Colorado’s worst fire provides UCCS opportunity to shine

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.

Lot 8 transformed into the media staging area

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.

View from Rockrimmon. Courtesy of Sandy Berry-Lowe
View from Rockrimmon. Courtesy of Sandy Berry-Lowe

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.

Monarch front desk

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.”

Recognition planned

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.”

Related links

Photos from throughout the Waldo Canyon fire

The UCCS United Languages & Cultures Association food and supply drive in the UC.
The UCCS United Languages & Cultures Association food and supply drive in the UC.
The UCCS United Languages & Cultures Association food and supply drive in the UC.
View from campus Tuesday afternoon
The view driving west on Austin Bluffs on Tuesday afternoon
View from Rockrimmon. Courtesy of Sandy Berry-Lowe
View from Rockrimmon. Courtesy of Sandy Berry-Lowe
Rich Harvey, incident commander, at morning press conference in Lot 8
Jerri Marr, forest supervisor for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, at morning press conference in Lot 8
Mountain Shadows residents gather at the Gallogly Events Center to learn the fate of their homes.
Mountain Shadows residents gather at the Gallogly Events Center to learn the fate of their homes.
Signs direct firefighters and National Guard troops to relief housing.
Air Force Academy cadets muster on the West Lawn.
Air Force Academy cadets muster on the West Lawn.
Air Force Academy cadets walking on the pedestrian spine.

Photo by: Philip Denman, Jeff Foster and Tom Hutton

4 Comments on Colorado’s worst fire provides UCCS opportunity to shine

  1. I have never been more proud to be affiliated with UCCS than I was during the course of the fire. Our campus stepped up to be a positive force in this community during Colorado Spring’s most major disaster. The volunteer efforts of so many to mitigate the effects of the fire and evacuations was truly heroic.
    The Chancellor’s updates helped keep us all informed and added to the pride I felt as a part of this campus.

  2. I am very proud of the University as an organization, fully realizing that it has reflected the best of each individual in these photos and its’ actions. It is my heartfelt desire that the University will continue to lead this city in its newly formed sense of true community. I have always believed that those who dream from the heart will build dynamic legacies for future generations. CU Colorado Springs is truly a mature academic leader with a great vision and compassion for the human condition. Thank you for showing others what many of us have known your academic community to have always been capable of.

  3. I was proud of UCCS once the Chancellor stepped in to provide her excellent leadership. Unfortunately the first e-mail we received offering housing to evacuees offered “we are reducing our rates during this difficult time.” Her guidance to provide three nights free of accomodations was a gift to our faculty, staff, students and community.

  4. I, too, was proud of the way UCCS stepped to the plate to provide help earlier, but more is needed to prepare for the future.

    This may not be the place to make this suggestion/request, but it’s the most available, and I trust that whoever reads this will get it to the “right” person or office.

    I live just east of the University in the adjacent neighborhood, one that is divided in half by the Austin Bluffs Park, a natural area that is considered “wildland,” that could ignite with a single spark. Would it be possible for the Univrsity to host and/or organize an informational meeting for university neighbors about fire mitigation, about evacuation, etc. The Waldo Canyon fire is surely a wakeup call for us all.

    I especially bring this up to UCCS because the Meadowland exit through the University property is one of only two outlets for our neighborhood in case of fire or other emergency. I can only imagine what gridlock could occur if the university and our neighborhood needed to evacuate using the main exits to Austin Bluffs Parkway.

    Surely the university has emergency plans and folks on staff who could present info about mitigation and evacuation plus the space to hold such a gathering.

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