Nearly 500 homes have been destroyed in what authorities believe is the worst wildfire in Colorado history. Every single one of them has a story, and there are sure to be plenty more told as Friday's forecast predicts more scorching heat and strong winds.
Bill and Karen Moreau are sitting in a hotel room 15 miles away from the home they planned to spend the rest of their lives in. For the past three nights, they've struggled to sleep, dreaming fitfully that they are again walking its 7,000 square feet of hardwood floors. They open their huge front doors, and are immediately soothed by the view from large windows, an expanse of lush timber.
"We had the most beautiful home," Karen Moreau said. "It's just so sad that it's gone."
As firefighters and a cavalcade of responders battle the Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs, families like the Moreaus are torn between absolute gratitude that they are safe, and sorrow that they've nothing left of their homes besides memories.
Around 3 p.m. Tuesday, Bill Moreau got a call at work from a friend warning him that he'd better get home. The Black Forest Fire was headed toward his neighborhood.
That day, there was little indication that the fire would pick up as it has, moving with a ferocity that has shocked seasoned emergency professionals.
Moreau met his wife, Karen, and their 30-year-old son, Craig, at home and saw smoke billowing two to three miles away.
Just as Californians prepare themselves for an earthquake and Floridians for a hurricane, Colorado residents know what they need to grab from home in case of a wildfire.
Because the smoke seemed relatively far away, they thought they had time.
"I said, 'Well, let's get some stuff ready,' " Bill Moreau said.
They grabbed their passports, birth certificates and some clothes. Bill got his computer.
"After a while, it was just random," Karen said. "You start to think, 'Well, what else do I take?' "
Every year of their 34-year marriage, Bill has given her a Santa for Christmas.
For a moment, she thought about taking them.
"I thought, 'that's dumb, I really don't need to do that,' " Karen Moreau said.
So she left them.
Fleeing a fast-moving fire
The family had three cars, so each person took one. Lucy, the family lab, jumped into Karen's car.
Karen and Craig drove away, heading toward the Moreaus' other son's house about five miles away. That son, Kevin, and his wife, Sylvia, had a baby eight days ago.
Bill lingered a bit. He watched the fire with a local news photographer.
Suddenly, the fire lurched toward them.
"It went through the woods like a demon," he recalled. "It was hard to take your eyes away from it. The smoke didn't go straight up. It billowed, and it churned. It was like it had a life. It was chewing up the woods.
"You could hear propane tanks exploding," he said. "Every time [the fire] would hit a house, the smoke would turn jet black for a second. It ran through that neighborhood faster than you could run."
Moreau had to get out, and get out fast. So he pulled out and joined the thick traffic of other people trying to get out.
Not long after he arrived at his son Kevin and Sylvia's house, the fire had spread their way. Smoke was billowing above the couple's house.