A wildfire fueled by fierce winds and high temperatures that began in Colorado's Black Forest near Colorado Springs destroyed 509 homes and burned a total of 14,280 acres.
The Black Forest Fire, which was 85 percent contained at press time, is considered the most destructive fire in Colorado history. The blaze began just a few weeks prior to the one-year-anniversary of the Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 347 homes in 2012.
The Black Forest Fire left two people dead and forced the evacuation of approximately 41,000 people. Of those evacuees, close to 200 families were members from the Black Forest Ward, High Forest Ward and Northgate Ward. Eight member homes were destroyed. However, the Black Forest Chapel survived.
Kevin Woodward, president of the Colorado Springs Colorado North Stake, said he first witnessed the fire around 1:45 p.m. on June 11 from his office window and thought, "I hope we can contain this, it hasn't even been a year since the Waldo Canyon Fire."
President Woodward quickly sent out a group text to bishops in the North Stake to check on the status of their members. He later heard from Shyrlene Brooks, North Stake Primary president and Cub Scout day camp director, who was reporting that all 150 cub scouts and 110 volunteers were accounted for and had been safely evacuated from the area. The cub scout day camp had been under way at a lodge in the Cathedral Pines area, less than one mile from the point of origin of the fire. She said everything was in place and the evacuation couldn't have been smoother or quicker for a large group of 150 boys, ages 8, 9 and 10. She said there was never a sense of panic although everyone could see the smoke billowing right near the campsite. Sister Brooks said a volunteer at the day camp quickly gave directions on how to evacuate the area.
The Black Forest is a densely wooded area where one can easily lose a sense of direction. Jared Wandell took the microphone and explained which roads to take in order to get away from the fire.
When Brother Wandell reached his home in the Black Forest his wife was already packing their belongings. She had just received the reverse 911 call from El Paso County. He said they had a pretty good plan in place to evacuate. They had a checklist that included their 72-hour kits, medication, back-up documents and other essential items. They had approximately 45 minutes to evacuate.
"Our level of concern just wasn't where it should have been," he said.
Brother Wandell said he was thinking of what he needed for two or three days but not in the mindset of his family not returning at all. He quickly shut off the power as the sheriff pulled up into his driveway telling him to leave because the fire was at the end of the block.
As he pulled out onto Black Forest Road, he said the smoke was so thick he could see only approximately 500 feet behind him in the rear view mirror.
They spent the night at a friend's house and for the next couple of days were checking the sheriff's list on the website of homes destroyed, but never saw their address. So he asked a police officer friend if he could check for him. He said, "Your house is completely gone."
Brother Wandell broke down immediately after hearing the official news. Since then, Brother Wandell and his family have been staying in a home offered to him by a member and have received meals, food and toys for the children. He also stopped by the clothing drive held on June 15 in the North Stake for all evacuees to pick up free clothing. "It's pretty humbling. I love the opportunity to serve but being on the other side is difficult for me," he said. "I'm now opening up my heart. If we didn't have a Church I don't know what we would do."
On June 14, Kate Ashby of the Colorado Springs Colorado North Stake decided to have a clothing drive for fire evacuees. Through emails, social media and other outlets, she asked for donations of used clothing, diapers and wipes for evacuees. Thousands of items poured into the Lexington Chapel, enough to fill the gymnasium with tables piled high. Overall, more than 100 evacuees showed up to collect items that they needed.
"The members here in Colorado Springs have been so charitable, generous and desirous to help in any way we can," said President Woodward. "I see that as pure religion, looking after those in their afflictions."