(COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.) — Terrie and John Gardner thought they’d have more time.
They were at their Colorado Springs home a year ago, nervously monitoring the Waldo Canyon Fire that was spreading quickly and getting closer. “We started packing some things and preparing,” Terrie recalls.
By about 4 p.m., they still hadn’t been told to evacuate.
Suddenly, they realized if they waited for an official notice, they’d be dead. “I had gone upstairs for something, looked out the window and saw that the fire had come out the window over the ridge,” she says. “We started throwing everything in the car.”
John, 54, says he heard Terrie yell from upstairs. “She says, ‘Come upstairs, you have to see this.’ I look out the window and … the hillside is just glowing. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ We started moving a little bit faster.”
The couple managed to quickly pack up their dogs, important pictures, documents, computer equipment and even John’s favorite guitar. “In hindsight, there are things you wish you would have grabbed but they’re just gone,” John says.
Terrie, 54, says, “I grabbed a couple of boxes of my daughter’s things. She had a coat that I actually wore as a baby and so I had that.”
The Waldo Canyon blaze would become the most destructive blaze in Colorado history, burning the Gardner’s home to the ground along with nearly 350 others.
The Gardners have been living for the past year with Terrie’s parents in the Black Forest area of El Paso County, a few miles away from the Waldo Canyon aftermath. They’ve been trying to rebuild their lives, compiling an insurance company list of all the belongings they lost in the fire.
Then on Tuesday, lightning struck twice. The Black Forest fire exploded in the afternoon, flames pushed by erratic, dry winds. Terrie and John Gardner were not home at the time, so Terrie’s father had only minutes to pack what he could before the flames railroaded through the area.
“The clothes on our back, and my purse and the cars and that’s it,” Terrie says of the things her dad had scrambled to save before escaping. “Everything we had managed to store out at my parent’s house is gone. Baby clothes, everything.”
John, who was at work, watched on TV as his second home in a year was turned to a pile of smoking debris. Even the new furniture they’d just bought for their nearly rebuilt Waldo Canyon house is gone.
By the time the Black Forest Fire was tamed, it had claimed two lives and nearly 500 homes, shoving the Waldo Canyon fire aside and becoming the most destructive Colorado wildfire ever.
For having endured a dose of disaster double jeopardy, John and Terrie are remarkably upbeat and determined to carry on.
“This one was a little more difficult,” John says, “because all the little family mementos, all the little things we had saved up are now gone and they’re not coming back. But it’s not the end of the universe. It’s not that big of a deal.”
The Gardners say their unusual experience makes them perfect for helping others ease the trauma after the Black Forest Fire.
“The really cool thing is that we get to help people,” John says. “Everybody’s emotions are different. Some people are going to be devastated by this. Some people will take it a little bit easier. It’s never easy. Now it’s a tunnel, but there is light at the other end of that tunnel. It’s going to be OK.”
The Gardners say they will be OK, too. Their home lost in the Waldo Canyon fire is nearly rebuilt. They’d hoped to move in next month, but have asked their builder to try to speed things up.
“We know people who divorced over the Waldo Canyon fire,” John says. “The stress. People couldn’t take it. I think it’s made us stronger. You got to lean on each other and help each other.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Sara Israelsen-Hartley, Deseret News
Sara Ashley O'Brien, CNN
Jeff Wuorio, Deseret News