Shliach Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Liberow and his family were among the 32,000 people who fled Colorado Springs in the face of the raging Waldo Canyon wildfire that began three days ago and continues to burn out of control.
The fire breached the containment area yesterday, with conditions exacerbated by hot dry weather and high winds and the first houses fell to the fire yesterday.
Colorado Springs’ Chabad community center, Shul and mikvah, as well as the home of Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Liberow are all dangerously close to the path of the blaze which doubled in size last night to encompass an twenty four mile area. The Chabad center is located in the northwestern part of Colorado Springs, the second largest city in the state, on West Rockrimmon Boulevard.
The United States Army has been called in to help with evacuations and as of this afternoon, the fire has reached the United States Air Force Academy, with all cadets being removed from the premises due to the blaze. The flames are moving eastward at a rapid rate and officials fear that once they cross the four lane Interstate 25, the remainder of city will be in danger as well.
“There is so much smoke here it has blocked out the sun,” Sergeant Baruch Zev Baitch who is assisting with evacuations. told VIN News.
While the flames could be seen from Colorado Springs several days ago, residents never expected the inferno to become part of their reality.
“We saw smoke outside on Shabbos, which looked both majestic and scary,” Rabbi Liberow told VIN News. “We didn’t realize how close it was or that it would be difficult to contain. It didn’t seem to be that serious.”
Rabbi Liberow left Colorado after Shabbos in order to take two of his children to summer camp on the East coast, returning to Denver International Airport late yesterday afternoon.
“I was coming back from the airport at 5:30 and driving down to Colorado Springs, it was mamash a pachad,” recalled Rabbi Liberow. “The sky, was black, brown, orange, it looked like a painting. The closer I got to town, the more I realized that this was a very serious matter. There were miles and miles of just orange and brown ahead of me. I tried calling my wife who was home with the rest of our children, but while I had been able to reach her earlier, I couldn’t get through and I got very scared. I called 911 to try to track her cell phone; I had no clue what had happened. Getting off the highway at our exit, there were cars everywhere and it was clear I was going to have to turn around and go back. As I was making my way back onto the highway, still on hold with 911, I see my wife’s car, two cars ahead of mine. I jumped out of my car and ran over to my wife’s vehicle. My wife and the kids just ran out of the house with the clothing on their backs and literally left everything we own behind.”
The Liberows drove to Denver, approximately sixty miles away, and with great difficulty, managed to find one available hotel room.
“Between the fire and a golf tournament in Denver, there was literally nothing available,” explained Rabbi Liberow. “We called hotel after hotel until we finally found one room available just for one night. For tonight, so far we have located just one small room, in a different hotel. Everything else is booked.”
According to Rabbi Liberow, who is on Shlichus in Colorado Springs for eleven years, many of the baalei batim live on the other side of town, in an area that is further away from the inferno. Located in a popular tourist area and near the United States Air Force Academy, many of the people who daven in the Shul are either visitors or military members.
“Our house, the Shul, the mikvah, they are right there, just minutes away from the fire,” said Rabbi Liberow, who noted that the Shul’s two sifrei Torah were rescued last night. “We are davening very hard and b’zechus tefillas rabim, we hope that all will be well.”
A website has already been set up to help both the Jewish community of Colorado Springs and the Liberow family. Donations can be made at www.chabadfirerelief.com.
“I never dreamed that this fire would be anywhere near my house,” Zelda Liberow, Shlucha to Colorado Springs and Southern Colorado, said Wednesday from a hotel near Denver. “We knew it was getting close, but then, all of a sudden, the entire city was covered in smoke. It was 5:00 in the afternoon and everything was pitch black.”
Liberow’s description of events Tuesday matched those of the more than 26,000 evacuees forced to flee the advancing windswept flames of the infamous Waldo Canyon Fire. Officials termed the fire’s doubling in size as an explosion of unprecedented proportions.
It’s been “a historically challenging day,” fire incident commander Rich Harvey told The Denver Post on Tuesday.
Essentially, the high winds and dry conditions took what started as a small fire - authorities have not determined who or what is to blame - and turned it into a firestorm. Amazingly, no one has been injured.
“Thank G-d, no one’s hurt. That’s the real miracle in all of this,” said Liberow, who grabbed her children and fled with the clothes on their backs while her husband was returning home from the airport. “The fire’s out of control, but everybody got out.”
Moshe Liberow, who flew in from New York at 3:30 Tuesday afternoon, knew his wife was considering evacuating when the flames from the mountainside she could see through her windows were getting closer. But as he drove home, he had no idea what she decided in the end.
“It was an unbelievable sight,” he said. “The entire sky was orange and red and as you got closer, it turned this pitch black. As I was getting close to the exit, I was frantic and called 911. There was smoke all over the place and fire in the streets. Finally, I couldn’t go any farther.”
The rabbi turned around, still on hold with 911, and headed back for the highway.
“It was such a miracle,” he detailed. “Two cars ahead, I saw my wife’s car.”
After reuniting, they caravanned to Denver, where they were able to secure one of the last available hotel rooms in the city. On Wednesday, however, they were looking for longer-term accommodations.
Back in Colorado Springs, reports indicated that upwards of 1,000 firefighters have been mobilized to fight the blaze. On Wednesday morning, it was just five percent contained. People like the Liberows have no idea how their homes, community centers and synagogues have fared.
“We had a community member who was able to get the police to let him back into the area around the Chabad House to save the Torah scrolls,” said Zelda Liberow, who has been working the phones to see if their friends and neighbors need any help.
She and her husband have set up an emergency fund to deal with the disaster.
“Right now,” added Liberow, “all the firefighters are just trying to save as many homes as they can.”