Nine years later, Fire Chief reflects on Waldo Canyon Fire

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COLORADO SPRINGS – On June 23, 2012 downtown Battalion Chief Randy Royal was driving back from the scene of a high-angle rescue at Garden of the Gods. Chatter started on the radio about a smoke column rising from the west of Colorado Springs, up Highway 24.

Royal looked in that direction, and saw a thin, dense plume of smoke rising.

“There was this column, really tight column of smoke that was going straight up in the air,” Royal recalled. He’s now Fire Chief of the Colorado Springs Fire Department. “I got that catch in my stomach that this is not going to go well. And it didn’t.”

Nine years ago, on the day that saw the worst natural disaster in the history of Colorado Springs, Royal was one of the first to call in evacuation orders.

Flames climbed up behind the Cedar Ridge Neighborhood. Crews arrived and began setting up perimeters.

“You don’t even have time to think about the enormity of it because, you’re just going from house to house to house, just trying to save property and make sure people are okay,” Chief Royal said.

For about the next two weeks, the fire continued to crawl northeast out of the canyon, incinerating 347 homes and more than 18,000 acres. Two people died.

At the time, the Waldo Canyon Fire was deemed the most destructive fire in state history in terms of property damage. It lost that title to the Black Forest Fire the following year, before the East Troublesome Fire (Grand County) in 2020.

The fourth day of the Waldo Canyon fire, June 26, saw the most acreage burn.

Chief Royal estimates that thunderstorm cells brought winds upwards of 80 miles per hour, sending flames into the Mountain Shadows Neighborhood in the Rockrimmon Neighborhood.

“When it came into Mountain Shadows, it came in as a forest fire, but then it turned into what we call a conflagration fire, basically just going house to house,” Chief Royal added. “And as the houses burn, they start putting out embers and hitting wood fences or other houses and going into the vents and starting attics on fire, that’s how it rushed through there.”

For the better part of the fire, CSFD crews worked around the clock. Many fire fighters grabbed naps in between chopping up fire lines and trying to prevent embers, carried by the wind, from burning additional homes.

And it’s a scene the chief carries with him to this day.

“I think it’s one of those things where anyone who was really involved with it it still comes up emotional when you think about it.” Chief Royal said.

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