Waiting it out in Gypsum | VailDaily.com

Waiting it out in Gypsum

Geraldine Haldner

In heat approaching the high 90s, the only thing moving fast in the parking lot of the Columbine Market grocery store was the wind.

“We’ve got all our valuables packed up. We are ready to go,” said Martin Hatfield a local mechanic, loading a few bags of groceries into the trunk of his car while his wife, Tracy and his 8-year-old daughter, Kassy, stood by, pushing errant strands of hair behind their ears, only to set them fluttering free anew.

“If it keeps blowing like this, I’m worried,” Hatfield said, adding that he plans to ride his four-wheeler up on Cottonwood Pass later this afternoon to catch a glimpse of what has been declared a federal disaster by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens – the Coal Seam Fire started Saturday afternoon in underground coal deposits and burning east along the steep hillsides toward Glenwood Springs, threatening the 7,700 residents of the resort town long famous for its hot springs.

By Saturday evening the fire had consumed as much as 2,000 acres of brush, jumped the Colorado river and raced up hillsides, leaving five homes and one commercial building charred in its terrifying wake.

Twelve hours later, the fire had spread across nearly 8,000 acres, shut down Interstate 70, destroyed as many as 40 structures and resulted in the evacuation of more than 2,000 Glenwood area residents Saturday afternoon and evening.

Back at the Columbine Market grocery store 24 hours after the fire first surfaced 30 miles west, there were smiles and gripes.

“We evacuated on our own, the fire wasn’t very far away, and it had jumped the interstate,” said Bob Dressel, who along with his wife, Michele, decided to leave their home west of Glenwood Springs Saturday afternoon around 5 p.m. “We knew it was time to go.”

Taking up shelter with friends in Gypsum, the Dressels were toting bags of kitty litter for their two cats lounging in their SUV.

“We were nervous all afternoon. We got our cats and the computer because it has all our files on it and some photographs,” Bob Dressel said before stepping aside to answer a call from a neighbor who is keeping watch on the progress of the fire from a safe distance.

“The house still stands,” he told his wife. His smile found a mirror in hers. They both looked relieved for the moment.

Given the choices they had, Michele Dressel said, she was comfortable with the one they made.

“I wasn’t feeling very restful last night,’ she admitted, suddenly looking weary. “But in a situation like this you start valuing things differently. The most valuable thing is just life, everything else is just stuff.”

Glenn Tracy Jones, a guardsman at American Gypsum, had little stuff left and wasn’t smiling while he talked about the moments before he saw his rental apartment “engulfed” in flames at around 4 p.m. Saturday.

He was mad, after a frantic afternoon not knowing if he should stay or go and a sleepless night on a friends’ couch in Gypsum.

“I called every number I could think of and could get no information about what was going on,” he said, adding that when he desperately dialed 911, he was told by an operator to call the non-emergency number and leave a message.

“I didn’t leave a message, no,” he said, placing a bag of groceries in his van. “They did a really bad job communicating, I saw that (the fire) had jumped the freeway and was coming quickly.”

He left in “a real hurry.”

“I had boxes packed, but then there suddenly wasn’t any time. What you see in this van is all I got,” he said, looking exhausted. “I’m really upset. They really screwed up not letting us know when to evacuate. Whoever made these decisions, they will have to deal with me.”

At the Eagle Valley High School, where the local Red Cross chapter had opened up a shelter Saturday evening, stranded motorists and evacuees were dealing with the unexpected closure of the interstate, and temporary homelessness.

“We just greet and meet people and provide them with food, beverages, towels and showers,” explained Susan Scott, the high school’s art teacher and a Red Cross volunteer, before jumping up from her seat to greet a Denver couple stranded on their way to Las Vegas.

Busy Saturday night, the shelter Sunday afternoon was quiet, populated by only a few travelers and evacuees enjoying the cool confines of the gymnasium, wondering and waiting.

Scott said more than 100 people so far had been fed through the charity of local restaurants, churches and businesses. Donated blankets were piled by the door, but most walking in were more interested in a cool drink and news.

“There has been no panic here,” said Scott. “There has been stress mixed with anxiety, but nobody was out of control. Most people just wanted to be with people who have gone through the same and watch TV.”

Throwing around a basketball, a group of rafting guides from No Name, a small cluster of homes and campgrounds east of Glenwood Springs, were passing the time Sunday afternoon.

“I’m not sure if that was necessary,” said 20-year-old Andrew Henry, a local rafting guide, of the evacuation effort that forced him and others to leave at 3 a.m.

Henry and six others, employed by Rock Garden Rafting, managed to load up the outfit’s entire inventory and drive a colorful assortment of yellow school buses and blue raft boats to Gypsum, along with personal belongings and a few valuables, though Faith Rohrbach, a 22-year-old rafting guide, was concerned that she didn’t grab the last remaining T-shirt her dad designed and sold at Woodstock.

“I’m going to be really sad if I don’t have that anymore,” she said, bouncing the basketball.

They stayed at the Gypsum I-70 interchange at first. “A tailgate party of really tired people,” as Rock Garden Manager Marcel Bieg, 26, described the scene Saturday night.

By morning, with the interstate remaining closed, they made it to the high school.

“We are living large here,” said Ryan Meath, 24, also a rafting guide, of the air-conditioned gym, the cable television and lunch donated by Burger King. “Normally we get the 99 cents deal. Here we got Whoppers.”

Geraldine Haldner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com

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