Couple recalls Academy firefighters' role in saving home

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The Black Forest Fire claimed nearly 500 homes between June 11, when it started, and June 20, when it was fully contained. Colorado National Guard Lt. Col. Mitch Utterback dubbed it "the Battle of Black Forest."

Driving north on Peregrine Way toward Jeff and Elizabeth Miller's Black Forest house near Tahosa Lane, seeing destroyed structure after destroyed structure, it's easy to understand why. Some chimneys, constructed from stone, remain, as do the concrete foundations, but little else survived. Cars left in yards during the evacuation now lie in ruins, having melted in the flames. A metal fence on the east side of Peregrine lies warped in parts and completely melted in others. Many of the pine trees that burned stand, but completely blackened, dead.

But the home of Jeff and Elizabeth Miller still stands. They credit the Air Force Academy Fire Department for saving their house and all the memories it contains.

A mixture of soot and slurry, dropped from the sky to slow the fire's advance, covers the ground of most of the Millers' five-acre plot. Black covers fence posts and a railroad tie used as a step just a few feet from their house, but the structure itself is unscathed.
The family, who moved into their home in 1982, were away from the house when the fire began, Elizabeth said.

"We didn't see the house," she said. "Our son did. He came and got our dogs. He works close by, so he saw the fire ... before either of us did."

"Because of our son's report, we thought our house was gone," Jeff said. "A fire marshal or somebody knocked on the front door while he was getting the dogs and said, 'You've got to get out.'"

But their house was listed on the "appears unaffected" portion of the loss report the next day. They were cautiously optimistic. But the fire roared back on the 13th, once again threatening their home.

"We looked over, and there was a big, black plume of smoke flying over right here," she said. "We knew by then that black meant a house, and white meant forest, so we assumed that we were just too late. But as far as we understand ... that was the house right behind us that went up on Thursday, when the wind whipped back up."

The Millers have pieced together what happened next with help from Lt. Col. Shane Coyne, an individual mobilization augmentee and Center for Character and Leadership Development volunteer firefighter. He and another individual were in the yard of their home when they saw the fire approaching.

"They didn't have a truck with them but had some hand tools, so they cut a fire break and started to hold it off while they waited for water and foam to show up," Elizabeth said. "So at some point, the yard was on fire in the side and the back and the front.

"The fire burned within feet of the front deck and the wood siding and the rail fence, which was attached to the wood siding of the house ... there were lots of opportunities for a bad outcome if there hadn't been someone standing in the yard before it got way out of control," she continued.

Early on the morning of the 14th, their daughter received a text message from U.S. Forest Service firefighter Emily Wells with a link to photos on the Air Force Academy's official Facebook page, Jeff said.

"Elizabeth opens it up ... and that's when she sees these pictures of our house," Jeff said. "Friday morning, we learned from these pictures that we have a house standing there with firefighters standing around it. It was quite surreal."

The photos filled a gap in the Millers' understanding of what had happened, Elizabeth said.

"We hadn't seen the forest on fire around our house," she said. "Seeing it and realizing just how close it was, seeing the sequence of photographs ... it's really clear that the house was in tremendous peril, and it was just a matter of timing."

A State Patrol trooper escorted them to their house later that morning.

"The ground was still smoldering," Elizabeth recalled. "There was still significant smoke. We could see and smell a lot of that. And ... because we came up Peregrine, we saw our neighbors' houses just gone, so we knew what the potential was."

The close call brought back memories of family members' houses in Texas that were destroyed by a wildfire in 2011, Elizabeth said.

"I helped my parents recover, find a new place to live," she said. "They restocked their entire lives from the ground up. So we had a clear picture on Tuesday, when the fire started, of ... what it's like to come back to just the worst possible outcome."

The Millers reclaimed a sense of normalcy when they could live in their home again, after a great deal of cleanup and smoke mitigation, Jeff said. But in some respects, normal is still a long way away.

"If we came up Tahosa and you didn't really look at (one neighbor's) lot ... then it may feel normal. But then you go around the corner and those houses are gone, and it's like, 'This is not normal.'"

Recovery will take time and effort, Elizabeth said. Nonetheless, most of the neighbors in the area plan to rebuild.

And "the steaks are on us" the next time Academy firefighters are in the area, she added.

"It's helpful for us to understand," she explained. "We hope to exchange steak for stories, and for us to really be able to thank these folks for their extraordinary effort on our behalf."