Glenwood again showed its strength
When the Coal Seam Fire ripped up South Canyon, crossed the Colorado River and circled Glenwood Springs on Saturday, June 8, hardly no one could believe what was happening. Everywhere there was a sense of panic, fear and amazement.
Now, nearly six months later, Glenwood residents have some perspective with which to reflect on the fire’s impacts. What did the Coal Seam Fire mean to Glenwood Springs? Did it bring out the best or the worst in human nature? And is the city any different now than it was before the fire?
“My observation is that Coal Seam showed the strength of this community,” said Sue Horn, program director at Colorado West Regional Mental Health Center. Horn’s organization provided grief and trauma counseling to residents immediately following the fire. “I don’t have any statistics or research on the impact of trauma, but what I’ve seen here is the tremendous support residents have shown one another.”
Glenwood Springs police chief Terry Wilson agreed.
“Coal Seam definitely has brought out the best in people,” he said. “There’s no comparison between the goodness that people demonstrated versus the bad.”
No lives lost
Everyone agrees Coal Seam was devastating. But residents who remember the deaths of 14 firefighters during 1994’s Storm King Fire are thankful no one was killed during last summer’s fire.
“After Storm King, we said we would have given up our houses to keep one firefighter from dying,” said Mitchell Creek homeowner Sue Hakanson, whose house was threatened and spared during both the Coal Seam and Storm King fires.
“There’s definitely a sadness we feel for those who lost homes, but comparatively, we were so fortunate no one died.”
Hakanson said Coal Seam taught her many lessons. One is that material things aren’t as important as she once thought.
“It’s just trappings,” she said. “I have a piano I inherited that’s been in my family for over 80 years. There’s no way to replace it, but I know now that if I had to lose it to a fire, I could. A fire like this puts things into perspective. That piano is important to me, but it’s not a living member of my family.”
Hakanson said the fire has also given her empathy for others.
“People all over the world live with a sense of unrest, a possibility every day, all day, their world can be destroyed,” she said. “We have a heightened awareness now.”
A bonded community
Hakanson said she teases Gene Yellico, owner of Geno’s Liquors, that he’s “the unofficial mayor of West Glenwood. He’s such a part of the neighborhood,” she said.
Since the fire, Yellico has observed the resiliency of people around him.
“Glenwood has its share of getting smacked around,” he said. “There have been plenty of tragedies here. I’ve seen this community bond together in the past, and after this fire, it’s bonded together again. We’re a pretty strong group of people.”
Yellico said it’s in people’s nature to come through for each other during tough times.
“People don’t think about being heroes,” he said. “They just want to help each other out. I have so many examples.
“During the fire, one of our neighbors drove around the neighborhood and picked up all the dogs and cats he could find before evacuating. Another neighbor who lost his home was diagnosed with cancer right around the same time, but still came by the store and asked me about a problem I was having with my knee.
“I had tourists come in to the store this summer and see our donation jar for Coal Seam Fire victims,” Yellico recalled. “They wouldn’t know anyone who had lost a home, but they’d donate money without a second thought.”
Chokyi Kalzang, a senior sales associate at Sears in the Glenwood Springs Mall, said working at Sears gives her an excellent vantage point for observing people and their reactions to a crisis like the Coal Seam Fire.
“The is a mecca in Glenwood,” she said with a smile, looking around at the kitchen appliances, vacuums, lawn mowers and electronic equipment in the store. “Everybody comes here at some point. This is the pulse of the town.”
She said many residents who lost homes have come to the store to replace their belongings. And in contrast to Mitchell Creek resident Sue Hakanson’s observations, Kalzang said people who have lost items in the fire replaced them as soon as they could. She said it’s because those who lost their homes are focusing on family life, and on creating a comfortable nest to replace the one they lost.
“I’ve noticed residents are paying more attention to their families since the fire,” she said. “People aren’t taking things for granted. It’s seems like they’re more family oriented. They’re buying big-projection TVs. They’re improving their homes and getting cozy. That fire has made us realize life doesn’t just go along ho-hum. Life as we know it can be over at any time.”
She pointed out that not everyone processes a crisis like the fire in the same way.
“I’ve seen some people get rattled easier,” she said. “They get angry about things they’d otherwise laugh off. It’s like when someone you love dies. Grief takes many avenues. Some people are angry or on edge. Others get really impatient.”
Kalzang said local residents are affected a lot more than those whose lives weren’t touched by the fire.
“If Hawaii dropped off the map nobody here would care,” she said. “People still don’t have the big picture.”
Barrie McCorkle, assistant general manager at Design Audio/Video near the Glenwood Springs Mall, agreed. The fire burned so close to the store that McCorkle could feel the heat from the flames when he closed up the business and fled the day of the fire.
“It was pretty odd, but one of our best days at the store was the Tuesday after the fire,” McCorkle said. “The fire was on a Saturday, so we hadn’t been open for a few days. But on Tuesday, when we opened we were slammed, mostly by people from upvalley.
“They really had no concept of how bad the fire was and they pretty much acted like the fire never happened, like it was no big deal. They just wanted to buy stereo equipment,” McCorkle said.
Police chief Wilson said a few people took advantage of the situation.
“We only had a few cases of looting,” he said. “It was very disappointing, but it was on a very small scale. I figure doing something like that is like breaking into a church. It’s not good.”
Overwhelmingly, the fire acted as a catalyst for good.
“It made people say, `How can I help? What can I do?'” said Gene Yellico.
“I’ve been here for 31 years and have seen it time and again. We come through tragedies, look at each other, and scratch each other’s backs. It makes you realize how much people care.”
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