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Travis Ochs remembers the exact bend in the Geer Canyon Drive where he had to make the split-second decision to leave his horse and donkey behind. He’d been fleeing to safety from the CalWood wildfire, which was burning just behind him, and the blaze impeded his ability to retrieve trailers big enough to move the animals.
“It was really bad,” he recalls almost one year after the massive fire began encroaching on his livelihood on October 17, 2020.
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Before he could even see how bad the fire was in the valley behind his property near the Heil Valley Ranch open space, he had received a call from a firefighter to evacuate his 85-year-old mother, Alice Ochs. Once she was out, he began trekking the two miles back up the hill on an ATV to turn off the gas in his own cabin. Suddenly, Travis ran into the fire as a large tree exploded right in front of him. A few flames grazed him, burning a tuft of his grey hair. He knew there was no time.
“It was like it opened an oven door. Just a blast of heat. Incredible,” Travis says. “I turned around and big chunks of wood were just falling on the road—it was unreal. So I just went down [the hill to get my sister] as fast as I could.” He grabbed his sister from her cabin on the property, and the two rode their horses down the single exit road. Trailers awaited to help evacuate their six horses, but they quickly realized they wouldn’t have time to retrieve the transportation large enough to fit their draft horse, Adam. The Boulder County park ranger on scene told Travis he had to let Adam and his donkey, Ennis, go.
“[The ranger] felt terrible the next day because he was sure they’d been burned,” Travis says. “He said, ‘I couldn’t sleep all night, I thought I’d killed those horses.’ ” Almost all of Travis’ 440-acre property would be consumed by the fire in the ensuing 40 minutes.
The CalWood wildfire would go on to burn 10,113 acres over 28 days before being fully contained on November 14. (The cause of the fire still remains undetermined.) It would be just one of a smattering of wildland fires during Colorado’s devastating 2020 season, arriving only days before the nearby East Troublesome fire would explode and jump the Continental Divide. The East Troublesome would eventually burn 193,812 acres and become the second largest wildfire in the state’s history.
Travis’ home was one of 26 Boulder County structures, most of which were private property, that would be damaged by or lost to the CalWood blaze. The next day, when crews were able to return to burned areas to survey the damage, two park rangers stumbled upon Adam and Ennis, slightly singed but still awaiting their breakfast outside of Travis’ mother’s cabin. Both her cabin and his sister’s home were spared from the fire. Soon after, Travis’ heart-warming reunion with his four-legged friends went viral.
THIS JUST IN: Check out this heartwarming reunion photo of Travis Ochs and Ennis, the donkey, after an incredibly harrowing weekend escaping the #CalWoodFire.https://t.co/8cC7240B8r pic.twitter.com/s2Wn4WjWfr
— Kelsey Hammon (@KelseyHammon2) October 23, 2020
“That was pretty cool,” Lyons Fire Protection District Lieutenant and PIO Marya Washburn says. “We hang on to those moments.”
Travis and Washburn both note that after the ash and the panic of those first 24 hours finally settled, a renewed sense of community came into view. People gathered food and donations, helped relocate and feed their neighbors’ animals, and more. “I was here during the floods as well. It was similar, watching the community come together,” Washburn says. “Everyone was just really trying to help each other out however they could, and I think it felt good to have a way we could all help each other out.”
Those connections were integral as Travis and the many others began the process of recovery over the last year. Anne Reid, a fellow volunteer firefighter for the Lyons Department and childhood friend of Travis, set up a GoFundMe that went on to help repair some of the structures Travis lost in the fire, including his hay barn.
Travis jokes that continuing repairs to his property’s fence mean that Adam and Ennis now have no boundaries and can nag him at the window of his mom’s cabin any time they want a treat. The miles of fencing along with the hay barn mark the mere beginning, however, of an exhaustive and expensive rebuilding process for the property, which has been in Ochs’ family for four generations.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Boulder County secured $5.7 million in federal grants to begin soil restoration on public land, most of which was used to drop mulch via helicopter across roughly 1,500 acres of charred national forest space. Some of those wood chips were even inadvertently dropped on Travis’ property. Considering a large portion of the land damaged by CalWood was private, however, the decision for how to rehabilitate private property still mostly lies with the landowners like Travis.
Although he hasn’t noticed many of his other impacted neighbors begin to rebuild yet—and speculates that many likely won’t—Travis returned to his ranch late last year to live in his mother’s cabin. He bought dozens of discount Christmas trees to plant around his property. He and his sister also purchased and planted 500 additional ponderosa seedlings from Colorado State University, all of which they water and proudly monitor the growth of daily. He hopes to buy even more of the seedlings—which cost about $3 a pop—next spring, though he wants to see how the current ones survive first.
“Look at these fires that burned 20 years ago,” Travis says, overlooking the dead trees on the mountainside just to the right of his property, which was scorched by the 2003 Overland Fire. “The forest does not come back. On its own, it does not recover. … I don’t think people realize how long-term it is.”
In fact, it takes roughly 300 years for new growth from the seeds of one ponderosa tree to spread 25 feet. So while Travis weighs the decision of whether or not to rebuild his cabin—which he says he’s able to consider, with the help from insurance—he wonders if the land will ever feel the same.
In the meantime, Travis, his friends, and his family are still trying to find the silver linings: the grassy meadows, which Ennis helped to reseed, returning to their green color; the clearings where resilient, baby aspen trees and wildflowers have started to sprout; the fact that they all walked away unscathed.
“[Travis’] cabin was a structure that held a lot of memories, but we have Travis, which is really [what] brought the laughs,” Reid says.
Travis agrees. “The more I look back, the more I realize how dangerous it was, and I’m just really grateful my mom’s house survived and those [few ponderosa] trees survived,” he says. “I’m just really glad to have survived at all.”