About a year ago, I wrote a column recounting a conversation with my brother Jim Egolf about evacuations in case of forest fire. We compared notes about my experiences being evacuated during the French Creek forest fire two months earlier in Southeastern Pennsylvania and his concerns watching the Waldo Canyon wildfires raging across town from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“It's not this fire we're worried about,' he said at the time. “It's fear of where the next one breaks out.'
Colorado was like a tinderbox because of extreme drought conditions, he said. One spark could set off fire that would consume the side of the city where he resides.
Tragically, that prescient observation is what happened last Tuesday afternoon.
A fire of unknown origin started in the Black Forest on the north side of Colorado Springs, spreading quickly to destroy 14,198 acres, 485 homes and claim two lives.
My brother and sister-in-law JoAnne evacuated their home at 5:03 p.m. Tuesday. The fire was spreading so quickly that there was not enough time to activate the reverse-911 call system in place to alert residents. Instead, they were ordered to leave immediately as sheriff's officials went through the neighborhood, flames already visible and moving quickly through the forest to the south of them.
Jim and JoAnne got out safely, took Cap the dog to a friend's, and went to a hotel, joined for meals by their son who was visiting from California and their daughter's family, who live in Aurora.
And they waited, like more than a thousand others evacuated, for word.
Meanwhile, photos and videos of the spreading fire showed a mind-numbing path of destruction — homes lit with flames, timber crackling like a bonfire, the broad expanse of Colorado's sky filled with black smoke.
At 5 p.m. Wednesday the El Paso County, Sheriff's office activated a website with a list of properties assessed as “total loss,' “partial damage' and “appears unaffected.'
Colleagues at The Denver Post city desk sent me the link by email soon after it went live. Jim and JoAnne's address on Swan Road was in the “appears unaffected' column.
Relief! I called him, interrupting a pizza dinner with his kids and three grandchildren. Emotions were running high.
But as the hours continued, he was worried. Jim and his son Jeff were spending time on the computer scanning the aerial photos posted online. They zoomed in on the location of what they believed was their home. They saw brick walls and piles of ash and rubble.
The picture conflicted with the data on the sheriff's department list, but that was not unusual, according to news reports. Much of the burned area was like a war zone, impossible to identify exact addresses of properties. As crews were able to clarify, homes originally listed untouched were being reclassified as destroyed.
I called Jim Friday night to talk about this discrepancy and found him at a practice for a softball team he coaches. A respected catcher back in the day for Boyertown Legion, Ursinus College, and the Gabelsville Owls, he decided after retiring from careers in the Air Force and at Lockheed-Martin to coach a Special Olympics team.
He had no time to talk when I called, no time to dwell on his misfortune because he was handing out team shirts for the season to his team of special needs kids. The question “why do bad things happen to good people' came to mind.
Later that night, Jim emailed to say he was pretty certain the photos were accurate, despite the list.
“It looks like after 42 years JoAnne and I are starting out with nothing again. But we have family, friends, faith and hope. The material things are not that important,' he wrote.
Early Saturday morning, I saw the list had changed overnight. His address went from green to red, as did the properties throughout his neighborhood.
When I talked to Jim that morning, he told me a humorous story about my Dad's tractor that he had hauled by trailer to Colorado from Pennsylvania some years ago. He said his son mentioned they could have tried driving it out of there to save and what a peculiar sight that would have been.
He said they were preparing to start a search for long-term rental housing and would be waiting some days before they could get back in to the Black Forest area to see if anything could be salvaged.
They're not alone. They're one of some 480 families dealing with loss in this fire, now the worst wildfire in Colorado history.
My brother makes a point of ending calls and emails on a positive note, despite everything. So I'll follow his example in this column:
This story about loss is also about strength and character. This is about faith and hope and courage, qualities my brother and sister-in-law have in abundance.
This is a story about people who coach a team of challenged children while waiting for news that they've lost everything.
Keep a good thought for them and all Colorado's fire victims as those qualities are tested in the weeks and months ahead while they work, putting their lives back together.
Nancy March is the editor of The Pottstown Mercury.