Into the Fire During Winter Break
For the past 20 years or so, my family has taken a big, fun, international trip in late January. My husband has more flexibility with his job to travel at this time, you can usually score killer travel deals, and there’s nothing like the excitement and anticipation of travel to fight off the post-holiday doldrums.
In January 2020, just before you-know-what, we escaped to the St. Regis in Puerto Rico for a week-long beach break. It was heaven. Perfect. We couldn’t wait to see where 2021 would take us.
Little did we know.
Fast forward to this past October. My husband and I had just been boosted, our 15-year-old son was fully vaccinated and things seemed brighter somehow. We thought we could finally go ahead and plan our return to international travel. Maybe an Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris swing, I thought. I started looking at airfare, train tickets and hotel options. My wise husband suggested we hold off on booking, just for a little while.
Little did we know.
As our community, country and world continue to reel from the pandemic, we were also reeling with a serious case of cabin fever. Where could we go, perhaps over Christmas, just for a safe change of scenery? To have some semblance of a winter break trip? To carve out a little piece of fun—while hanging onto the hope that we will someday return to our international travel wish-list?
We decided to pack up the car and drive out to Denver. My husband grew up there, we have dear friends we could visit, including our son’s godmother. We grabbed reservations at the fantastic Brown Palace Hotel, and even packed up our new puppy Marvel. We were all happy to be getting out of the house, out of town, and away from work.
The suite was lovely, the weather mild for the first few days, and thankfully, folks in Denver understood the public health assignment. Nearly everyone we saw had on masks, local institutions mandated their use, and thankfully the weather was nice enough to spend a good deal of time outside. All in all, despite missing a few folks due to sickness, it was a great break.
Little did we know.
On December 30, the day before we planned to drive home, we were headed toward Boulder for an outdoor lunch with friends. The wind that morning had been wicked down in Denver during my morning run, and it was especially so that afternoon on the Front Range, at times intense enough we felt our car sway. We were nearing the café where we were to meet our group when we got a phone call. It was our son’s godmother’s son, asking for help. She had just gotten an emergency evacuation notice: an incredibly-quick and growing grass fire, fueled by the bone-dry conditions and high winds, was headed toward her town. She needed to get out, now. We didn’t ask a lot of questions and didn’t think twice. We called our friends to cancel lunch, re-programmed the Google map, and headed to her home as swiftly as possible. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw as we entered her subdivision and pulled into her driveway.
For starters, the wind was unlike anything I’ve experienced. It’s important to note that I did live in south Louisiana and worked at a television station there for several years as a producer. While I’ve certainly arranged news coverage of hurricanes, I’ve never been out in one. Until January 30, 2021 that is. The winds that were rushing toward us topped 70 miles per hour, at times clocking near 100. When we got out of the car and approached our dear friend’s front door, it was the first thing we felt.
Thankfully, we had N95 surgical-grade masks on. While we had packed them for the trip because of the pandemic, they also came in handy in this situation. The amount of smoke and ash in the air was chokingly thick, and a frightening indication of just how close these flames were. I wouldn’t have wanted to breathe in any of it. The sky was dark as if a severe thunderstorm was about to drop rain, but in actuality, a firestorm was headed right for us. We left our son in the car, told him to keep his mask on and not move, unless he saw flames. He stayed behind with the puppy. I like to think they kept each other calm.
We ran out, got into our friend’s house and tried to assist—quickly—with packing. A week’s worth of clothes, medications, important documents and some jewelry got shoved into two bags. My husband and I did a quick extra scan through the house, picking out just a few photos and special mementos for her as well. We quickly packed up her car, and got on the road, where we sat, and waited, with thousands of other people desperate to get out.
It took us a full 90 minutes just to leave her subdivision, just inching forward while watching huge, billowing columns of dark, thick smoke roll ever closer to us. Police and fire vehicles tried to squeeze past the enormous traffic that jammed up the road all the way to Highway 36. We later learned many of them were going door to door in the areas in the direct fire line, urging people to get out. Some folks were honking, or trying to get ahead by jumping the curbs. I tried to quietly extend each a measure of grace. They were facing down the reality they could lose everything in an instant.
This wasn’t winter break. This was more like a zombie apocalypse movie, horribly played out in real time, and real life.
While we tried to stay calm, I thought about the irrevocable change that was about to come to this community. The residential areas around Boulder are stunning, with a front door view of the Flat Irons and easy access to the high country. The gorgeous homes were designed to complement, not complete with the sweeping mountain views. I knew our friend wouldn’t be coming home to anything she recognized, even if she was one of the fortunate ones whose home managed to survive.
About a mile out of the subdivision, emergency workers were able to open a main thoroughfare as a one-way route, which allowed many more people access to Highway 36, and they began to quickly stream out of harm’s way. It was then that we really began to move, and my fear of immediate danger lifted just a bit.
Our friend was finally able to head to her son’s apartment, and we headed back to Denver. We kept our masks clapped close to our faces until we were half-way back.
Once we got to our room, we ordered takeout, turned on the TV and watched local news the rest of the night, desperate for any word at all about the situation. Firefighters were initially stymied by the high winds, but were able to move in after the gusts died down to really focus their effort on saving homes. Throughout the evening, we learned several stores and even a hotel were all destroyed by the flames. We kept hoping the reporters would announce the cross streets of their locations, so we could get a feel for where the fire-line had traveled, but they didn’t. This only added to our anxiety. The thing that sticks with me the most was hearing the loud pops behind the reporters during their reports—likely gas stoves or other appliances exploding as they burst into flames inside individual homes.
We went to bed upset, uneasy and exhausted, mindful of the fact we needed to hit the road to head home early the next morning.
The drive home from Denver was long, and stressful. We tried to get any information possible about the situation back in Superior and the rest of the front range. But the most important thing we already knew; our friend had evacuated, safely. Now all we could do was wait for further word.
It’s both sobering and sorrowful to consider that one man lost his life, another woman at the time of my writing is still missing, and that more than a thousand homes were destroyed. It would be two more days before we learned our friend’s home was still standing.
The getaway trip we had envisioned turned into a rescue mission I’ll never forget. I’m so grateful we were where we were when we were, and were able to help our beloved friend. Days later, I continue to think about everyone affected by this terrible event, give thanks for first responders who did everything in their power to get thousands of people out of danger’s way, then fought valiantly to save homes, and lastly hope that climate change will be finally be addressed in a substantive, actionable way in our country.
Paris will be there next year.