Lessons from the Waldo Canyon Fire
Colorado Springs, Colorado—In preparation for the GO Adventures Men’s Retreat, two weeks ago my sons and I took a pre-retreat scouting trip to Colorado. We checked out Woodland Park, hiked a couple of trails and stayed at Cathedral Ridge to give it our stamp of approval.
On Father’s Day we hiked up the west side of Pikes Peak toward Devil’s Playground, which would eventually lead to the summit of the Peak. At 11,000 feet we saw a plume of smoke rising up out of the west. When we reached the tree line at 12,000 feet, the wind shifted and blew the smoke our direction. This small, 40-acre or so wildfire was creating enough smoke to reach Pikes Peak.
Days later, the Waldo Canyon wildfire would erupt and envelope Colorado Springs in the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history. By the time the fire was 80 percent contained, over 18,247 acres would burn, 35,000 people would be displaced, 341 homes would be destroyed and two people would be dead.
Whether it’s Gonaives, Haiti or Woodland Park, Colorado, we believe that it’s mandatory to serve the communities we visit. Different places need different things. And last week Colorado Springs needed prayer and support.
On Tuesday, June 27th, Jimmy Dodd, the founder of PastorServe and one of our Men’s Retreat speakers, received a phone call from Lynn Williams, the Director of Human Resources at Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs. Woodmen Valley Chapel is a large, vibrant church community that would learn a few days later it had lost 74 homes in the fire.
Lynn was calling for help. That afternoon the winds had kicked up to 65 mph and doubled the size of the fire. The forest was exploding, homes were burning and thousands of residents were being evacuated. The fire had no end in sight. Lynn was in tears on the phone.
Jimmy preaches at Woodmen Valley Chapel every month, and is a vital part of this church community. Senior pastor, Matt Heard, was in Italy with his wife and sons on a long overdue sabbatical. Lynn was asking Jimmy to step in and provide support for the church while Matt managed to secure flights back to Colorado Springs from Rome.
Matt’s house sat directly in the path of the fire in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. Lynn had called him in Italy, just before she spoke with Jimmy. It was morning in Italy when she told Matt what was happening. When he hung up, Matt discovered 35 text messages from friends in his congregation frantically asking if he was okay. One of them read: “I am in your house now. What should I take?”
When Jimmy hung up the phone with Lynn, he knew immediately what he had to do. If he learned anything from Katrina, Joplin and Port-au-Prince, it was that the churches of Colorado Springs needed prayer, encouragement and support. Especially their pastors.
On the approach to the Denver International Airport, the plane passed through a thousand-foot thick pillow of smoke. By the time Jimmy made it to Colorado Springs on Wednesday it was 4 pm. The mountains were obscured by thick smoke. The air smelled of burning pine and aspen. It was difficult to see how bad the fire was. But the look on everyone’s faces told Jimmy it had been a terrifying 24 hours.
His first stop was Village Seven Presbyterian Church. Senior Pastor, Mark Bates, had called together his church to pray for his displaced congregation. Jimmy found a seat in the back of the sanctuary, but was invited up immediately to pray for the group. The mood was somber, but Jimmy’s spirit was light, encouraging and hopeful.
Over the next two hours, the group prayed for one another and shared stories of evacuation and loss. Associate pastors read passages from the Psalms, Lamentations and Isaiah. A reading from Psalm 46 comforted the gathering as they headed into small groups to pray for one another.
“God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.”
A Common Thread
At Village Seven Jimmy met a new pastor named Jason Tippetts. Jason moved to Colorado Springs recently with his family from Asheville, North Carolina. His assignment was to plant a new church on the west side of Colorado Springs in the 80919 zip code.
On Wednesday morning Jason, his wife, Kara, and four children were evacuated from their home, along with everyone else in the 80919 zip code. A young, smart pastor, Jason was in good spirits despite having to leave the home he moved into just ten days earlier. His house was still in boxes, none of which might be around in a few days if the fire continued spreading.
It was clear that Jason and Kara’s hearts were for the people living in their community. Starting a new church is hard work. The challenge was that their potential congregation lived in the 80919 zip code. They told Jimmy they believed the Waldo Canyon Fire will draw the community together, and that it would be the beginning of something new.
When the ashes settle, Jason and Kara will be there. And everyone will have stories to share about the fire. It may sound strange, but the Tippetts couldn’t have asked for a better solution for growing their new church.
By 9 pm, Jimmy was taking a breather at the Starbucks on Academy and Brookwood in Colorado Springs. He was having his usual—a tall four-pump, no water, no foam, non-fat, extra hot chai latté, while he waited for two local partners, Al de la Roche and Wade Brown, to join him.
This was going to be a strategy meeting. They were planning to talk about the best way to reach and support the local pastors. There was more at stake here than the church congregations: approximately 50 percent of pastors in an area hit by a natural disaster leave within 18 months. Jimmy and his team were doing everything they could to prevent that from happening in Colorado Springs.
One mile west from the Starbucks was Interstate 25. This six-lane road was the eastern border of the evacuation area. Inside the evacuation zone, there was no life, no traffic, no nothing. It was waiting for what no one wanted to happen—a Joplin or New Orleans made of fire. And less than a half a mile inside the border of I-25 was Woodmen Valley Chapel’s Rockrimmon campus. It sat quietly, patiently empty.
Al and Wade joined Jimmy at a table. The trio popped open their MacBooks and got to work. Letters and emails to pastors were drafted. National and regional lists of supporters and churches were collected and organized. The group knew the challenges pastors faced week to week. And, according to Jimmy, the Waldo Canyon Fire was going to “radically change every pastor’s job description.”
The Next Morning
Jimmy had been in Colorado Springs less than 24 hours when he pulled into the east campus of Woodmen Valley Chapel. (The west campus was in the evacuation zone.) Church leaders and staff were meeting to determine the best ways to communicate, connect and minister to their communities.
This was a logistics meeting. Four volunteer pastors were selected for pastoring shifts from 1-4 pm on Thursday and Friday. Sunday services were being scheduled. Staging areas were identified. Phone lines were being set up. Contingency plans were being established. Donations and volunteers were being managed.
In the middle of the meeting, Jimmy spoke to the group. He shared the experience from Village Seven the night before, and the reading from Psalm 46. He talked about St. Augustine’s City of God and the frailty of the City of Man. “God’s city is our home,” he said.
He went on. “Disaster exposes brokenness. And that brokenness is an open window for us to respond to. Soon, it will close. So what is it that we can do to keep that window open?”
Then people in the group shared some of their experiences. One person described how she looked with binoculars through the smoke and flames for her home, only to find it burning on the mountainside. A mom told the group how she rushed through her home to evacuate while her children grabbed clothes for the family out of the dirty clothes hamper with only minutes to escape the flames. One father explained how his daughter stayed with their neighbor’s children while their parents sped home to scoop them up and rush them outside of the evacuation zone. And one wife proudly told the story of her husband, who was responsible for loading the C-130s with fire retardant, saying a prayer for each plane as it took off to deploy its 3,000 gallon payload over the raging fire.
The following days in Colorado Springs were busy for Jimmy. He woke up early, went to bed late, was on the phone and in front of churches most of the time. PastorServe’s Executive Chairman of the Board, Justin Moxley would join him from Kansas City. Al de la Roche and his wife Joanne would give their home over to Jimmy and his team to serve the community. And the churches of Colorado Springs would join together to love their own and the rest of the city’s displaced.
It has been one week since Jimmy landed in Colorado Springs. A lot has happened since: the fire is nearly 100 percent contained and most people, if they have homes, are back in them. Businesses and highways are open again. Yet, Colorado is still a tinder box, ready to re-erupt with one accidental toss of a lit cigarette.
In all of this uncertainly and destruction, we find God’s lessons everywhere. Even in, better yet, especially in disasters. We just need to open our eyes and hearts a little wider.
Control is just a construct.
Whenever we think we are in control, it’s only a matter of time before we discover we are not. Nor will we ever be. To fight the Waldo Canyon Fire 1,220 firefighters, 73 engines, eight C-130s, six helicopters, 136,398 gallons of fire retardant and over 500,000 gallons of water were no match for one afternoon of 65 mph winds. When God decides it’s time for a lesson, there is no way around it.
Give yourself a flexible job description.
In times of disaster, definitions and job descriptions all change. Kitchen tables become board rooms, homes become hotels and roads become fire lines. The same goes for people. Fire fighters become prayer warriors, rivals become friends and children become leaders. When forced, everything becomes what it needs to become. Or it is swept away.
Our “wrong” is God’s right.
Yvon Chouinard, mountaineer and founder of Patagonia, said, “It isn’t an adventure until everything goes wrong.” Chouinard isn’t talking about things going wrong when he’s sipping a Mai Tai at the pool at Disney World. He’s talking about near misses climbing Everest and El Cap. There is a weird lesson here. When things go “wrong,” that’s when we learn how to pray, discover how to love one another and experience who God is. And for God, this is all part of His perfect and “right” plan for us.
Sure, it makes no sense. But maybe it’s time to pray for some more “wrong” and embrace the ridiculous logic of Heaven.