Firefighters parade on empty streets on what would have been Cuchara's 50th Independence Day Celebration on July 4, 2018. In her new book, former journalist Pamela Ward chronicles 2018's Spring Fire. A page from "One Ember Away" where resident Mary Anderson looks over the damage from the Spring Fire in 2018. (Courtesy "One Ember Away" / Pamela Ward)
On June 27, 2018 the Spring Creek Fire would start its destructive run from outside Ft. Garland, Colorado towards the Spanish Peaks into the quaint towns of Cuchara and La Veta. The fire wouldn’t be contained for weeks destroying homes and cabins in the height of summer season.
Pamela Ward, a photographer and a retired journalist who lives in Cuchara set out to capture and chronicle that fire as it raged on. She has compiled those images in a new book, “One Ember Away: Colorado’s Spring Creek Fire”.
The book is a collection of her own images and community contributions taken at the time of Colorado’s third-largest fire that burned 108,045 acres. PULP’s John Rodriguez spoke with her in late May to gauge how the community is adjusting a year later and what stands out to her about the Spring Creek Fire a year later.
What is it about Cuchara and La Veta that seems to
draw people into the Spanish Peaks?
I was introduced to Cuchara 23 years ago. I had recently moved to Austin at that time. I was invited to come to Cuchara. I think it was in May, about this time. I was like, oh my gosh, I’ll have to get a parka. I was a beach girl. I had been living in Miami and really hadn’t been a mountain girl. I got all bundled up, and we drove from Austin to Colorado, and I stepped into snow and bright sunshine and I was in a T-shirt. I was like, oh my gosh. This is the life. Like a lot of people, I immediately fell in love with Cuchara.
It’s just so quaint and quiet and peaceful and happy. I started coming every year, at least once, and eventually built a home, just where I wanted to be. It has that same effect obviously on a lot of people.
Why did you decide to do the book to tell the story of the Spring Fire?
When the whole event happened and I was on social media, reporting what I was seeing and trying to keep people informed and tied together. I started hearing from people, “I hope you write a book about this.” More and more people were asking me, “Would you please write a book? We need a book.”
I knew that where we are, where this fire happened, in basically a rural, low population area, there wasn’t a whole lot of media attention being paid to it. If this fire had happened in Denver, there would’ve been people clamoring to get the book out first. Something of this magnitude, I knew it needed to be recorded for history. I have a history of working for newspapers. I was in a news feature writer for decades in my former life, and I knew I had the ability and the skills to put it together.
Looking back a year later, what are you thoughts on the fire, what is happening in the burn area?
I just took a drive today [In May] to La Veta and over to Highway 160, and it always makes my heart race a little faster when I drive past the burn scar. I could see the burnt twigs and sticks and they were surrounded by beautiful, almost lime green grass cutting up underneath them on the hillsides. It was heartening to see that. I know over at La Veta Pass where the fire burned the hottest, there probably won’t be any new growth on a lot of those hillsides, maybe not for years. It’s really sad.
When I see that, I also of course think about all the people that just in a blink of an eye lost their home and everything they owned. It’s hard to deal with. Just as one who wrote the book, it’s hard for me to think about what they went through.
How are people doing a year later when so many of those summer homes and people that actually live in the area, their homes burned? How do you think they’re doing now that they enter the fire season?
I think it’s a mix. I’ve come across a few people who lost everything just in the last week. Most people that I know, I think they try to see the silver lining. One of the couples is planning to rebuild. The other couple just recently finally found a home, a new home to move into.
In the book, there are heartbreaking photos of people that have lost everything, but the book is also a story of recovery and fight. What are your thoughts when you flip through the book and see these images again?
I’m most struck by the photos in the book that came from the firefighters. A great many photos were taken by the firefighters who were close to the action. I think when I look at some of those images, I can almost smell the smoke. They were just in the middle of it and in harm’s way. The book is dedicated to the firefighters.
What do these photos convey about what the firefighter were up against and their efforts to save homes of people they didn’t know?
You will see just the sense of the enormity of what they were up against. Some of these firefighters, a lot of them actually are people we know. Basically, the fire was being fought in the beginning by our volunteer firefighter neighbors. They had to evacuate their homes, send their loved ones away, and there they were scraping fire lines around our houses.
One of the most striking images in the book was taken by a firefighter. He was a firefighter from South Fork but he had actually grown up in La Veta. He was sent to La Veta to help fight the fire. He headed a crew that was sent to Cuchara Village for structure protection as the fire was closing in on the village. On July 4th, the firefighters realized that it was July 4th. This was a day that there would have been the annual Independence Day Parade. It’s a big deal.
The firefighters realized they were the only ones in the town, and the sky was dark because of the smoke cloud that literally, the fire was just lapping at the doorstep. They decided they would do their own parade. There were eight firefighters. One of them grabbed this huge teddy bear off the boardwalk that had been left in front of a shop. A couple of them picked up US flags, and they just started walking through this empty village. The firefighter from South Fork took this poignant picture of them. I think that photo really touches a lot of people when they see that.
I’ve seen people gasp when they see that photo.
A month later, yeah. Some people in the village decided to throw a weekend event called the Dog Days of Cuchara and turn it into a celebration. These same firefighters in their wild land shirt, the firefighting shirts recreated their march, but this time, they were all smiles, and people were cheering them on. It was a very happy moment in the village in early August.
How important was it for me to get the community to contribute to this book?
I was on one side of the fire. My viewpoint was from Cuchara Pass. I knew that there were people with other views from the other side of the fire. I just really wanted to tell the whole story. Also, just from the different perspectives like Tomi Price, her photos I think did a lot to tell the story of the impact on agriculture and the people who farm and run cattle.
What can you tell somebody that isn’t familiar with the region about what you’ve discovered about the Spanish Peaks region through your photography?
I think one of resounding things that came out of my reporting and photographing for the book was the amount of love that people have for this region.
Everybody I’ve talked to talked about their love for the forest, mountains the rivers and the landscape and their dismay that a great many acres were burned. But also they expressed so much joy and thanks for how much it survived and the hope for the future that the green will return and the flowers will return.
It was interesting even in the winter to go up into the burned areas and there’s this dark beauty that you see in the contrast of the burned twigs. The contrast of the burned snags to the white snow. The ending photo in the book in fact was taken by a photographer friend of mine who was here visiting from Texas. You see that photo of the snags against the snow and you just go, wow. Even in the devastation, there’s beauty.
Some of the most poignant, maybe the most poignant story in photos is the story of Amber and Richard Godfrey, who lost their home in Middle Creek. The photos that I took when I visited them a month after the fire just really stand out to me, just with their rescue dog, their rescue dog that rescued her actually during the fire.
Just their resilience, and I think it comes through, the story about what happened to them and how they hope to rebuild. I think it’s a very poignant part of the book.
Do you think people be scared away from returning just to visit on the Fourth or are you hopeful that at least this year, the region can return to some normalcy?
It’s going to be a very big year for tourism because I think there were a lot of people that had to cancel their vacations last year, and I think they’re eager to get back. Maybe they’re curious to see what happened, but I think they also just miss those special times that they have here in this beautiful country. I think we’ll have a very successful year for tourism.
Finally, what is it about the Spanish Peaks that draws people in?
I think most of us even that live here year round, would welcome more commercial opportunities. We’re limited in terms of how many restaurants there are to go to, particularly in the winter months in Cuchara. I would like to see more vitality, more businesses coming in. Maybe I should be be careful what you ask for.
It’s a beautiful place. The lack of traffic jams is obviously a plus. I can drive up and down Highway 12, stop on the highway, check my rear view and shoot some pictures out the window without getting rear-ended. Maybe not on the 4th of July, but most of the time. I love that. I would love for more people to come here and experience what I know.
It’s a sweet, little town. Yeah, a sweet, little mountain town.