Ranchers decide not to evacuate

DE BEQUE—The mustang is still too wild—not broken and certainly not trailer broken. Among a herd of seven, five of them wild, she is the one that defied evacuation.

So, the excruciating decision: Leave her and take the rest? Leave all of them? Stay?

“She’s my baby,” said Ava St. Pierre Cogburn. “I couldn’t leave her.”

Cogburn and her husband, Rodney, stayed at their 20 acres on 45 1/2 Road in De Beque. They sent their two children, who live on five-acre ranches adjoining theirs, to Loma on Thursday night (their son snuck back later; she was so upset), especially mindful of their two grandchildren.

But they stayed. And they stayed up all night, watching the flames rage, watching the smoke huff and heave, watching the gray ash fall against the hellish glow of the fire.

It was a strange, surreal, scary night that melted into a strange, surreal, scary Friday—for the Cogburns and everyone else in De Beque. 

“I’m worried about them fires,” said Mike Welch on Friday morning, glancing to the nimbus of dark smoke that filled the western sky.

His worries, though, were somewhat indistinct. He said he didn’t think his dark-blue home near the center of town, with daisies growing at lawn’s edge, was in danger. And it’s not like he was going to spend the day in hand-wringing. Instead, he replaced the drive shaft in his faded old Ford pickup.

That’s what makes wildfires surreal: Even when flames are visible and smoke fills the sky, if they’re miles away, life continues. Girls drop their Razor scooters outside the De Beque Grocery and Gas and bustle inside for cans of Arizona Iced Tea. A farrier shoes a horse at the edge of Denver Avenue.

Russ Matis plugs his fiddle into an amplifier inside his home in the former Odd Fellows Hall and plays a song from “The Last of the Mohicans” soundtrack. With his doors propped open, the music floated down the street, past the volunteer fire station, around the post office, through the quietly empty town center.

“People are kind of frightened,” Matis said. “You can see the winds changing, and you don’t know where the fire’s going next.”

His son, Forest, is on the fireline. Of course he’s worried.

Thursday night, while about 200 people gathered in the De Beque Community Center to learn more about the Pine Ridge Fire, Matis and his friend Morgan Whaley—who play together in the band Simmer Down—composed a song about the fire.

It begins slow—“people not quite sure what’s going on,” Matis explained, his fingers dancing across the fiddle strings—and accelerates to a breathless frenzy as the fire races across acres and people run from it.

“I sat here last night and saw a man drive by and his trailer was filled with his mounted game heads,” Matis said. “I guess he didn’t want to take a chance.”

Brenda Rocco didn’t, either. She lives in the center of town, but packed her photos anyway on Thursday night. And she pondered what else she would take if it comes to that, if she has to flee her home and almost everything in it. It’s an impossible quandary.

“Working in (De Beque Grocery and Gas) all day, you don’t know anything that’s going on except what people tell you,” she said. “I just had a lady come in who evacuated and was going to see if she could go back home.”

It was difficult to tell Friday how many people evacuated. At several homes on 45 1/2 Road, within the evacuation zone, sprinklers blasted irrigation water across lawns and fields, the drenching perhaps a talisman against the fire.

Ava St. Pierre Cogburn said her husband and several neighbors got a ditch flowing again that had been shut down Monday for moss control. He’d spent all day Thursday digging fire barriers with a tractor, she said.

“Normally, we wouldn’t hesitate to leave, but we’re staying for the animals,” she explained. In addition to their seven mustangs, they have seven dogs and an assortment of cats and chickens.

About 1 p.m. Friday, she expressed hope that the fire would turn away but mentioned she could see flames again after the wind kicked up.

Somehow, watching the flames almost becomes a way to keep them at arm’s length. Thursday night, a crowd of dozens gathered on a hill above De Beque to watch them blaze, said Austin Prame, who lives near town center.

“It doesn’t seem real,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the smoke, none of this would seem real.”


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