Beyond Texas

Tourists & residents trapped in the Colorado wildfires: The high life goes uneasily on as flames tower

Tourists & residents trapped in the Colorado wildfires: The high life goes uneasily on as flames tower

Colorado wildfire
One of the Colorado wildfires looms over tourist haven Colorado Springs.
Pikes Peak train
The wildfire has shut down tourist attractions like the Pikes Peak train. Courtesy of Colorado Scenic Rails
Broadmoor lake pool
But the pursuit of luxury goes on at high-end resorts like the famed Broadmoor.
Colorado wildfire smoke
Smoke hangs in what Colorado Springs holds most dear: Its fresh air.
Colorado wildfire
Pikes Peak train
Broadmoor lake pool
Colorado wildfire smoke

COLORADO SPRINGS — The billowing cloud of smoke is clearly visible from the lake-illusion pool at the swank $400-per-night Broadmoor resort. It's an unmistakable giant white swirl on the mountainside, stretching far into the sky.

It almost looks like a white cloud tornado, but everyone here knows the real score.

"Look grandma, the mountain is on fire," a girl who cannot be much more than nine yells from the pool.

An older woman sitting in one of the Broadmoor's heavily-cushioned blue loungers smiles. "Yes, dear. I see."

Then the woman goes back to reading her paperback novel as her granddaughter splashes around in arm floaties. An attendant comes by and asks the grandmother if she'd like a refill on her drink.

This scene from Sunday is typical of how it went for many inside the Colorado wildfire zone. Colorado Springs — and the entire state really — is a tourism hotbed and that show seemed determined to go on even as more than a dozen areas in the state burned.

 "It all happened so fast," Gary Reynolds, who is visiting with his family from California, says. "Everyone around us kept acting like the fire was no big deal and then . . ." 

The contrast was probably most noticeable in Colorado Springs, where a mysterious wildfire broke out on Saturday, causing the evacuation of Manitou Springs, the home of many tourist attractions in the area. Still, even as marquee spots such as Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak Railway and Cave of the Winds closed, few tourists seemed to take the fire dubbed the Waldo Canyon Fire all that seriously.

High-end restaurants remained packed, golf courses, spas and resort pools became even more crowded, open attractions like the U.S. Olympic Training Center saw a surge in visitors (a few clerks in the Olympic gift shop gushed about a "record" sales day when I visited Saturday) as people looked for other things to do. The vacation must go on, right?

All the while that funnel of smoke — estimated to be 22,000 feet high at one point — loomed overhead, never forgotten, but not exactly fretted over either.

Until Tuesday. Until the fire couldn't be ignored. Until it jumped firefighters' perimeter lines in the hills overlooking the city and destroyed homes. Until it exhibited what officials here termed, "extreme fire behavior."

Suddenly, the evacuations jumped up to 32,000 displaced people — up from 6,000 on Saturday, the first day of the fire, and 11,000 as late as Monday.

Many of these people ended up looking for rooms at local resorts and hotels.

So you have tourists lamenting missing out on seeing the sights they came for eating dinner next to people who are worried about losing their homes. It left many visitors wondering if they shouldn't cut short their long-planned vacations and free up some rooms — even as officials insist that the state is "still open" for tourism and emphasize all the things to do that are unaffected by the wildfires.

Tourists who waited too long in Colorado Springs may have their decision made for them. Interstate 25 South — a main artery to the region — was shut down for a while on Tuesday. When it reopened, cars flooded it in scenes of gridlock straight out of a disaster movie, with ash falling on the highway and several gas stations shutting down.

"It all happened so fast," Gary Reynolds, who is visiting with his family from California, says. "Everyone around us kept acting like the fire was no big deal and then . . . everyone decided they needed to leave now.

"It's crazy. I was playing golf yesterday and my wife's crying today because she's worried we're caught in this thing."

When the Air Force is evacuating, people tend to get a little freaked. And that's the scene now with the Air Force Academy ordering thousands of its residents to get out. Scenes of fire above the Air Force Academy's football stadium fill local TV broadcasts.

A San Francisco-worthy "fog" settles over roads. Only, it's smoke.

A town that prides itself on its fresh air, suddenly has little.

The Displaced

Unsure tourists and shocked locals sometimes find themselves sitting around the same campfire. Or at least, a gas-powered resort facsimile of one.

That was the situation at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort on a recent night. The family-friendly place fired up its usual nighttime, kids' delight, marshmallow roasting, fire pit on its open air rooftop patio as the wildfire burned on the horizon.

 When the Air Force is evacuating, people tend to get a little freaked. 

People forced to leave their homes in mandatory evacuations sat around in rocking chairs next to families from places as far away as Detroit and Boston enjoying their first trips to Colorado. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper talks about how "surreal" the Colorado Springs fire almost seems, how it all looks like something from "a movie set." But the real surreal comes in these scenes of awkward ordinariness.

Kids from both groups — the fire-displaced and the tourists — run around, roasting marshmallows from the resort's $8 s'mores kits. Thankfully, that white billowing smoke funnel is not visible from the high patio's particular angle.

Not that some of the fire evacuees would mind.

"I liked watching families on vacation," local Walter Henderson says. "It reminds me of why my wife and I moved here all those years ago."

Henderson — a Louisiana transplant — hasn't lost his sense of humor either. When he finds out that the vacationing reporter next to him is from Texas, he notes how many wildfires our state went through of its own last summer.

Then he cracks, "And Colorado under a wildfire still isn't as hot as Houston on any old summer day."

Henderson's wife gives him a stern look from another rocking chair as a kid overcooks a marshmallow, making its already-blackened form puff into an orange flame and then completely disappear.

All the humor in the world won't guarantee your home will be spared. Or ensure anything close to same view in your dream spot with all the charred forest left in this wildfire's path. Insurance doesn't cover that.

The Show?

People in Colorado Springs have been warned of the possibility of a fire like this for years and years. The warnings were so frequent and unrealized that many dismissed them or assumed it would never happen.

Even when wildfires broke out in other parts of Colorado, the Waldo Canyon Fire caught many by surprise. It started so suddenly, spread so rapidly, made the turn into a towering monster with such ferocity. And everyone in the city below — both tourists and locals — watched the smoke unfold.

A ll the while that funnel of smoke — estimated to be 22,000 feet high at one point — loomed overhead, never forgotten, but not exactly fretted over either. 

"This is a day we've long dreaded would come," Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach says.

To their credit, many local TV stations went to near 24-7 coverage of the wildfire on Saturday, when few but the firefighters who knew what they were facing took it that seriously. One can argue the constant coverage brings the reality closer to home, but it also adds to the sense that it's a spectacle.

"The fire's just something else for the tourists to gawk at," one local grouses at Panera Bread. "Garden of Gods is closed . . . let's look up at the fire!"

People did adjust with hardly a second thought. Then again, everyone wanted to think it was no big deal. Everyone was told it'd never get that close.

Until the fire demanded everyone's attention. Now no one seems quite sure where to go.