Waldo Canyon fire threatens author's childhood Colorado Springs home, triggering memories

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

Among the 32,000 mandatory evacuees in Colorado Springs fleeing the raging Waldo Canyon fire are the residents of 122 Buckeye Drive.

That's the house where I grew up.

By my estimation, my boyhood home is roughly 1½ miles from the leading edge of a fire that has scorched more than 15,000 acres, with no sign of being extinguished. If the conflagration keeps coming east, the four-bedroom wooden house on Buckeye Drive will almost certainly be destroyed along with the rest of the Rockrimmon, Colo., neighborhood where I was raised.

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I don't know the current owners of the house, nor do I know the vast majority of the residents of modern-day Rockrimmon. My thoughts are with those people first and foremost.

Personally, I'm just worried about my memories. I haven't lived there since graduating from college in 1987. But it is a surreal, frightening and horrifying feeling watching places from my youth on the national news, as they teeter on the brink of literally going up in flames.

[ Photos: Wildfire ravages Colorado Springs ]

The places you're seeing ablaze on TV and in photos – I've been there. Many of the happiest and most carefree times of my life were there.

The sight of fires threatening the Air Force Academy? They also threaten Air Academy High School, a public school on the AFA base. I graduated from there in 1983.

The picturesque Garden of the Gods National Park, currently closed due to the fires just outside its boundaries? I can't count how many times we went there to climb the jutting rocks or have picnics.

The destroyed Flying W Ranch? We went to shows and ate barbecue there, and friends of mine had summer jobs at the place.

The houses of Mountain Shadows that are glowing orange? That's the neighborhood next to Rockrimmon. I've been all over that burning ground.

When I was growing up there was no Mountain Shadows, just a hilly playground stretching for miles to entertain kids with bikes and BB guns and imaginations. We used to hike back into that area for the day from my house, sometimes packing hot dogs and buns. We'd have a little camp fire, cook lunch, then make absolutely sure the fire was out. Even to adolescents, it was abundantly clear what a potential tinderbox the area could be: scrub oak, deadwood, tons of trees set in a dry climate.

The entire area was a rustic, unspoiled gem when we moved there from the more blue-collar south end of town in 1972. The neighborhood was new, carved out of the foothills rising between the plains to the east and the front range of the Rocky Mountains to the west.

Dirt roads, horse ranches and a dairy farm were within walking distance. Deer were common in the neighborhood and bears not unheard of. When they opened an elementary school across the street from my house, we spent the first two years of class in trailers.

[ Related: Wildfire menaces Colorado Springs, forces 32,000 to flee ]

This was the beginning of a 1970s housing boom in Colorado Springs that would turn the place into the fastest-growing city in America for several years running. Gorgeous scenery, a low-humidity climate and the proximity to mountain activities made the Springs the hottest of properties. The population has more than doubled since I was a kid, now standing at more than 400,000, according to census data.

For many years, the main growth area was from Rockrimmon outward – both west and east. When they were paving the new roads and preparing to build the new houses in what would become Mountain Shadows, during my high school and college years, the area became our teenage hangout to drink beer and kiss girls and climb hills in a buddy's Jeep.

By the time I moved away to Louisville, Ky., Mountain Shadows had become an established neighborhood. Eventually some of the trees, ant hills and prairie dog towns were replaced by a convenience store, an apartment complex and additional schools. Suburbia moved in and shoved wilderness out.

On my frequent visits back to the Springs, my nostalgic friends and I would bore our wives and children with complaints about how overgrown the city had become, most notably all those houses that sprang up against the mountains. Mankind's avaricious intrusion detracted from the picturesque view looking west, and from the pristine mountainscape we grew up with.

Today those growth areas are on fire. I might not have liked the progress into hillside, but surely none of us wished this upon the inhabitants of those homes.

It was startling how fast this calamity came upon us – but then again, that's what wild fires do. When the names of the first affected areas starting being broadcast, they hit close to home – Manitou Springs, Woodland Park, Chipita Park.

Then came Tuesday night, when the wind-fueled fire jumped across two containment lines and landed in our backyard. Then the images became all too real and familiar, threatening the setting of a blessed, blissful and carefree childhood.

That's when the Waldo Canyon fire literally hit home.

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