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Colorado fire moved fast: 'We had no time, no warning, nothing'

If only there had been a warning. If only there'd been more time.

If only he had left the door open.

"If we had an hour or two..." Ray Miller recalled of Tuesday, which he has now decided was the worst day of his 70 years.

Ray and Cindy Miller smelled the smoke before they saw the flames -- the embers racing through the trees, the blaze in the distance crawling closer to their home on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.

And oh, how loud it was. Ray Miller knew the cliches about tornadoes, how people always say the winds sound like a freight train. He'd lived in his home for 30 years, in the thick ponderosa pine along the edge of the Black Forest Regional Park, with the gazebo he'd married Cindy in, and he'd never been threatened by a Colorado wildfire.

But then the fire came and it truly sounded like a freight train.

And then the trees started exploding, and then Ray Miller heard a crackling close to the house, and he knew the gazebo was gone.

Miller now knows that he stayed too long, trying to hose off the embers before the power shut off and suddenly there wasn't any water anymore.

“Of course, you don’t initially think the house is going to burn -- 'It’s not going to happen to me,' but it does," Miller said in a telephone interview. Maybe, he said now, he would have done something different. But that would have required more time.

"We had no time, no warning, nothing," he said.

He thinks their home was probably one of the very first of the 483 homes that -- as of Saturday evening -- were destroyed by what is now recognized as the most destructive fire in state history. Two people have died in the fire. 

His wife was the first to drive off and he tried saving their other vehicles. He managed to get his work truck out to the road and away from the trees. But when he tried to save the little white Mercedes SL, there was so much smoke he couldn't see. He crashed it into a ditch, and after he left the car, it burned up.

Then firefighters told him there were flames in his attic. The house was going.

“They had pictures of the house burning,” Miller said Saturday, recalling those first images of the fire on the local news. "Ours was one of the first, so they had all kinds of pictures of it burning.

“It’s devastating. I’m 70 years old. I had over 30 years in that house. My whole life was in there: my Lionel train when I was child that my parents bought me. Pictures, family furniture, everything. It was all in there. It’s all gone."

Papers, memorabilia, clothing, his fancy belt buckles. And they probably lost the cat, too. She was called Canard. Miller's an amateur pilot, and the cat's name refers to the airfoil in front of the main wing on some designs.

“I didn’t have the foresight to leave the door open," he said, and then he paused a little before adding, "and in hindsight, I should have.”

Too little time, too much to save, too little warning.

But the Millers do have friends -- lots of friends -- so they're staying with somebody they know in Colorado Springs as the 1,000 or so firefighters stomp out the rest of the blaze. As of Saturday evening, the Black Forest fire was 55% contained, with officials hoping the worst of the conflagration was behind them.

His work truck survived, but for now, the Millers were two of the thousands of Coloradans who remain temporarily homeless, waiting for what's next.

“Hundreds of people in the Black Forest area are going through this," Miller said. "It’s probably next to the death of the parent or a child or spouse -- after that, it's the most devastating thing that can happen.”

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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