Campus community shines during challenge of state’s most devastating fire


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Sandy Berry-Lowe considers UCCS to be her professional home.

But the 22-year campus veteran and associate professor of biology never thought she would actually live on campus in space normally designated for students.

For three nights, June 26-28, Berry-Lowe and her husband, Luis, joined hundreds of other evacuees in UCCS campus housing as the worst fire in Colorado history raged in the hills west of campus, blanketing the city with choking smoke and consuming 346 residences. Five UCCS employees lost their homes, dozens more came home the weekend of June 30 to damaged homes, and hundreds were evacuated. An unknown number of the 3,200 students enrolled for the summer semester were affected.

Classes were canceled the night of June 26 but continued throughout the rest of the week as university officials recognized that air conditioned UCCS buildings provided the safest breathing environment for many faculty, staff and students.

For many, the fire that began June 23 seemed an unlikely campus emergency. That changed June 26 when the fire spread and threatened the entire west side of the city. UCCS became the site for media briefings given by municipal and National Forest Service leaders as well as a site for evacuated city residents, U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, and relief housing for firefighters and National Guard troops. The Gallogly Events Center was the site of an emotional June 28 meeting organized by the city where hundreds of Mountain Shadows residents came to learn the fate of their homes.

The period from June 26 through July 5 provided UCCS the opportunity to shine, Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak, herself an evacuee, said in one of her daily updates on the fire situation and the UCCS response.

“I am proud of our campus response to this disaster and thank each of you for the care that you have shown to each other and to strangers,” Shockley-Zalabak said.

For Berry-Lowe, a Rockrimmon resident, signing up for a reverse 911 evacuation message seemed like an unnecessary precaution. But when the call came Tuesday night, she was prepared.

“I remember taking time to pack some personal photos, a picture from high school and a few other good pictures on our way out the door,” Berry-Lowe recently recounted. “It was a powerful reminder that I don’t really need all this stuff.”

When Sandy and Luis arrived on campus, their intention was to spend the night in her office in the Osborne Center for Science & Engineering. However, they were quickly given a room in Alpine Village complete with a view of the fire occurring in west Colorado Springs.

The Berry-Lowes were not alone in receiving university housing. A total of 74 people with UCCS ties stayed on campus. They were joined by 101 community members, 203 United States Air Force Academy cadets and 169 off-duty firefighters and National Guard members.

According to Susan Szpyrka, senior associate vice chancellor, Administration and Finance, providing housing for evacuees and first responders was the right thing to do. Szpyrka was authorized to do whatever it took to make evacuees comfortable, including allowing people who had fled from their homes with pets to stay.

Each evacuee received three nights housing free of charge.

Both Shockley-Zalabak and Szpyrka were quick to credit the more than 40 volunteers and staff members who responded to the campus call for help. Volunteers took on mundane tasks ranging from cleaning rooms to making signs or directing traffic in an effort to make UCCS as welcome, inviting and as prepared as possible.

“I was amazed at the number of volunteers and the camaraderie that we experienced,” said Jackie Crouch, coordinator of technology services, Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, who cleaned dorm rooms in preparation for off-duty firefighters. “I felt such relief at being spared that all I could think of was to give back in any way possible in support of those who had been affected. No job was too menial. We didn’t care who we were helping. We just wanted to help in any way possible.

“To stand by and simply observe while others suffered loss or put their lives in peril to protect our community was not an option. To be called off because we had too many volunteers was an amazing phenomenon and speaks to the community that we live and work in. I am privileged to be a part of it.”

For more information and photos, see Communique.

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