The Inside Edge: Fire impacts skating community

Drew gives his account of the Waldo Canyon wildfire; Brooks tells harrowing tale of evacuation

A plume of smoke rises over mountainside homes in Colorado Springs.
A plume of smoke rises over mountainside homes in Colorado Springs. (AP Images)


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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to
(06/28/2012) - As you probably know, Drew lives, coaches and trains in Colorado Springs. Here's his story of what life has been like for the past few days, since the Waldo Canyon fire ignited near the city on June 23.

Like many other coaches and skaters here, I was really busy with the Broadmoor Open last week; I had a lot of students competing. On Saturday afternoon, after one of my kids competed, I was looking at the results sheets taped up on the window of the World Arena when I saw a huge mushroom cloud of smoke coming from the mountains outside.

I knew right away that it was a wildfire. I've seen them before, but this one was much, much bigger than normal. We had been hearing about the other fires in Colorado, and the temperatures have been really high, over 100 degrees every day, which makes wildfires likely and hard to contain.

As the weekend went on, we heard that it was a big fire and it wasn't contained. The good news, or so we thought, was that it was in an uninhabited canyon. On Saturday night, I drove northwest to get dinner, and I could see big flares of red and orange shooting up over the mountains. The fire was about 10 miles away, but we could smell the smoke, and depending on which way the wind was blowing, it affected the visibility. There was a haze in the air and a powerful smell of burning wood.

Because of the extreme weather conditions, the fire has doubled in size every day. On Tuesday, it jumped over the canyon and made it over the ridge and down toward a part of Colorado Springs where people live. When it reached the top of the ridge, it caught the wind, and people said the fire came down the mountain at 65 miles an hour. The whole mountain was engulfed in thick smoke.

Tuesday was the first day that it kind of scared me. At first it wasn't affecting very many people, but the evacuations rose to 32,000 people by Tuesday night, and more and more on Wednesday -- and it started to affect people I knew.

Kari Herman, who owns the Synergy dance studio, was evacuated as soon as the fire jumped the ridge. She grabbed her passport and her computer and some clothes and left for Denver. She doesn't know the status of her house, but her whole neighborhood was seen in flames.

"I'm not actually that sad about the prospect of my house burning down," she told me. "I'm more sad to think about that neighborhood being gone."

By Wednesday, the fire was all anyone talked about. Everyone knows someone who has had to evacuate or who doesn't know the status of their house. Tanith Belbin tweeted that every American in skating has a connection to Colorado Springs, and it's really true. Between the Olympic Training Center and U.S. Figure Skating being here, it is really hitting the skating community hard.

The actual smoke in the air now has made it hard to breathe, and it makes you cough. It irritates your eyes and makes your throat dry. They've told people to stay indoors and not open windows, and to use the "Recycle" setting on the air conditioning in their cars. Josh Farris, who has asthma, tweeted that he had to leave Wednesday for Dallas to get away from it.

Where I live, it's very hazy, but if you look toward where the fire is, about 10 miles from the World Arena, you see thick smoke over the top and sides of the mountain, going all the way up to the clouds. From where we are, we can't see the flames during the day because the smoke is so thick. We can definitely see the flames at night -- they flare up, with the wind, and then die down.

The biggest problem is that people feel helpless. When you evacuate, you basically take a few things and then just wait to find out if you have a house or not. People are not allowed back to find out. The highway was closed to let the thousands of people evacuate, so we were all trapped here. It's like Armageddon: There's smoke everywhere, and you hear sirens all the time.


We know of several skaters who have been forced to evacuate: Tyler Brooks, Kylie Duarte and Danielle Viola.

Brooks had been in San Diego visiting friends and, on returning, had to beg police to let him go rescue his father, who was stranded in their house in the foothills of west Colorado Springs.

"We drove into our neighborhood after being told by the police officer that if we went in and got stuck, they had no way to rescue us," he texted. "We drove to our house, and we could see the flames burning viciously in Mountain Shadows subdivision, which is directly across the street from our home. We had five minutes to take what we needed from our house and get out. The electricity was out, so we couldn't see and grabbed stuff at random.

"We drove away through the flames. I could feel the heat from the blazing fire across the street. They got everyone out, but last night we watched our neighborhood burn on national television, and that was the scariest thing of my life."

"My mother, dad and I are staying at the Koleto's house until further notice," Brooks went on. "Madeleine [Rutledge] is staying at Becky [sister of Ryan] Bradley's house. If the Koleto's house is mandatorily evacuated, then I will go to Becky's.

"Right now we don't know if our house is still standing. Within an hour of being evacuated, the flames fully engulfed my neighborhood and the homes across the street. Homes within sight [of our house] are leveled, but we are pending notification. We are praying that it has not been burned fully to the ground, but we have no idea. All I care about and am grateful for is that my family and I, and Madeleine and the Koletos, and all of our pets, are OK."

Roommates Duarte and Viola had been staying alone in their house when the evacuation order came. They live with Beth Colby and her mother, who are on vacation.

"Dani and I had a crazy night last night trying to pack up as much as we could as well as the stuff of Beth Colby and her mother," Duarte emailed Wednesday. "Our house is fine at the moment, but the smoke around our home is pretty thick with large pieces of ash falling. We actually drove by our gated community, and they have army people blocking off all entrances, and they are not sure when we will be allowed back in. We are staying with a former skater and her family by the Broadmoor. Another family is staying with us as well."

Tim Koleto has been in Lake Placid for the Young Artists' Showcase final Wednesday night.

"Our house is a mile and a half from the mandatory evacuation, just across the freeway to the east. Yesterday my mom texted me asking what valuables I would appreciate being packed. I feel so helpless being away from home. It's surreal. You never realize how much you have to lose and what you wish you would have appreciated. My mom hosed down the house and evacuated today.

"I popped both my jumps to doubles in the show. I'm so flustered! I'm doing my best to relax and know that it's completely out of my control."

If you wish to help the relief efforts in Colorado, officials have said that the best way is to donate money rather than goods. For a list of organizations receiving donations, starting with the Red Cross, visit

Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of the wildfires. Stay safe!

Sarah and Drew