The small community of La Veta may sit 150 miles southwest of Castle Rock, but for one local family, it has been top of mind since July 5. That was the day Jim and Kim Liberatore learned the Spring …
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The small community of La Veta may sit 150 miles southwest of Castle Rock, but for one local family, it has been top of mind since July 5.
That was the day Jim and Kim Liberatore learned the Spring Creek fire — which has drawn more than 1,700 personnel from throughout the nation to combat it and scorched more than 107,000 acres — reached the subdivision of Paradise Acres near La Veta.
At 6:30 a.m. July 5, the Liberatores opened an email with a map detailing the fire's growth the night before. Paradise Acres, where Jim and Kim own a four-bedroom log cabin, lit up red.
"We had heard that for Paradise Acres, that it was not looking good," Jim said July 6.
The human-started fire began June 27 about 5 miles east of Fort Garland but grew to 1,000 acres the first night and rapidly consumed more than 100,000 acres in the following days.
The fire swept through Paradise Acres the night of July 4 as 20 to 30 mph winds carried flames across brittle conditions faster than firefighters could keep up.
For days the couple did not know the fate of their property, but on July 11 learned the cabin, although damaged, still stood. A garage mere feet away, however, was destroyed, including ATVs and equipment stored inside.
For two years, the cabin has served as the Liberatores' refuge, an escape from the bustle of Castle Rock.
It's where Jim feels closest to God. Sitting on the porch he'd hear only silence, except for wind rustling Aspen leaves — a sanctuary where he could reflect on life. Kim cherished their views of the Spanish Peaks, the open spaces and the wildlife. Turkey, elk, deer and yes, the bear who once lounged on their deck.
Their time spent between the July 5 email and July 11 was filled with anxiety, not only for their land, the Liberatores said, but for neighbors who permanently reside in the area.
'They take off in no time'
Two days after fire reached Paradise Acres, officials couldn't say how many structures may have been lost or damaged in the subdivision.
The area remained one of the most active in the fire, said Jessica Borden, a Spring Creek fire spokeswoman, and the massive blaze proved itself a difficult beast from day one.
“The biggest thing that has helped this fire become as big as it has, has been the drought conditions,” Borden said, naming hot temps, low humidity, high winds and dry land as factors. “They start out small and they take off in no time.”
Then there was the landscape, with steep hills and mountainous terrain helping the fire spread. Heat rises, Borden explained. If a fire starts at the base of a mountain it heats and dries out vegetation above it, creating more fuel.
“It goes back to basic science,” she said. “It just travels straight up the mountain so it's never safe for firefighters to be ahead of a fire up a mountain.”
Tack on the heavy equipment firefighters carry, the summer temperatures and 12- to 16-hours shifts, Borden cautioned, “this heat will kill people if you push them too hard.”
Crews continued working to extinguish hot spots and prevent secondary fires in Paradise Acres on July 6, but it remained too dangerous for county personnel to assess the site, she said.
Processing the news
Jim and Kim, stunned by the July 5 email, tried to process the new information. When the fire broke out, it was miles from their home. They didn't think they needed to worry.
They enlarged the map, zooming in until they pinpointed their street, a surreal moment, Kim said.
“It's been a very odd day of just deep sadness,” she said July 5.
They didn't know the extent of damage in the area. They didn't know if their home away from home still stood. They slowly digested headlines, the most sobering from The Denver Post describing the blaze as a “tsunami” that consumed their community.
With that, the couple came to accept the cabin was likely gone. They feared more for their neighbors, whose permanent residences were in Paradise Acres, and hoped people prayed for firefighters' safety.
Kim called their property's previous owners, an elderly couple who moved upon retirement. Selling their home was emotional for them, Kim said, and the two families remained in contact.
Kim explained to the wife that fires burned across Colorado and one reached Paradise Acres. They didn't believe the cabin survived. Together, the two women cried over the phone.
“We promised them we would take such good care of their home,” Kim said.
A shared place
The Liberatores and their 9-year-old daughter, Francesca, made the roughly two-hour drive to La Veta — a town with a population of less than 800 people — one or two weekends a month.
They rode ATVs. They went to church. They praised the town for its tight-knit, welcoming culture.
If they weren't using the cabin, they shared it with family and friends.
Jim's sister and about 10 more relatives were staying there the weekend of June 29 when neighbors knocked on the door and told them new evacuation orders meant everyone needed to leave.
They took with them the one item Kim and Jim asked they grab — a logbook in which each person who stayed at the cabin wrote about their experiences.
The couple watched a community meeting led by emergency managers and livestreamed online July 5. No information was available on specific homes, but the fire reached 35 percent containment, the most yet.
Come July 9, the Liberatores still didn't know their home's status. Getting little news was frustrating, Kim said, but they'd again tune into community meetings scheduled that day in hopes they'd learn more.
The fire had reached 70 percent containment, heartening news for those on the frontlines, but had scorched more than 107,600 acres.
“We'd like the people in the community and the folks in Paradise Acres to know that our firefighters are doing everything they can to protect their homes,” Borden said July 6. “We'd like to thank the folks in the community for all the support.”
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