From Flags to Fires
Caption: CarrieAnn with her No Barriers flag on the first day she moved into her cabin in 2016.
Dark water terrifies me. Why would I agree to an expedition white-water rafting down the Grand Canyon with a bunch of Veterans? It was time I faced my fears and moved forward in life. I was stuck in a life I never wanted. I had everything, or so I thought. Each day as we got in the rafts, I cried and shook out of fear. It was challenging to face those hard questions no one wants to answer. There was no leaving if you didn’t want to participate. Everyone just waited patiently as there was nowhere else to go. There was no hiding in the ten days we had together. This was my rope team. We were in it together.
It was one of our final days at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. We grabbed our dirt covered No Barriers flag and a permanent marker. Our expedition leaders told us to find a spot and reflect on our future. “Write words down that you want to define who you want to be. Define your future.” I gazed up at the layered wall of rock and decided. Mountains, strength, and peace. My rope team was filled with Veterans who pushed me to the limit. The flames from the campfire reflected back on our faces that night and they called on me. Head down and eyes filled with tears, I responded. It was a paradigm shift like no other.
The final days of the expedition were hard. Decisions had to be made for the future. I grieved the life I had and what I thought I wanted. Watching what I thought were my dreams floated down the river I was terrified of. The dark raging water took away my fears of failure. I couldn’t control the rapids no matter how hard I paddled. You had to go with it and the river made the decision for you. Letting go was hard.
When I arrived home, I didn’t engage with anyone for days. I ended a toxic relationship that I should have never entered in. My principal got notice that I was not going to return the following year. Within a month, I put my house on the market and got a full price offer within 24 hours. It was happening. My Colorado teaching license arrived. It was time. I got rid of more than half of my belongings. So much so, that other teachers became concerned and contacted the principal. She thanked them and chuckled. “Nah, she’s just starting on with her new life.”
That summer, I found my Colorado cabin in the woods with wifi. It was truly everything I ever wanted. The first thing I did was hang my tattered No Barriers flag in my home. I wanted the reminder of everything I had to do to get here. Sacrificing jobs, ending relationships, losing friends, and upsetting family were all a part of my journey. Most people judged me on running away from my problems. I always reminded them and myself that I wasn’t running away but towards something new.
It was a new beginning and I was finally starting to live. Mountains, strength, peace.
Caption: CarrieAnn’s husband, Walter, sent her the photo of when the fire started October 14, 2020 at 4:00pm.
We were currently living in the middle of three fires and did not think much of it. Wildfires have become a part of life in Colorado, at least this year. Then, the East Troublesome Fire started on Wednesday, October 14, 2020, just north of a town called Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado. We were watching it closely. It was moving straight towards us. By Friday, two days later, we received a pre-evacuation notice at 4:30pm. The fire was almost at 6k acres. It was getting real.
The next day we started gathering important items that could not be easily replaced. We took our mountain bikes and skis to a storage unit as far south as we could. I looked around the house Sunday and collected up trinkets from my duty stations overseas. The fire was growing but still on the other side of a two-lane highway in treacherous terrain. On Monday, the fire was at 12k acres, we packed more memorabilia. Tuesday was reserved for packing clothes. The fire raged to 15k acres. I started to think I should pack my one of a kind German grandfather clock Wednesday. That morning, the fire exploded to 19k acres. We never made it to Wednesday night.
We knew the fire jumped the two-lane highway that was holding it back. It was 3:30pm on the 21st of October, a Wednesday. Nervous texts started working their way through the school. Screenshots of the fire map and social media posts increased rapidly. We knew once the fire jumped, it would be hard to contain in the Rockies.
Caption: Text messages between CarrieAnn and a co-worker on October 21, 2020.
The daily fire briefing at 5:30pm never even mentioned how big and fast the fire was growing. It is like no one knew as I was in my windowless classroom conducting virtual parent conferences. My heart sank when I finished and left the school at 6:30pm. The sky was engulfed with rolling smoke and I could see orange flames coming over the ridge. Tears filled my eyes and devastation filled my mind. There was only one road in and out of where I lived. I.had.to.get.home.
Caption: The view CarrieAnn saw as she was leaving the school on October 21, 2020 at 6:30pm.
I sped out of the parking lot and up north on the two-lane highway towards the house. I called people frantically warning them of what was coming. A wall of fire was headed directly for us. Property to the north of us were not in any kind of pre-evacuation areas. Several of my friends were not prepared. Calls continued: My neighbor with her children and pets, my co-worker and friend, my husband that we were leaving even though they haven’t told us yet, my boss because I would be sleeping back at the high school that night. Texting fellow teachers to the north of me, “Leave now.”
The wall of flames was coming at a rapid pace towards the highway. The ridge was lined with fire as thousands were in the path of destruction. Everyone driving north was headed right towards the destruction. We were all speeding trying to save what we could; livestock, elderly, people escaping on foot, those trapped on roads behind downed trees, unaware vacationers in rental homes. Fire trucks and first responders were everywhere setting up roadblocks along the highway. They were one road down from mine and already not letting people in, understandably. I did not have much time before they reached our road.
I arrived home at 6:47pm. When I walked in, I told my husband, “When you see it, you will understand.” He had a bit of hesitation, then nodded his head and continued loading up the vehicles. We grabbed arms full of clothes off the rack. Oil paintings thrown in the truck. I put a box in the middle of my bathroom and dumped what I could in the box. We grabbed the American flag hanging on the porch. There was no way to get everything or what we had intended to pack. 6:57pm was the official evacuation notice. We were gone by the time the sheriff came knocking door-to-door.
Caption: Camera footage of Sheriff department personnel knocking on CarrieAnn’s door during evacuations.
We said our goodbyes to the house. We said goodbye to the cabin that meant everything to my current existence. I had achieved my dream of mountains, strength, and peace. I thanked the cabin for giving me a new life. I thanked the items that gave me such great memories. I apologized to items I couldn’t bring with us. My husband and I embraced and gave one last kiss to each other.
There was one last thing I needed to get. My “No Barriers” flags hang prominently in the cabin, etched with words in a black sharpie, covered in dirt from the Grand Canyon. Mountains, strength, and peace became my mantra. I even got a new flag and embroidered those three words on it so I could focus on the future. I couldn’t leave without my flags. It was the whole reason I was in Colorado. My home was in the path of the fire and was sure to burn at the current acceleration rate. I couldn’t let them burn. My No Barriers flags meant more to me than anything else in the cabin. The flags were a reminder of what it took for me to get where I am now. This flag was my future. I quickly shoved the flags in my pocket and got ready to drive back through an apocalyptic scene.
The ridges along the highway were lined with even bigger flames. The fire was growing at a rate of 6k acres per hour which is equivalent to 80 football fields per minute. We rallied with all our friends at the high school and we watched our community burn. We were safe and it would become the beginning to a long road of healing.
By morning, the fire grew over 100k acres in less than 24 hours. The next couple of days it grew to 188k acres within the next week and jumped the Continental Divide towards Estes Park. East Troublesome Fire became the second largest fire in Colorado history. It got within 10 miles of joining the largest fire in Colorado that was still burning, Cameron Peak Fire. As I write this article, the fire is still active having reached 193,812k acres with 60% containment. Yesterday, all evacuation and pre-evacuation orders were lifted as snow continued to fall in the valley.
We are continuing to heal.
For more pictures and videos of the fire, visit CarrieAnn’s Twitter @carrieannfain. You can follow her journey as the community heals from this tragic event.
Caption: Map of East Troublesome Fire as of November 4, 2020.
Caption: CarrieAnn’s cabin five days after the fire. Contractors checking pipes and turning on heat sent her this picture.
December 2, 2020