried through the forest and brush, and burned an upturned wheel barrel, melting the tire, and continued right toward the home. Suddenly, luckily, the fire stopped right before touching the house.
In another case, there were a Forest Service information kiosk and restroom in the lowest part of the canyon, near the Picnic Rock area. Both structures were made of wood. The rest room was burned to the ground, but the kiosk, only a few steps away, was untouched.
The first sight we encountered as we reached Poudre Park was the blackened, sooty remains of a garage. A few feet up the mountainside stood the house, untouched.
Without any residents around, Poudre Park was quiet and eerie. All homes in Poudre Park proper were saved.
I entered Sunnyside and found the cats and bird alive and well. The cats still had plenty of food and water, so I suspect -- as other cat owners can probably attest to with their own feline critters -- that they hadn't yet missed me. I evacuated the bird and felines.
I was lucky. We were lucky in Poudre Park. It was not so with other employees of Poudre Valley Hospital and Medical Center of the Rockies. Some lost their homes in Rist Canyon and elsewhere. The family of one nurse had just finished building a beautiful home in Rist. It's gone.
Certain images from my journey through the lower Poudre Canyon will always remain with me.
At my home, on the afternoon of June 9, before the fire's night-time arrival, I filled hummingbird feeders with sugared water. Poudre Park is a haven for hummingbirds because most residents there put out feeders. When I temporarily returned home four days later, one nearly empty feeder must have been the last one remaining with sugar water in Poudre Park. More than a dozen hummingbirds hovered around it, fighting to get to the last few precious drops.
Trees were blackened throughout the lower canyon. Ground was blackened. Here and there gray ash covered terrain where wild plum and chokecherry bushes once thrived.
I took a photo of a tiny cluster of yellow wildflowers standing straight and tall only a few inches from blackened earth where the fire had suddenly stopped. The symbolism of the scene is obvious, so I won't dwell on it.
But the image most engraved in my memory is from Saturday night when fire played hopscotch across Rainbow Ridge. The fire was bright gold, hot pink, brilliantly purple, intensely sun-bright, billowy.
The image will give me nightmares the rest of my life.
June 20 ... 11 days after the evacuation. Residents aren't allowed yet to return to the lower Poudre Canyon. There's no idea when we can. My friend Patty left a few days ago on a previously planned excursion to visit relatives in Steamboat Springs.
I remain at Casa de Westers. It's on a beautiful lake. There's a sandy beach just right for lollygagging around. I excel at lollygagging.
I'm thinking this afternoon will be a good time to waddle over to the courthouse for a name change so I can take up permanent residency.
Gary Kimsey Westers. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?
Whatever his last name might now be, Gary is a marketing and public relations specialist for University of Colorado Health. He has been with the organization for 20 years.
University of Colorado Health employees dedicate themselves to providing patients and other customers with world-class care and service. Outside organizations recognize that, calling University of Colorado Health's hospitals some of the best in Colorado and even the best in the nation. Some of those accolades are listed below:
University of Colorado Health Fort Collins, Colorado 970.495.7000 PVHS@pvhs.org