Kevin watched from Centennial and Fillmore as the Waldo Canyon Fire came over the ridge. He had been watching the fire progress over the mountain since Saturday, watching the planes drop water and the busyness at the Command Center, then located at Coronado High School.

All weekend he had watched people come into the King Soopers where he is a manager.  They were getting the supplies they would need for evacuation: medication, water, baby food, etc.

Then, on Tuesday, June 26th he watched the 4pm briefing while on break, the command center still less than a mile away. The story progresses from one of containment, to 60 MPH winds bring the fire over canyons to the area above Mountain Shadows. Kevin watched it happening live from his view point on top of the hill.

Kevin stayed at work so others more directly impacted by the new evacuation orders could get home and get out.

He called his 81-year-old father, of whom Kevin is a caregiver, and told him to start packing. His father was unconvinced the fire would reach their home in Rockrimmon. But they had worked out a plan on where they would go and had already started getting ready to evacuate.

When Rockrimmon was evacuated at 6:30 Kevin left work at the corner of Centennial and Fillmore and drove home, taking back roads to try and avoid the traffic that was trying to get out.

He pulled over to collect himself knowing that stress only aggravates his disability.

Kevin has Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

“I have MS,” Kevin says, “MS does not have me.”

He was diagnosed in 2008. The disease affects the right side of his body. Stress and changes in situation can make it worse. And on that Tuesday afternoon everything changed.

He drove against the traffic using the right side of the road to get out and made it back to his father. They drove to his sister’s where new questions arose. Questions about whether his father, with breathing problems and on oxygen, would be able to breathe with all the smoke. Questions of where Kevin would sleep, the smoke and heat (June 26th was the hottest day on record in Colorado) affecting his MS. They stayed at his sister’s house for six days, Kevin sleeping on the floor.

The next day he went back into the evacuation zone with a police escort. His place of business had decisions to make. Under more stress he worked to ensure the other staffers who wanted to could work at other locations. He helped move perishables to other places – a lot of the food ending up feeding the firefighters.

Kevin and his father moved home the following Monday. Their home was smoked damaged, except for Kevin’s father’s room. They had remembered to close the door on their way out. Kevin worked to get the house professionally cleaned. The lingering smoke and dust affecting both his and his father’s disabilities.

Kevin had this message for emergency planners:

Our city doesn’t understanding where we’re at. … More can be done to get to the disabled community.  More education (needs to be done) overall. There was never any information on the (TV) crawlers about people with disabilities and the need for them to maybe evacuate before everyone else.

People with respiratory problems, mobility difficulties, or who rely on public means for transportation need more time to evacuate.  Kevin suggests evacuating those like him and his father before the general population, realizing they need more time.

Kevin realizes no one could have expected Tuesday afternoon. Watching the flames come over the hill was a stressful and unreal for him as it was for those in the Incident Command Center. He is grateful that he was able to get to his father and that they had a safe place to go. Still, he thinks people with disabilities should be invited into the discussion and emergency planners should take time to realize what it is like to live with MS. Direct participation in emergency planning by people like Kevin who live with disabilities can help inform and improve systems.  The principle that applies is, “Nothing about us without us”.

There are over 60,000 people with disabilities in El Paso County, accounting for over 10% of our population. The Independence Center is hosting a forum for people with disabilities who were affected by the Waldo Canyon Fire. It is their chance to speak with emergency operations staff from The City of Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Manitou Springs and the local Red Cross, who have all been invited to come and listen. If you or someone you know are from the evacuation areas and experienced challenges related to the fire we encourage you to attend and tell your story.

This is the first in a series of stories highlighting the experience of people with disabilities in the Waldo Canyon Fire. The second installment will be published on Wednesday.