Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Home. Colorado Springs, Colorado is where I live.

Prior to this year, most people in the United States didn’t have a clue who we were. Some people know this town as the home of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Others know it for the United States Air Force Academy.

All of you learned who we were when the city was literally on fire. Sometimes photography is art, sometimes it simply captures images you don’t want to forget. I methodically shot photographs throughout the event in order to record it… I majored in history in college and it was one of my two favorite subjects in high school (nerd alert, the other was math). These were my thoughts, along with some of the photos in chronological order, as I put it down the following day, June 27, 2012:

The past two days have been the kind for which you can’t find appropriate words to adequately describe what’s happened. At about three o’clock yesterday afternoon, the Waldo Canyon Fire crested the last ridge and charged toward Colorado Springs. Situated where we are, my coworkers and I had a front row seat to watch the fire race down the hill toward homes. The area had been evacuated by the police on Sunday afternoon and everyone was hopeful the fire wouldn’t breach Queens Canyon. As soon as the fire started down the hill, we knew we were screwed.

At 4:45 p.m. work stopped as we all walked over to the windows. The fire was within 200-300 yards of the homes and we couldn’t not watch. One of the managers joined us at the windows and my coworker said, “I know, we’re loitering.” She promptly responded with an, “I don’t care.” By five o’clock I was back at my desk to wrap up a few things before heading home. At 5:15 p.m., almost on the nose, the world went dark. We were suddenly engulfed in black smoke. We could see to our parking structure and the lights had come on. We couldn’t see the freeway outside our building. Black smoke means the fire has hit fuel, whereas white smoke very often represents fire that is being extinguished. As I was getting ready to walk out the door a while later, visibility was a smidge better. Cars were driving with their lights on as if they were in fog.

The sun set about 8:00 p.m. and I walked to the edge of my housing tract. Ten miles away, I could see the fire on the west side of town. I spent the evening watching the news, spellbound by the sight of the homes burning to the ground. A conservative estimate is 250 homes. All burned last night.

The fire is still only 5% contained and the authorities enlarged the mandatory evac and pre-evacuation regions today. A combination of freakish winds reminiscent of Santa Anas in SoCal, 100° F weather, and 38% of our average precipitation for the past two years created a tinderbox. I don’t think there is anyone in this town that doesn’t know someone who lost a home. 32,000 people are still displaced. 10,000 acres burned last night alone. And the fire is still going.

I started shooting pictures on Monday when I could see the plumes of smoke coming from the far side of the mountain. Unlike my travel photos, these aren’t glossy, pretty pictures. They’re down and dirty, taken from afar (although, I did sacrifice one arm that ended up covered in grease after leaning against a backhoe last night to steady my camera for 8-second time exposures (they’re as clear as I could get ’em)):

Taken from my car, on the way to work:

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Taken from inside my office after the “smoke out” lifted a smidge:

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The office across from mine and my car in the parking lot (yes, I have special parking):

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Standing outside in 40-50 MPH gusts of wind, shooting from the side of my office building… these smoke plumes rose 20,000 feet into the air:

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My drive home from work yesterday, my off ramp is approximately 8 miles from the fire and then the subsequent shot looking at Kansas with a ton of smoke:

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The time exposures from approximately 10 miles away, those are homes burning:

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This morning’s drive to work, blue skies above but no Pike’s Peak ahead… the smoke masked an entire mountain:

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My drive home this afternoon at the same off ramp… the entire mountain was still masked by smoke, but the foothill was once again visible:

Waldo Canyon FireWaldo Canyon Fire

Work yesterday and today involved sinus headaches, burning eyes, and nausea due to the amount of smoke and particulate in the air. Everything smells like a campfire… and not in a good way. I didn’t go to the gym yesterday afternoon, this morning, or this evening. The air isn’t clean and, frankly, there are more important things going on. We’re still waiting to hear if friends we’ve known pretty much all of my life lost their home. The city is attempting to contact homeowners directly to advise them of their losses rather than releasing it online or through the news. I appreciate their tact in trying to handle this as delicately as possible. It’s gentler.

It’s still pretty bad, but at least we didn’t have a repeat fire storm today. Unfortunately, temperatures are supposed to return to 100° F tomorrow after today’s reprieve. Not good. At all.

To see some heartbreaking and telling photos, you can visit two photoblogs at the Denver Post:

I have to say, though, I have become a huge fan of Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, both ladies who are the public information officers, and Incident Coordinator Rich Harvey. These ladies and gentlemen have provided information in a concise, intelligent, and no-nonsense manner. In dealing with the media, which is arguably ridiculous more often than not, they set parameters regarding questions that were appropriate now versus later and shut down anyone who tried to point fingers or take them down a rabbit trail. They have been doing a remarkable job. And my respect for the Sheriff went way up when someone was complaining about the lack of answers for the displaced evacuees and he pointed out he and his family had to evacuate as well, he’s in the same boat as the other 32,000 people forced from their homes.

I’m not upset about missing my chance at the gym. It’s okay. There are far more important things in play. Much bigger issues with more far reaching effects. That said, I’m ever so proud of the city. People have opened their homes to folks who were evacuated. Schools and churches are acting as evacuation centers to keep from putting undue pressure on the city budget and taxpayers. The authorities have requested people stop bringing food and water to the fire services because they have too much. What a wonderful problem to have, in reality! It’s awesome to see people work together instead of focusing on the everyday differences we so often dwell on.

I’m about out of words, and I still don’t think I’ve done this event justice. I hope this evening finds you well. Enjoy and appreciate it.

When I shot these pictures, I used my iPhone and a Canon point-and-shoot for most of them. I used my Canon 5D on the four night shots. As I said, they’re down and dirty… no finesse whatsoever. However, they are still startling images when you realize we could see the flames from the burning homes from ten miles away. Also, shooting photos while driving doesn’t exactly make for the best framing either! But I was bound and determined to have photos of the trauma my city endured. They are still sifting through some of the lots of the 346 homes that were burned. Many other homes suffered smoke damage. There are still displaced people who have not been able to rebuild. Others have moved away, the devastation too great and the risk still too high to return to their former neighborhoods. But it was important to me to capture whatever imagery and thoughts I could. Sometimes photographs are for artistic reasons, and sometimes to capture an event in time that is deemed significant.


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