Olympic Committee staffers in Omaha sweat out huge fires in their hometown Colorado Springs

Pat Forde

OMAHA, Neb. – Bob Condron sits in the media work room at the Olympic Swim Trials with his eyes darting between his laptop and the iPhone in his right hand.

On both screens are news feeds from back home in Colorado Springs. He's trying to figure out whether his house is going to burn to the ground today.

"It's totally heartbreaking," said Condron, a 28-year resident of Colorado Springs who worked for decades with the U.S. Olympic Committee and now is a consultant for USA Swimming. "The area I drive through on the way home is burned. The fire is parking across the street from my house."

It's that close for Condron. Centennial Boulevard is part of the containment line established by authorities attempting to control the devastating wildfire west of the city. His Rockrimmon neighborhood starts on the east side of Centennial.

If that containment line doesn't hold?

"For four or five miles, it's nothing but trees, houses, schools and churches from there to the Interstate," Condron said.

This is the unsettling backdrop USA Swimming is dealing with in Omaha: trying to run its biggest meet of the quadrennium – more than 1,800 swimmers competing for a week to earn Olympic bids – while simultaneously wondering what there will be to go home to.

 [ How to help: Donation links for the Colorado wildfires ]

"We're so fixated on this event," said USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus. "But the things you're really worried about are back home in Colorado Springs. We're concerned, helpless, but committed to the event.

"You watch the news about hurricanes in Florida, and hurricanes aren't in our kitchen. These fires are in our kitchen."

USOC and USA Swimming headquarters are out of harm's way for now, located closer to downtown. Wielgus said there is smoke in the air at the USOC offices – but if the fires get that far, the entire city will be lost.

The million-dollar view from downtown, toward Pikes Peak and the majestic mountains, is nothing but fire and smoke now.

"Apocalyptic," was the description USOC CEO Scott Blackmun gave Wielgus on Tuesday.

The residential areas tucked into the picturesque foothills are where the fires blaze, which means this calamity literally hits home with workers here. Fueled by ferocious, fickle winds and high temperatures, the fires jumped containment lines Tuesday and truly threatened Colorado Springs.

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When that happened, Wielgus told his staff: If you need to go home or want to go home to tend to family and property, we'll send you home. Three staffers left Wednesday morning. Others are plugging the gaps left by their absence, and the USOC office in the Springs has offered to send replacement personnel.

Condron considered going home, but it was useless. His neighborhood already had been evacuated. His wife, Lynnette, was given 30 minutes to grab essential belongings and stuff whatever was possible in her car, and that was it.

"She got the cat, income tax papers, wills," Condron said. "What she didn't get was all the pictures of family, my fly rods, a collection of 5,000 Olympic pins, letters.

"You almost have to be prepared to kiss them goodbye and start over. You're just helpless. Nobody's lost their lives, and that's the most important thing. But you could lose your history, damn near your memories."

That's why Condron slept fitfully Tuesday night, with his iPhone right next to his head. He's lived in that house since 1983, ever since he moved to Colorado Springs to start working at the USOC.

Part of the allure of living there was the proximity to Colorado's spectacular front range of the Rocky Mountains – the scenery and the wildlife. Condron has more than four acres of land and sees deer on a daily basis. Foxes, owls and eagles are regular visitors. He had a bear in his garage last week.

And there are the trees. Soaring, 70-foot pines, plus spruce and fir.

"Trees are why you live there," Condron said. "Without those, you might as well move to Kansas."

Now those trees could be the kindling that helps destroy his house. He saw the TV footage of Mountain Shadows, the adjacent neighborhood, ablaze.

All he can do is watch and wonder whether his neighborhood is next.

"At a time like this," he said dryly, "you can't really concentrate on the breaststroke."

More coverage of the Colorado wildfires:
'Monster' wildfire rages in Colorado
Readers' photos from the fires
Fire rages near Air Force's football stadium

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