It was lunchtime on June 11, 2013 and I was listening to Jerri Marr speak on leadership and courage.
Jerri was Supervisor of the 3.5 million acres of Pike and San Isabel national forests and Comanche and Cimarron national grasslands in Colorado. She was also the U.S. Forest Service’s face and voice of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire public communications effort. That catastrophe caused two deaths, destroyed 347 homes and burned over 18,000 acres.
Her message was inspiring: “Life’s experiences and memories have an emotional impact. Fear is an invitation to be courageous. But we don’t have to let a crisis define us – it’s just a window to see who you are and what you’re made of. The dark side of fear is worry and the light side is courage. Crisis gives you something to overcome and strengthens character.”
She added, “Don’t wait for the big one to build muscle memory – we must train ourselves and practice responding the way we ‘plan to play’. The small crises teach us just as much as the big ones. And not having an answer to every question is not a challenge to your leadership. Saying ‘I don’t know’ will set you free! Be willing to make a decision and don’t waffle. Stand by it. Confidence is contagious and the first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive.”
I took notes and I’m glad I did, for her words would come in handy in the days ahead.
On my way home I looked north and spotted a smoke plume just west of my home. I saw flames shooting up into the sky, climbing the tinder dry trees at the edge of the forest. I remember thinking, “I hope someone has called that in – it looks evil.” It took about five minutes to reach our cabin home and not long after, I saw fire crews race down the road.
It never occurred to me the situation would grow serious. I kept thinking, “They’ll put it out. It won’t be long and they’ll have it under control.” I got on my computer and tweeted to the local news folks, “There is a fire burning in Black Forest.” They quickly responded, “We have a crew on the way to the scene.” Then I called my Mom to let her know about the fire. At this point, I’m still sitting at my desk – no big concerns – no sense of urgency. It was about 2 pm.
A friend called. He’d seen the flames and tried to drive straight over, but they’d already closed the west end of our road. So he found a way around and after arriving, explained how bad it looked. My daughter called from her job at the corner store and said, “Mom, they’re evacuating. You’d better get out!” We turned on the TV and saw the first evacuation notices.
Despite all this, I still didn’t think the fire would reach us. But just in case, I reached for an overnight suitcase and looked through my closet. Hesitation. What to take? I grabbed enough clothes to last a few days and joked about leaving my winter coats behind. My friend joked about taking my collection of plastic Smurf cartoon figures. I packed them up along with my Grandmother’s ring, a few pieces of jewelry, my silver baby rattle, the phone charger and important papers from the filing cabinet.
I looked for our homeowners insurance policy but couldn’t find it and didn’t want to take time to search. I told my son to gather things that were important to him and started to put photo albums in the trunk of the car.
At 3:04 pm I tweeted, “Lots of traffic heading out of Black Forest. #BlackForestFire. Packing up!” Then I unplugged the computer.
All this time the phone was ringing with calls from concerned friends wanting to know if we were okay. I remember talking on the cell phone and the land line at the same time trying to sound calm. I called my daughter back to find out when she was leaving the store, feeling guilty she wasn’t with me – that I didn’t have her under my “wing” in this time of urgency. She was okay. They would close the corner store once the police told them to leave. Then she’d head straight back to Colorado Springs. I made her promise to call me once she was on her way. She was just as worried about me as I was of her.
I moved through the house like in a dream – slow, steady, deliberate. I collected kitty litter and cat food. My son washed out the litter box. He grabbed one cat and I grabbed the other. Both of them started to moan and meow, which added some tension to the moment. But there was no panic. We took one last look around the house, locked the door and headed for the car. We both gaped up at the black, billowing clouds piling up over the cabin. Orange streaks tinged the base of the clouds and a blustery wind blew hot air into our faces. I hadn’t felt fear until that moment. It was about 4:30 pm. We were glad to be leaving and happy we hadn’t waited any longer.
On June 12th I tweeted, “Evacuated due to #BlackForestFire. Safe and sound. Thanks to those who have expressed concerns. Cabin might be gone.”
Our last look at the cabin just before we drove away. We never saw it again – at least, not in the same condition!