On Fire

Brian Brown: Thoughts as I evacuate my home and watch my city burn.

The night before last, my wife and I had to evacuate our home in the face of the advancing Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs.

Over the past few days, we’d been watching the huge column of smoke coming from over the hill. In reality, it had been a few miles away, but it looked as if we’d have to leave at any moment. Whenever the high winds typical to our hilltop neighborhood blew southward, thick smoke and ash had darkened our area with their smell and suffocating denseness.

As I kept an eye on the progress of the (then) forest fire via the #waldocanyonfire Twitter feed, I couldn’t help but notice the language people were using in their grief, days before a single building was even in danger—“Our beautiful city is burning.” Colorado Springs has long prided itself on its mountain vistas, to the point of complacency. In fact, at an urban mechanics lecture last week, a sharp city official showed us a picture of the city with the mountains Photoshopped out, to challenge us to realize we didn’t really have the “beautiful city” we claimed to have—we had beautiful natural scenery and we’d put some mostly run-of-the-mill buildings next to it. Where cities that had once been our size had surged forward on the beauty and growth provided by passionate people who wanted to build something great, little effort and less creativity had gone into the building of the Springs over the past 50 years, largely because the mountain was our identity.

Now it was burning.

It was beyond strange going about my normal business. As a digital communications consultant working with nonprofits, I often drive to other parts of town. The last afternoon, just as the semi-controlled flames caught a gust of wind and exploded into the neighborhood where my wife’s parents used to live, I was sitting in a board meeting as people talked about budgets and what they’ll be doing two years from now. People were interested in the fire, but mostly in the “I’ve-got-the-latest-rumor-first” sense. It could almost have been happening in Tunisia. The conference room was ten minutes’ drive from the fire, yet worlds away.

Halfway through that evening, my wife and I decided we would have to leave soon. The fire was mostly headed away from us, but it was slowly growing in our direction as well. By 10pm or so, the neighborhood next to us was evacuating, and we realized we shouldn’t wait till morning. There was still a chance our house wouldn’t be touched, but the odds of a mandatory evacuation at 3am were good enough that we figured we’d jump the gun. I’d set up a place for us with a generous friend at the other end of town hours before (just in case), so we started packing.

I’m not sure I’ll have the words to describe our first experience as refugees, but I have to try. I still don’t know if we even will lose our house, but we had to pack as though we would never see it again.

The whole thing felt surreal, like it couldn’t really be happening. We had an hour to fill our two cars with the things we cared about most. But what were they? I looked around our beloved little home. We were renting, so it wasn’t as if the walls belonged to us, but every day of our two plus years of marriage had been spent here; every memory made. Almost nothing was irreplaceable, but collectively it was priceless.

We went about packing methodically, starting with obvious things like medications, financial records, computers (our livelihood!), a little food, and a few changes of clothes. I had a lump in my throat the entire time, and I could tell Christina did too. She is more keenly emotional than I am, and I know that for every item that had sentimental significance for me, there were five with ten times that significance for her. If I felt like breaking down, she had to be exerting superhuman energy to keep it together. I’d rarely been so grateful for the woman I married, and that’s saying something.

We’d been able to grab the necessities in our dazed state, getting by on instinct, silent prayer, and sheer willpower. But I hit an odd little moment of self-awareness when I got to the non-essentials, and I learned a few things that surprised me. I always figured I’d save a few favorite books if my house were going to burn down, but when the time came, while I wished intensely that I could save my entire library, I found that I didn’t feel the need for a specific few—even the ones covered in notes from years of rereads. In the end, I only took my Bible, my prayer book, and the two books I was currently reading: a collection of Poe’s short stories, and a one-volume collection of Jane Austen (a coincidence, I swear). Plus a copy of the latest issue of The New Atlantis that I hadn’t read yet, so there’s Adam Keiper’s feel-good moment for the day. At the end of it all, what I put in my car was more about what we’d need to keep living without a house. I found I could leave most of the rest behind as long as I got my bride out safely (although when Christina asked about the DVDs I’d just bought her for her birthday, I cracked and grabbed an armful of movies on the way out the door). It wasn’t that “the stuff” didn’t matter; it was that knowing you were going to lose most of it anyway put things in perspective. We drove away with room to spare in both our cars.

Since Christina had to drive her own car, Bach and Handel kept me company as we joined the train of refugees headed toward I-25. None of us knew if we’d see our homes again, and we knew if we did they would be surrounded by devastation where our stunning scenery had once been…so something more or less eternally beautiful—something devoted to God—provided a touch of sanity and perspective.

I don’t yet know whether we’ll get to go back to our home someday (many of our neighbors won’t, as an estimated 200+ homes have burned). I don’t yet know how or whether this will change how we live our lives in the future. As I write, Colorado Springs still needs prayer. Almost the entire west side has been evacuated. Our city is still burning.

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

4 Comments

  • June 28, 2012

    Brent Weber

    Great Post Brian. I stumbled here from HN!

    I live outside of Austin and my wife and I had to evacuate last summer because of a fire. We had about 2 hours to pack and had a very similar experience to you.

    We grabbed our kids (obviously), financial paperwork, our laptops, pictures, bibles, a few changes of clothes and the dog. We looked at all the stuff and both came to the conclusion that while inconvenient if we lost it all, it wouldn’t dramatically affect our lives.

    As we were leaving we saw our neighbors packing vans and trailers full of TV’s, beds and anything else they could. My heart hurt a little knowing they put so much stock in “stuff”. Quite literally they were willing to put their lives a little more at risk, in order to stick around a few more minutes and grab things that could be replaced at most any box store.

    They ended up getting the fire stopped a 1/4 mile from our house. I am thankful for the opportunity to realize what is really important and even more thankful we didn’t have to put that newfound knowledge into practice.

    Stay safe!

  • Brian Brown
    June 28, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Brent, thanks for sharing your experience. I noticed similar things as we were leaving as well. As I write, rain is pouring down over the fire–the first we’ve seen in weeks–and hopefully things will slow soon.

  • Hope
    June 28, 2012

    Hope

    Thanks for sharing, Brian. I think it is really healthy to be thoughtful and sharing at this time. Glad for rain!

  • […] you read my post, “On Fire,” a couple weeks ago, you know my wife and I had to flee our home in the path of the advancing […]