Communities come together to support those who lost much during wildfires
July 11, 2012
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Members of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command come together to support each other, as well as their communities, during the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.
During the fires, more than 30,000 people have been evacuated in the High Park and Waldo Canyon communities near Colorado Springs, Colo. While the federal government has provided firefighters, fire engines and aircraft to assist in fighting the fires in Colorado and other Western states, members of USASMDC/ARSTRAT gear up to support their community as well as three SMDC families who have lost their homes.
"This tragedy touched us both personally and professionally," said Brig. Gen. Timothy R. Coffin, SMDC deputy commander for operations. "It is difficult to express the feeling of devastation we all felt last Tuesday night as we realized this fire had moved into the populated areas of our community. Many of us were uncertain about our own safety as well as those of our friends, co-workers and neighbors.
"We were heartbroken to discover several members of the command lost homes and properties," he continued. "There were also many of our families who were part of the more than 32,000 evacuated from their homes as firefighters risked their lives to bring the fire under containment. The majority of our command family, however, was touched by the disaster by their own generosity in helping others. Everywhere you went, not just in this command, but throughout the military and civilian community here, you heard people telling of their experiences either volunteering in the community or opening their doors to displaced friends and neighbors."
The general reiterated that these are the neighborhoods and homes that our Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Canadian forces partners are a part of and they are impacted by this event.
"It makes me tremendously proud: In the midst of this personal uncertainty, the command came together to provide necessary support to the community," Coffin said. "In addition to the Friendly Force Tracking capability from our Mission Management Center to U.S. Northern Command/NORAD, we continue to stand ready to provide whatever additional resources are necessary to our civilian and military partners.
"This week we are extremely proud to hear and relieved that more and more of the evacuees are returning to their homes," he added. "We know that it will take weeks and months to recover as best they can from the losses, and we want them to know that we are here to assist. Whether that be assistance in discarding a partially burned fence, helping to find family treasures in the rubble, bringing a home-cooked meal, or just giving a word of comfort."
As the military community has come together in support of the thousands of people who have been impacted, they have pledged to support the National Interagency Firefighting Center, the primary federal agency, efforts to protect neighbors, local installations, and critical assets, equipment and people.
Since being activated, Modular Airborne FireFighting System aircraft operations have conducted approximately 50 air drops on the Waldo Canyon fire with approximately 133,000 gallons of retardant.
"Personnel in my immediate office were not directly affected by the fire, but many people that I know personally within this command were evacuated as a result of the fire and unfortunately at least one member of this command actually lost their home," said Kevin R. Janes, a force development analyst with SMDC's Colorado Springs G-37 Force Management Office and a volunteer firefighter. "Those whose homes are in close proximity to the burn area may have been spared total destruction, but many have heat damage, smoke damage, water damage or a combination of all three. In the outskirts of El Paso County, residents experienced significant breathing issues due to the smoke in the air as a result of the fires.
"I have not personally seen a wildland fire this big, ever," Janes added. "From June 26 through June 30, I spent approximately 70 hours on duty at our local station in Falcon (after my normal duty hours at SMDC). I did not actually fight the Waldo Canyon fire, but I and other volunteers provided additional staffing to our department, which in turn enabled our department to send apparatus and personnel forward, and they actively provided fire suppression and wild land mitigation measures. Even though there were more than 1,000 firefighters deployed to fight the Waldo Canyon fire, day to day operations still had to continue at the 20 stations in Colorado Springs and the numerous cities and towns throughout the county. On June 30, I was able to assist with the patrolling of the cedar heights residential area, where we monitored for hot spots and assisted families as they returned from the evacuation."
Janes talked about how it feels to be able to help support his fellow co-workers, as well as his community by being a volunteer firefighter.
"Being a Soldier and being an Army civilian is all about service. The fire service is that way also, in that we take care of each other," Janes said. "One minute we are providing service to another, and who knows when the moment will come in which we might need service or assistance in return. It's very rewarding and satisfying to know that, despite differences in personal preferences or beliefs, when the need arises, we are there for each other. For me personally, I loved my career as a Soldier, and I saw that as direct service to my country, whereas now, as a volunteer firefighter, I am fortunate to provide direct service to my community."
Janes took a moment and said that although he hasn't learned anything new about preparedness, this fire and the devastation has reinforced that it's never too soon to prepare. He said food storage, record keeping, first aid supplies, cash and a 72-hour kit are all things that we as individuals must take care of now, and ensure that our family members do likewise.
Janes then discussed the ongoing efforts and what those firefighters placing themselves into harm's way are facing.
"First of all, every firefighter that I have talked to has considered it an honor to serve, regardless of their capacity (front lines, incident command and incident support)," Janes said. "The fire service community continues to aggressively fight this fire and will continue to do so until the fire is 100 percent contained. As we get closer to 100 percent containment, the number of personnel at the fire may be reduced, but as long as there is fire on the ground, the firefighter presence will be appropriate for the associated threat. We as a fire service are grateful for the outpouring of support, by way of water, food, medical supplies, socks, etc. That allowed us to focus on the tasks at hand.
"Finally, as the fire is contained, the work and the service will continue," he added. "Those who suffered losses as a result of this fire will require unconditional support for a considerable time into the future.
With firefighters still battling numerous blazes, people from around the country continue to donate in support of those in need.
The Fort Carson Gifts and Donations Office has received many donated items for military families who have been evacuated from their homes and have sought shelter with friends, family or in hotels. Families who have been evacuated from their homes can stop by The Hub, building 1532, on the corner of Specker Avenue and Prussman Boulevard to pick up needed toiletries, snacks, water, baby supplies and items for their pets.
The Donation office is open 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information call (719) 526-8747/8749.
As the Colorado Springs community comes together to take care of their own, members of the SMDC team come to terms with the tragedy of losing their homes.
"I was very touched by the outpouring of support from the SMDC community," said Diane M. Paton, Plans and Programs Division chief of SMDC's Colorado Spring's G-6 office, who lost her home during the wildfires. "The G-6, Col. Benny J. Pokemire II, and Brig. Gen. Coffin were completely caring, understanding and supportive, as was the Chief of Staff, Col. James H. Jenkins III. They all reached out to me personally and ensured I would get the support I needed to get through this devastating event. Many of my colleagues brought gift cards and words of sympathy that warmed my heart immensely.
"The Colorado Springs community was also remarkably supportive," she added. "Friends, acquaintances and even strangers offered assistance, heartfelt words of love and concern, and often a place to live. When we were given one morning to visit our neighborhood, firemen helped me dig in the rubble for any piece of my former world. They brought me sunscreen and a city policeman brought me a bottle of water. My eyes well up now just recalling it."
Paton lived with her daughter Kitty, who turned 15 just two days after they lost their home, along with their large dog and cat and said the news of the oncoming wildfires was definitely scary.
"When the fire roared toward my street, Majestic Drive in Mount Shadows, the reports of an unstoppable wall of fire going 65 mph were frightening," Paton said. "I watched live TV footage of the fire breaching two fire breaks and heading down the hillside toward my street. My fear was mounting. The conditions worsened and thick dark smoke forced the fire dept to back away. Air support was grounded. I started losing hope.
"Later, a fireman friend in my cycling group said my street was mostly incinerated," she continued. "The next day I saw an aerial photo and my home was a bed of ashes. The reality came to me slowly over the course of two days, but it didn't diminish the shock or anguish of getting confirmation my home was a total loss. Seeing the picture was horrific, but visiting the rubble was traumatic. It's tough to think straight right now.
"We evacuated quickly and took almost none of our valuables or sentimental items," Paton added. "We were told to take a few days worth of clothes and we'd be back home by then. No one ever dreamed otherwise. We lost virtually everything. No one in the city believed an event of this magnitude could ever happen. In fact, this was the worst devastation in the city's history, the news teams report."
Paton said she appreciates the administrative leave the command has granted her and those who have suffered and said the time to handle picking up the pieces has been invaluable. She also said that everyone should have an evacuation plan for future contingencies and never to take anything for granted.
"All I can tell others is take an evacuation seriously and pack like you will never return," Paton said. "Have checklists and know where everything you need is stored. Buy a fireproof safe and have the key stored with your evacuation checklist.
"In the face of my profound grief, the remarkable, nonstop love and support of my family and friends and my friends' family and friends sustains me," she added. "They are a bright spot during these dark days. The goodness of humankind surpassed my wildest imagination and I find joy in that. I'm eternally grateful for the amazing people in my life helping me through this."