Only minutes to evacuate
Published: Thursday, July 19th, 2012
It was an afternoon no one will soon forget.
“I remember seeing the smoke in the air and thinking it was heading this way,” said Shelly Plowman. “It’s the scariest thing I have ever been through.”
Plowman and her husband, Lyle, own a vacation home on Circle Drive in the Custer Highlands area, where they had been staying for a week. The Highlands fire started at 1:56 p.m. on Sunday, July 1, and thick smoke could soon be seen in the area as early as 2 p.m.
“Lyle had just gotten home and before we knew it, the fire was near our home,” Plowman said.
Within 30 minutes, the fire quickly made its way to the Plowmans’ home, which they quickly evacuated, grabbing clothes and any important items.
“We had minutes,” Plowman said. “What do you grab in a minute’s notice?”
Plowman’s first thought during the fire was for her brother-in-law and nearby neighbors.
“My home is just a vacation home,” Plowman said. “But my family and neighbors, this is their life. This home is what they have. They had more to lose than me.”
The Plowmans quickly headed over to Lyle’s brother’s home near the fire, where they began packing animals, computers and clothing, as well as other important items.
“We packed whatever we could get our hands on and got the heck out,” Plowman said. “By the time we got there, we could hear the roar of the flames, smell the burning and feel the heat. I’ll never forget it.”
In the rush of grabbing items and belongings, Plowman didn’t have time to think what she was doing — or what she was saying.
“I was moving so fast I felt like I was going backwards. My mind was on overdrive,” she said. “I’m sure we were snapping at each other and getting in the way, but you don’t have time to think of it until afterwards.”
The Highlands Fire, located 13 miles southeast of Newcastle, Wyo., is still under investigation, but was contained on Wednesday, July 4, after it burned 394 acres. A crew of 28 worked on the fire, trying to secure burn-out areas and control lines. Three homes were lost in the fire and numerous structures were damaged. Residents in the area were evacuated from their homes on July 1, but soon returned after the fire was contained.
“The sheriff’s office went door to door getting everyone out,” Plowman said. “We had minutes to get out from the time they told us. We really had to act quickly.”
Merle and Tara Derifield were one couple that lost their A-frame home in the fire. The Derifields, who live on Midnight Drive, have plans on to rebuild their home and are currently living in a concession trailer on their property. Shortly after the fire, the Derifields were living in a tent on their property until the concession stand became available.
A home on Old Cabin Road was also lost in the blaze, as was an historical home. The home Harriet Ward, a homesteading pioneer, lived in, located on Harriet Ward Road, was destroyed in the fire. It is unknown if the home was lived in or being rented at the time. Other structures lost in the fire included garages, campers and numerous outbuildings. Many other homes were partially damaged in the fire, as well.
Peggy Lindbloom was on vacation when the Highlands Fire started. Her home was in direct line of the fire, but due to the hard work of fire fighters, her home was untouched.
“My home is an island of green, but surrounded by ash and burned land,” Lindbloom said. “It’s remarkable to see how a fire can spread and jump. I’m really thankful for the work of the firefighters. I’m very fortunate.”
“After we had everything moved out and packed, we drove away and were able to process everything,” Plowman said. “I kept thinking, ‘What did we just do?’ You don’t understand; your mind isn’t processing what happened, your body just reacted.”
Plowman, along with other neighbors and those affected by the fire, gives all the credit to the firefighters and the Custer County Sheriff’s Office.
“They went in when the fire was getting closer and made sure to get us out,” Plowman said. “We’re all thankful for them and their service.”
Plowman said firefighters closed all of her windows she had left open during her speedy evacuation and moved objects that doubled as fire fuel away from the home.
“The firefighters dug trenches around our home to trap the fire so they could put it out,” Plowman said. “They really worked hard. From our perspective of the fire, everything could have been lost. I’m amazed that only three homes were lost.”
After the fire was contained, residents began returning to their homes and properties to assess damages.
“We were never given an official re-entry call, but we were never told we couldn’t,” Plowman said.
The Plowmans returned to their home for a couple days before leaving and going back to their Minnesota-based home with a story to tell.
“It’s not something I ever want to go through again, that’s for sure,” Plowman said. “Once was enough.”
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