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These images still burn

Between the lines



Today's nonstop world, pummeling us with endless news every waking (and sleeping) moment, makes it easy to forget what happened last week — or especially two months ago.

So much else is going on, whether it's the Olympics, the latest mass murder, the election or whatever, that we don't have room in our collective brain to retain everything we should be remembering.

In Colorado Springs, that means the Waldo Canyon Fire and its aftermath. We don't see the flames anymore, we don't hear the red-flag warnings thanks to late-summer moisture and humidity, and from a distance we don't notice that charred swath on the city's northwest flank.

Perhaps more people need a reminder of the natural disaster that will remain part of our lives for years to come.

If you're among that group, as I was, here's an assignment: Get in your car and pay a visit to Mountain Shadows, where 345 homes were incinerated and many others damaged on June 26.

Don't rely on TV, newspapers or the Internet for your permanent visual memory. You must see it for yourself. If you need justification, just remember that the recovery (and its cost) will be affecting all of us in some way.

I had driven through the area several weeks ago, trying to be sensitive to residents, rarely slowing down and checking out only a portion of the burn area. Yes, the signs still say "no thru traffic" to cut down on the lookie-loos, and that's understandable. But if you truly need to see it, that shouldn't stop you.

Sunday afternoon, I took my wife there for her first time since the fire. We started on the north end, taking Flying W Ranch Road west (curving south) from the intersection of Centennial Boulevard and Vindicator Drive. We worked our way upward on some of the streets that became so well-known during the disaster: Rossmere, Wilson, Brogans Bluff. Some of the cul-de-sacs were totally barricaded, but we could still see them.

Even now, the randomness of the decimation takes your breath away. It goes to either extreme — from an unscathed house bordered on two or three sides by rubble, to a single foundation littered with ashes on a street with hardly any other damage at all. That helps you realize how fireballs could land on just one house and burn it to the ground.

Slowly, we made our way southward to Lanagan Street, which winds to a dead end just underneath the flag that's easily seen even from Garden of the Gods Road. Toward the top of Lanagan, the views to the south and east are no less than spectacular.

We saw one older couple, arm in arm, walking slowly through the remains of what appeared to be their home. They showed no emotion, probably because they expended it all, weeks ago. They waved and even smiled as we passed by, obviously not feeling that we were invading their privacy.

What we didn't see were families outside, or children playing in yards. None of that, making us wonder if many unburned homes still might be unoccupied. Or for sale — we couldn't miss the signs. Nor could we miss the sandbags along many curbs and hillsides, for the inevitable floods.

Our final stop was the worst, one I had avoided the first time. But after learning more about the Parkside subdivision, we were compelled to turn onto Majestic Drive, downhill (east) of Flying W Ranch Road.

Suddenly, you're at the epicenter, where the utter totality of destruction punches you in the gut. About 140 homes gone, not just here and there, but entire streets and cul-de-sacs wiped out. We couldn't even talk, as our car crawled through there at about 2 mph. If it doesn't bring you to tears, you're not human.

It also makes you realize, more so in person than from any media reports, that many of those who lost their homes really had no chance. It's unbelievable — miraculous, really — that hundreds more homes didn't burn. We've all heard that the firefighting effort was remarkable. When you see the outcome, and think about what could have been, you agree.

But don't take my word for it. If you have any reason to care, starting with plain old sympathy, you have to go to Mountain Shadows and see the real thing yourself.

Rest assured, you'll never forget it.

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