Like newborns, wildfires are named before their accomplishments unfold. Thus the inferno that is consuming parts of western Colorado Springs will forever be known as the Waldo Canyon Fire.
That label alone was enough to grab my attention a few days ago, because Waldo Canyon’s seven-mile loop trail is where Laura and I fell in love with hiking. When we decided to spend every Saturday of the summer of 2006 walking our world, we inaugurated the campaign there. I vividly remember taking the first steps up a wooden stairway at the trailhead.
We’ve never stopped walking, and someday I hope we’ll return to where we got our start. But it won’t be the same.
The Waldo Canyon Fire won’t be remembered for devastating a premier hiking trail — it’s already gone too far for that. First it shot a fiery finger to the northwest, threatening small communities. On Tuesday, it exploded southeastward toward the city that sits 6,035 feet high, beneath 14,114-foot-high Pikes Peak.
My former colleagues who still work at the Colorado Springs Gazette are reporting on and photographing a disaster that could reach epic proportions. I can’t stop checking their Facebook postings.
“I’m about to end the longest night of my journalism career and head to a friend’s house to reunite with my evacuated family,” posted reporter and weekend editor Tom Roeder on Wednesday morning. “God, I hope today is a better day.”
Tom was my military reporter at the Gazette. He’s put in long stints embedded with Fort Carson troops in Iraq. When Laura and I were stranded atop Pikes Peak on our last hike in the summer of ’06, he came to our rescue.
“This will probably go down as the worst day in Colorado Springs history,” posted photographer Jerilee Bennett late Tuesday. “What a horrible scene today to watch so many people’s homes burn. Too sad for any more words.”
Jerilee took my stepdaughter Melissa’s senior pictures in 2006. When Laura and I moved to the coast in 2008, Melissa stayed behind with her husband-to-be. Now they have a 1-year-old son and a cat and a puppy ... and a home in western Springs. Tuesday night, they were packing up their indispensable stuff, even though the front lines of this war were still several miles away.
That this area is especially prone to wildfires is an understatement. Officials have long feared a nightmare scenario in which flames would race down the foothills and into the developed but oh-so-dry flatlands where hundreds of thousands of people live and work.
Suburbia is at risk here, not fancy homes built high in the wooded hills — those places are already burning.
Colorado Springs had its hottest day in recorded history this week, and there was little relief in the forecast — dry, warm, windy.
Maybe the nightmare scenario won’t unfold. Maybe the firefighters attacking the enemy from the ground and the air will prevail. God knows they’re trying.
What we do know is that disasters are occurring in Colorado, and one of them is named Waldo Canyon.
Back in our Rocky Mountain days, Laura and I hiked its trail several times because of the diversity of experiences contained in a single trek: Numerous crossings of gurgling mountain streams, a climb into hill country reminiscent of “The Sound of Music,” grand views of Pikes Peak clad in white snow or sometimes bare gray, and finally a descent into the kind of red-rock fairyland that Colorado specializes in.
Thankfully, I can’t imagine what it looks like now.