Seeing footage and photos of the Waldo Canyon Fire burning the Southern Front Range was enough to make one’s stomach turn. But imagine being an evacuee; having to leave the comfort of your home and most of your possessions behind without assurance that you would see it all again. From there, think about not having friends or relatives to flee to, but instead relying on a makeshift shelter in a school gymnasium, full of strangers in the exact same situation.
Though most evacuees were incredibly grateful to have places to go, evacuation was still an unnerving experience. One crew of Mile High Youth Corps – Colorado Springs knew just how these people felt, as they were evacuated from a work site themselves, then went on to help run an evacuation shelter.
The Hayman Crew from Colorado Springs, who has been working on erosion control structures in the Hayman Burn Area all summer, was pulled from their work site mid-week at the end of June. Crew Leader, Julia McCleary, recounted the situation.
“We actually didn’t know we were being evacuated,” she said. “We came down early from the hills in the Trail Creek area [on Wednesday, June 27], where we had been working, because there was a thunderstorm. There was a ranger waiting for us and he told us that Woodland Park was evacuated.”
After speaking with their supervisor at the MHYC office in Colorado Springs, they were given two options: to either work on another environmental conservation project in Canon City or to head to Divide to help set up a Red Cross evacuation shelter. Though the Divide shelter filled up quickly, the crew was still adamant about spending the rest of their week working with evacuees. A new shelter was quickly issued to open in Cripple Creek at the high school, so they headed there.
“Part of the NCCC group we were working with before was already there and they were doing shifts of about two hours of sleeping then six hours of being awake, and all of them were on-call for basically 24 hours a day,” she said. “We helped out here and there that day, then the next morning we were at breakfast at 7 a.m. and started helping out wherever – mostly unloading people’s donations and inventorying them.”
“We helped out a lot with food preparation; we chopped a lot of vegetables, we helped with lunch and flipped burgers and hot dogs,” said Corpsmember and crew mentor, Mareya Becker. “We organized a lot of the food donations and helped people set up cots and get comfortable. We tried to engage with people and try to keep them distracted [from the fire].”
The crew really enjoyed the change of pace from their regular routine and feeling that they were making a difference in their community during such a chaotic time.
“My favorite part was being able to actually interact with the people involved,” said Corpsmember, Hope Radford. “What we do on a daily basis is just based on the environment, which I like, but I liked getting direct interaction. I helped a lot with food preparation and one of the guys there said that there’s not a lot of comforts in an evacuation shelter, but one of them is a good meal.”
Aside from food preparation and serving, the Corpsmembers were asked to aid frazzled parents.
“Other than [serving food] we just comforted people,” said Corpsmember, Brendan Smith. “We hung out with them a lot. The shelter had a kids’ room and I would watch movies or play games with a bunch of little kids – it was pretty fun.”
The crew camped in the football field behind the high school. Though the shelter wasn’t terribly populated – according to McCleary, there were roughly 30 evacuees there – the crew certainly eased the burden on those running the shelter.
“It was amazing, the things people donated – tons of food, blankets, clothing, all kinds of stuff,” said McCleary. ” So much of the time, we do work that’s behind-the-scenes and it’s hard labor – it’s not service for the sake of helping individuals. It was really nice for the team to have a couple days to see people in the community helping other people in the community and being able to be a part of that. They were so pumped.”
McCleary said that even after the fire, whenever the crew makes supply runs to Walmart, people see their uniforms, think that they’re firefighters, and thank them for all they do.
“When we say we’re not firefighters but we are out there doing erosion control from the Hayman, they say, ‘You’re still helping us so much! We were evacuated from that fire too. Thank you so much for for all your service,’” said McCleary.