Hundreds find refuge at CMC

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Red Cross volunteers worked with employees and students at Colorado Mountain College to turn the mostly empty Spring Valley campus into a home for hundreds fleeing the fire that threatened Glenwood Springs over the weekend.

Nearly 130 people found refuge at the campus on Saturday, and more than 500 were expected to stay in dorm rooms or on cots in the gymnasium last night, according to a Red Cross spokeswoman.

Most of the evacuees came from subdivisions located in West Glenwood, on the north side of the Colorado River. By late Saturday afternoon, the fast-moving Coal Seam fire was marching toward West Glenwood at an alarming pace. Interstate 70 was closed, and evacuations began shortly after 5 p.m.

The evacuation order was extended to homes and hotels located in the old section of town on the north side of the river, including the historic Hotel Colorado, starting at about 1 a.m. Sunday. In all, some 3,000 people were required to leave the area.

Denver resident Mark Dunning said he was awoke by police officers at the Hotel Colorado right around 1 a.m. They told him to gather up his belongings and come downstairs to the waiting bus that would take him up to the college.

“You could see the fire quite easily,” Dunning said. “It was burning on the hillside behind the hotel.”

Dunning said the evacuation went smoothly. “Everyone had a pretty good handle of what to do, so there wasn’t any sense of panic or disorder,” he said.

A Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus took Dunning and other hotel guests to CMC, where he was given a pillow, blanket, linens and a towel and assigned a room in the dorms. He said it was about two hours between the time police officers rapped on his door in the hotel and the time he bedded down in the dorms.

Frances Ralff, a 74-year-old resident of the Vista Heights neighborhood in West Glenwood, said the hardest part about the evacuation was the uncertainty about her property.

“You don’t know how it’s going to end,” she said.

She said she heard the call to flee about 5 p.m. Saturday. She grabbed a quilt made by her aunt and all the pictures she could before relocating first to the Red Cross shelter at Glenwood Springs High School.

By 7 p.m., she and her husband, Rudy, and scores of others were forced to relocate from the high school in town to the college campus several miles away.

“We were told to evacuate from here,” explained a Red Cross volunteer, who was at the high school when the fire climbed over a ridge of Red Mountain and began descending toward the neighborhoods on the south side of the river.

He and other volunteers were back in the high school Sunday morning, after the danger subsided, and the Red Cross continued to use the building as an information center.

Not everyone heeded the call to leave, however. A small number of residents living in the Oasis Creek subdivision, north and east of the golf course in West Glenwood Springs, remained behind.

Dave Alvarez, a resident of Oasis Creek, said he thought the call for evacuation was premature. “I never felt threatened,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday afternoon.

He said the most severe burning occurred on Red Mountain, across the Colorado River, and on Storm King Mountain to the west.

Alvarez said his house is located on a west-facing slope that had little of the dry timber and scrub oak that combined with warm temperatures and high winds to create an uncontrollable inferno that could be seen from his deck.

Alvarez said he was also reluctant to evacuate with his large hunting dogs. He has ended up watching his neighbors’ dogs, as well. He said he has seen a few of his neighbors in Oasis Creek who are also defying the evacuation order.

On Sunday afternoon, Alvarez said the winds continued to rip at extremely high speeds. The winds were so tricky that firefighters had to suspend the air attack early Sunday afternoon, shortly before Alvarez spoke with The Aspen Times.

He also said smoke continued to fill the air around his home, although it wasn’t so thick that he couldn’t see the mall, the bus barn and the Glenwood Springs Community Center.

Alvarez’s wife, Lois, and their 10-year-old daughter, Emily, spent Saturday night in the CMC gymnasium. Emily, who celebrated her 10th birthday in the community center Saturday afternoon, said the fire scared her. But her dad advised her to remain calm while her mother was busy packing photos and other irreplaceables.

“I would rather come up here and volunteer to help out than walk around the house and be nervous,” Lois Alvarez said.

She said she was hoping to help prepare meals for the firefighters. Early Sunday afternoon, cooks at the college and local restaurants were scrambling to put together more than 400 meals for the firefighters, said Lisa Doak, CMC’s assistant dean for student services.

Several of the college’s programs due to start this week have been postponed, including the Upward Bound program for local high schoolers who are going to college, and the Colorado Mountain Cup, an adult soccer tournament.

Doak said some of the students who have remained on campus for the summer to help run the dorms were instrumental in preparing for the onslaught. “Most of them have been up for more than 24 hours helping out,” she said.

Food for evacuees and firefighters has been donated by local supermarkets and restaurants. A fire relief fund has been started at Alpine Bank. The Red Cross is working with local pharmacies to get people any necessary medications.

The fire has mobilized scores of Red Cross volunteers from around the Western Slope, including Jean Browning, who drove from Grand Junction late Saturday night to assist with the effort.

Browning said that as she approached Glenwood on I-70 through South Canyon, where the fire started, she noticed that the wooden posts that hold up the guard rail on the side of the highway were burning.

“If you stayed in your car and kept moving, you were fine,” she said.


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