BLACK FOREST — With tree limbs popping, residential propane tanks exploding and a huge fire roaring toward the gasoline station, "I kinda wanted to freak out, but I didn't have time. We were too busy," recalls Kimberly Benjamin, the manager.
She, the other employees, and owner Jeff Schickler continued to man the pumps until the last minute for the people fleeing the most destructive fire in the history of Colorado. When the computers crashed, "We started giving the gas away," she told O & A Marketing News.
It wasn't until the flames were practically at the back door that they all climbed into their vehicles and took to the road. Jeff was the last to leave, Benjamin said.
The fire stopped about fifty to one hundred yards away, Benjamin estimated, sparing the station at the Firehouse on the Run Convenience Store. The owner picked the name because he runs a barbecue restaurant in the back section of the store. But he didn't realize just how hot things could get.
The store sits in the very heart of Black Forest, a rural, heavily wooded suburb northeast of Colorado Springs. The German immigrant who founded the area named it because it reminded him of the part of Germany from which he came. It is home to about 13,000 people who moved there for the quiet rustic lifestyle it offers. It may never be the same.
The blaze is fully contained now but it burned down 509 homes, killed two people who were still loading their car for the getaway, and destroyed 14,000 acres. In all, 5,000 people were forced to evacuate as originally the fire seemed unstoppable.
Benjamin lost her home. So did her mother, brother and uncle. "Hardly anything was left," she said. "My mother found a few figurines and a bowl I made for her in school. That meant a lot to her." Her mother and brother are staying with her grandparents, her uncle in a hotel, and she is with family friends.
The convenience store was off limits for six days as firefighters battled the blaze. But when it reopened Benjamin was back, calmly soldiering on. Four days later she was busy again, taking only a short time to reflect on the day the fire turned the close-knit community upside down.
"I was driving to work at 1:00 p.m. and I noticed it was kinda cloudy, like in California, but I didn't realize it was a fire until people started rushing into the store warning, "There's a fire in the forest." The convenience store sits at 12480 Shoup Road in the very hub of the community. "I listened to them but the traffic was so heavy I was more concerned with keeping the pumps stocked and running. The station is the only one in the area. These people are our friends and neighbors. We all live here so we tried to stick it out as long as possible."
"We none of us wanted to leave but the authorities were telling us to get out now. Jeff told us to start packing up. He had just smoked some meat. He was trying to manage the evacuation and to get the meat wrapped and in the freezer."
Finally, about 5:40 p.m., she said they looked out the back door and saw the flames were very close and they went out the front door and hit the road.
Benjamin had been manager only about six months, her first job in the industry. Her previous employment as a dental assistant was no preparation for what the 27-year-old had to handle that day. "The closest thing I can recall to something that bad happening was when lightning hit a tree knocking it into our drive in New York."
The Black Forest fire was one hundred percent contained the day she spoke. The only smoke she said she had noticed since returning was not from Black Forest, but from South Fork, Colorado where another fire was eating up the landscape.
SOUTH FORK — The Fleming family watched as all four hundred residents — their neighbors, friends and customers — fled, chased by a fire that was threatening to swallow up the entire town. Authorities warned it was almost certain the blaze, three miles away at that point, was sure to arrive and they would be helpless to stop it. But still the Flemings stayed because they run the only gas station in the area.
Danny Fleming explained he, his wife, and dad kept the station running so the firefighters would have coffee, fuel and ice.
He breathed a big sigh of relief when the fire veered away from the town and people began trickling back in.
CREEDE — This historic mountain town was also threatened and its only gas station was besieged by customers as the exodus began.The station had so many people waiting in line its owners had to get special permission from the state to bring a tanker through the fire barricades to serve them.
LA JUNTA — It wasn't a fire but a tornado that hit this town in the same time period.
Mark Sarlo, manager of the Phillips 66 station, said he was driving to work when the sky turned dark, the rain began to pound and wind shook his truck.
He stopped and dove for the floor as debris started hitting the vehicle.
When he got to the station the wind had destroyed the station's canopy. Residents who were at work removing downed power poles and trees pitched in, cut up his canopy and hauled it away in chunks to an empty lot so he could resume business. A family brought bottled water and pizzas to feed the volunteer crews.
It made Sarlo very proud. "It's just amazing," he said of the town's people.
COLORADO SPRINGS — Kum & Go has signed a conditional contract with Goodwill Industries to raze its buildings and erect a 5,000-square-foot convenience store and gas station in an historic part of the city. A group bent on preserving the character of the area is not pleased.
Most of the buildings have facades dating back to the turn of the last century and a sprawling structure such as the convenience store chain has planned would be out of place, they said. At the very least the city should force the developers to design a building that would blend in, they said.
They also argue that there are enough convenience stores there and it would take away business from the proprietors who have supported the area for years. It is up to city planner and city council now.
Kum & Go is in the midst of a huge expansion in the metropolitan Colorado Springs area that is expected to include twenty to twenty-five new locations in the next five years. It has mostly been welcomed with a few small pockets of resistance.
Kum & Go recently announced the naming of David Lemons as division vice president of operations for the western division which includes Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota. The chain operates 103 stores in the region.
LITTLETON — A Jiffy Lube lost its manager and two employees recently in a two-vehicle crash on I-70 near Arvada.
Jason Moss, another employee, feared something was wrong when manager Cody Crosby failed to appear to open the shop. He was so punctual "if he was going to be a minute late he'd call and let us know," said Moss.
It turned out that Crosby, with employees Jennifer Rhodes and her fiance, William Wheeler, were in a vehicle that collided with a pickup truck as they were enroute to work at 7 a.m.
Rhodes was dead at the scene. Crosby, a 33-year-old Army veteran, died a day later. Wheeler, who was driving, survived but with severe head injuries.
"Cody always had us laughing, trying to lift our spirits," Moss said.
Rhodes, 35, was the mother of two. She had just graduated from Lincoln College of Technology, and was set to do brake work at the shop where she had worked since October.
She and Wheeler were recently engaged and were planning to be married in November.
A fund raiser with barbecue and drinks was held for the three at the shop.
BOULDER — It was not a good start to her first year of driving.
A 24-year-old woman from Nepal crashed into the Everyday convenience store near the University of Colorado, just missing the clerk.
The driver said she was trying to park. Apparently she hit the gas instead of the brake. She had had her license for only two months.
PUEBLO — The blonde bandit had her robber outfit down pat: a hoodie and sunglasses and a handgun when she descended on employees of two convenience stores here and demanded money.
The first hit was at a Loaf 'N Jug. She then took a break and robbed the Quick Stop in the afternoon.
She was described as between five feet and five feet three inches tall, weighing about 120 pounds.
PUEBLO — This female robber didn't bother with a gun. She threatened the clerk with a pot of hot coffee.
He didn't put up a fight and the woman took off with cash and cigarettes.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of the O&A
Copyright 2013 by KAL Publications Inc.
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