By Mike Rosso
July 10 was a crystal clear, blue sky, Colorado day when my friend Julia and I decided to take a hike on the Colorado Trail up on Monarch Pass.
That same day, the temperature recorded at Denver International Airport hit 101 degrees, setting a record high for that date. But we were very contented with the comfortable 80 degrees the mountains afforded us. The forest floor was lush with flowers and undergrowth. Fooses Creek was running clear, cool and bright. You couldn’t really ask for a nicer day.
Then we headed home.
Turning east on U.S. Highway 50 in Poncha Springs, we both noticed it at the same time – an enormous plume of smoke rising up from down the canyon, frightfully close to her home in Coaldale.
After that moment, everything changed for the next week. Without hesitation, she raced home to assess the situation and gather up her kitties and any valuables she deemed necessary for flight from her home. I arrived shortly after, driving directly into the path of an enormous blaze, though acrid, blueish smoke, with an underlying sense of dread.
Given the circumstances, Julia was remarkably calm as she went through her house, assessing the worth of twenty years of accumulated possessions. From her property, west of the fire, it was difficult to pinpoint its location due to the large amount of smoke, but that itself was reason enough to take precautions. I asked if we could then head to the Coaldale Community Schoolhouse where we might better access the situation, and she agreed.
When we arrived, there were already first responders on the scene from the Coaldale Fire Department and the U.S.F.S. It was a very eerie scene: the smoke was somehow jumping over our location and settling in the river valley, providing us a bubble of relatively clear air.
We watched as a stream of evacuees towing campers came down Hayden Pass, fleeing the blaze. Cutty’s, a very popular campground, was directly in the path of the fire and authorities wasted no time getting them out of there.
Realizing I was the only member of the media on the scene, I began shooting photos and talking to emergency personnel. Julia had mentioned to me a few days earlier that she had run into several firefighters at that very location looking for a reported possible fire up Hayden Pass. They had spotted nothing for several days, then the fire blew up.
The following week, the alert went out, and the Hayden Pass Fire became the highest priority fire in the nation. Hundreds of firefighters and support vehicles set up makeshift camps at Salida High School and at the U.S.F.S. campus east of town. With their hard work, and a little help from the weather in the form of cooler temperatures and some rain, the fire is now at fifty five percent containment.
When an event of this magnitude occurs so close to home, my journalistic instincts kick into high gear and most everything else takes a back seat – the result being this special issue of the magazine.
Julia is safe and back home with her critters, as are many of our friends, but events such as this serve to remind us of the risks of mountain living and the power of nature to impact our lives at a moment’s notice.