Small Town Weathers Waldo Fire

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4min 00sec

In Colorado Springs, the search continues for a handful of people reported missing in the Waldo Canyon Fire area. About 350 homes have been destroyed, and the city is gearing up to help those fire victims. On the other side of the fire, the town of Woodland Park has spent nearly a week cut off from the Front Range and under partial evacuation. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports on how people there are coping.

The following is a transcrpt of Megan Verlee's report.

Reporter Megan Verlee: Woodland Park is one of those towns that should be bustling on a summer weekend with people coming up to escape the Front Range heat. But these days it’s nearly a ghost town. The ticking katydids are often louder than the traffic. There are few people on the streets and fewer businesses open. BierWerks brewery is one of them.

John Lavesque: I wanted to give people an outlet.

Reporter: John Lavesque manages the brewery.

Lavesque: They needed to come and talk, get things off their chest also, and it’s good therapy for me also because I’m staying busy and I’m not thinking about the fire as much as I would if I was just sitting around doing nothing.

Reporter: Lavesque isn’t just running the brewery; after his neighborhood evacuated Wednesday, he’s been living here as well, in an RV out back. Evacuations have forced a few thousand people on this side of the fire from their homes. Lavesque says no one’s enjoying the situation, but they’re coping.

Lavesque: Woodland Park is used to it. We were evacuated in the Hayman fire, everybody’s used to it, more so than Colorado Springs. So this little town sticks together.

Bartender: You guys want to keep a tab open?
Patron: Yeah, and can we do a salami and cheese platter?

Reporter: Inside the brewery, there is only one topic of conversation: the Waldo Canyon Fire. Caroline Gallo hasn’t been evacuated but wanted to get out of her home anyways, at least for a few hours. She brought her family out to get a break from fire news.

Caroline Gallo: It’s not necessary to sit in front of it and watch it and listen and monitor everything constantly, but it’s hard not to get sucked into that when you’re at home.

Reporter: Fire crews say they’re making progress on containing the western flank of the fire, the area that could threaten Woodland Park. And as control improves, everyone has one question: when is Highway 24, Woodland Park’s main link to the Front Range, going to reopen? Mayor David Turley says the highway closure has added hours to workers’ commutes and closed supply routes for local companies.

David Turley: It is not only an inconvenience, it’s a major impact to people, to businesses. But this is an extraordinary situation that we’re in.

Reporter: And so Turley is urging extraordinary patience. After touring the area Thursday, he now understands why the highway needs to stay closed.

Turley: The helicopter fighting fire on the north side of the highway, he’s dipping down into the little lake down by Chipeta Park, and when he comes up, that big hose that he’s taking water is almost dragging across the highway.

Reporter: Woodland Park residents with questions about the highway, the fire, and almost everything else have been going to nightly meetings outside an elementary school in the nearby town of Divide that’s been serving as a Red Cross Shelter. Under a high-mountain sunset, around a hundred people listen to a presentation from Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger. It's half information, half stand-up routine, including a demonstration of how crews secure a fire line.

Mike Ensminger: ...and if they see anything that looks smoky, they have these fire retardant shoes on and they go like this. It’s a one-two-slide.

Reporter: Ensminger says he’s working hard to keep his residents laughing because that keeps them patient too. And he says watching the fire blow up in Colorado Springs Tuesday night, people are more willing to give crews the time they need.

Ensminger: It was sickening, it was just heart-breaking to see what happened, and I think that was not only a reality check for me, but I think it was a reality check for the citizens here. And I think it’s, 'We want to return to our homes when we are told that it’s safe to do so.'

Reporter: Still, residents are hoping that as the weather starts to cooperate and crews make progress containing the fire, safe may not be too far away.

[Photo: CPR/MVerlee]