Sandy Berry-Lowe considers UCCS to be her professional home.
But the 22-year campus veteran and associate professor of biology never thought she would actually live on campus in space normally designated for students.
For three nights, June 26 through June 28, Berry-Lowe and her husband, Luis, joined hundreds of other evacuees in UCCS campus housing as the worst fire in Colorado history raged in the hills west of campus, blanketing the city with choking smoke and consuming 346 residences. Five UCCS employees lost their homes, dozens more came home the weekend of June 30 to damaged homes, and hundreds were evacuated. An unknown number of the 3,200 students enrolled for the summer semester were affected.
Classes were cancelled the night of June 26 but continued throughout the rest of the week as university officials recognized that air conditioned UCCS buildings provided the safest breathing environment for many faculty, staff and students.
For many, the fire that began June 23 seemed an unlikely campus emergency. That changed June 26 when the fire spread and threatened the entire west side of the city. UCCS became the site for media briefings given by municipal and National Forest Service leaders as well as a site for evacuated city residents, U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, and relief housing for firefighters and National Guard troops. The Gallogly Events Center was the site of an emotional June 28 City of Colorado Springs-organized meeting where hundreds of Mountain Shadows residents came to learn the fate of their homes.
The period from June 26 through July 5 provided UCCS the opportunity to shine, Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak, herself an evacuee, said in one of her daily updates on the fire situation and the UCCS response.
“I am proud of our campus response to this disaster and thank each of you for the care that you have shown to each other and to strangers,” Shockley-Zalabak said.
For Berry-Lowe, a Rockrimmon resident, signing up for a reverse 911 evacuation message seemed like an unnecessary precaution. But when the call came Tuesday night, she was prepared.
“I remember taking time to pack some personal photos, a picture from high school and a few other good pictures on our way out the door,” Berry-Lowe recently recounted. “It was a powerful reminder that I don’t really need all this stuff.”
When Sandy and Luis arrived on campus, their intention was to spend the night in her office in the Osborne Center for Science & Engineering. However, they were quickly given a room in Alpine Village complete with a view of the fire occurring in west Colorado Springs.
The Berry-Lowes were not alone in receiving university housing. A total of 74 people with UCCS-ties stayed on campus. They were joined by 101 community members, 203 United States Air Force Academy cadets and 169 off-duty firefighters and National Guard members.
According to Susan Szpyrka, senior associate vice chancellor, Administration and Finance, providing housing for evacuees and first responders was the right thing to do. Szpyrka was authorized to do whatever it took to make evacuees comfortable, including allowing people who had fled from their homes with pets to stay.
Each evacuee received three nights housing free of charge.
Both Shockley-Zalabak and Szpyrka were quick to credit the more than 40 volunteers and staff members who responded to the campus call for help. Volunteers took on mundane tasks ranging from cleaning rooms to making signs or directing traffic in an effort to make UCCS as welcome, inviting, and as prepared as possible.
“I was amazed at the number of volunteers and the camaraderie that we experienced,” Jackie Crouch, coordinator of technology services, Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, said of her experience cleaning dorm rooms in preparation for off-duty firefighters “I felt such relief at being spared that all I could think of was to give back in any way possible in support of those who had been affected. No job was too menial. We didn’t care who we were helping. We just wanted to help in any way possible. To stand by and simply observe while others suffered loss or put their lives in peril to protect our community was not an option. To be called off because we had too many volunteers was an amazing phenomenon and speaks to the community that we live and work in. I am privileged to be a part of it.”
The Office of the Chancellor is planning a recognition event at 4 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Centennial Hall to thank those who volunteered. The invitation will be broadly distributed for practical reasons, Szpyrka said.
“There is no complete list of who volunteered and who did what,” Szpyrka said. “People did what it took to get the job done all over campus. Many people, including staff in housing, conference services, university center, public safety, facilities and auxiliary facilities, worked double and triple shifts in some cases. And I was overwhelmed to see the number of faculty and staff who volunteered to clean rooms in housing. The people of UCCS are what made the difference. We shined.”
While UCCS leaders are open in their praise, they are not alone.
Shockley-Zalabak, as well as others at UCCS, received personal thanks from Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach for the university’s role in the crisis in addition to praise from members of the CU Board of Regents and CU President Bruce Benson. She also received emails from UCCS and other CU campus alumni who offered their support for the university’s response.
But it was an email from the Colorado Springs Fire Department that summarized the UCCS effort.
“Everything that UCCS provided was top notch and when I had the opportunity to talk to the staff, I was overwhelmed by their attention to detail to ensure that our stays in your facilities were nothing short of outstanding,” Robert H. Coffey, a CSFD captain, wrote. “I spoke to several firefighters who used your rooms; they were very grateful for a cool room, a quiet place and a comfortable bed for even a few hours between shifts.”
- Video compiled by Tamara Moore, executive director, Auxiliary Services Marketing, about the experience she and husband Kirk Moore, computing services director, Information Technology, faced in evacuating their Mountain Shadows home,http://video214.com/play/XTYQyAi1LbyQfPxyeScmGQ/s/dark
- A first-person account of the experience of losing a home by Mountain Shadows resident Michelle Wood, a member of the class of 2012. Wood is an intern at the Colorado Emergency Preparedness Partnership, http://www.thecepp.org/content/waldo-canyon-wildfire-strikes-close-home-cepp-intern-michelle-wood%E2%80%99s-family-loses-their-home
- Campus updates issued by the Office of the Chancellor and official announcements issued by during the Waldo Canyon fire, www.uccs.edu/waldocanyonfire
- Media coverage of the fire and media briefings from the campus, http://mediawatch.uccs.edu.
- Small Business Development Center to aid fire-affected companies, https://communique.uccs.edu/?p=7362
- Researchers study community wildfire resiliency, https://communique.uccs.edu/?p=7326
Photos from throughout the Waldo Canyon fire
Photo by: Philip Denman, Jeff Foster and Tom Hutton