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Tiny Bellvue Post Office Delivers Mail To Hundreds Of Cameron Peak Evacuees

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Matt Bloom/KUNC
Ross Reed sorts letters inside the Bellvue Post Office. Reed has been evacuated from his home in Red Feather Lakes for nearly 3 weeks, but still comes to work to help sort mail.

Patti Halderman expected this fall to be a busy time for her and the staff at the Bellvue Post Office northwest of Fort Collins. With the election approaching and holidays just around the corner, Halderman, the town’s postmaster, made plans to work overtime.

Then came the fire.

On Sept. 20, the Cameron Peak wildfire burning in western Larimer County exploded in size due to warm, dry weather and winds. In response, the sheriff’s department ordered thousands of residents to evacuate. The U.S. Postal Service abruptly cancelled the area’s deliveries.

That meant Amazon packages, election ballots, medications, bills, magazine subscriptions and thousands of other pieces of mail had no way of reaching people who were displaced. Bellvue, due to its proximity to evacuated communities, was chosen as their temporary pick up site.

Now, after delivering mail to the town’s roughly 1,200 residents, the office’s team of 8 spends afternoons picking through multiple carts full of evacuee mail brought in on trucks from the postal service’s processing facility in Denver. Clerks sort letters and packages alphabetically in the building’s cramped back room.

“All the employees working here, they’re doing such a good job,” Halderman said. “It’s been challenging.”

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Matt Bloom/KUNC
Patti Halderman is the postmaster for the Bellvue Post Office, which normally serves about 1,200 residents. Due to the Cameron Peak fire, the staff is delivering mail to almost twice that many people.

Reinforcements have arrived over the past few weeks. Several clerks from the post offices closest to the Cameron Peak burn area have transferred to help process evacuee mail. Some of them are themselves displaced.

Ross Reed, a clerk from Red Feather Lakes, has been living in a nearby hotel with his mother for nearly 3 weeks.

“It’s hard on my mom. She’s 94 and confused about the situation,” Reed said. “And so that makes it hard for me.”

When he comes into work, Reed sorts through his evacuated neighbors’ mail and wonders whether his home is still safe. Every night, he cooks in the small kitchen at the hotel and watches updates from the fire’s response team on social media.

“Every time you watch, you wonder,” he said. “You just keep hoping that the wind blows in the right direction.”

There’s no exact count of how many people remain displaced due to the Cameron Peak Fire, and more recently the even larger Mullen Fire further north. The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office says it’s likely in the thousands. The Red Cross says it’s paying for nearly 700 evacuees to stay in local hotels across Northern Colorado.

Meanwhile the fire remains active. As of Thursday, October 8, the Cameron Peak fire was more than 128,000 acres in size. Containment was at 42%.

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Matt Bloom/KUNC
A sign inside the Bellvue Post Office directs evacuees to write their name and address on a slip of paper. Clerks have organized all evacuee mail alphabetically. Residents must present their name and a valid driver's license to receive mail.

In the Bellvue Post Office’s lobby, evacuees lined up out the door. Each held their driver’s license and a small piece of paper with their name and address written on it -- their ticket to picking up mail.

Reid Miller also carried a stack of envelopes and magazines. He planned to forward them to his colleagues at the Shambhala Mountain Center.

In late September, the fire burned through the Buddhist retreat center, destroying at least a dozen structures, according to a recent tally. Miller had started his job in human resources at Shambhala just two weeks before evacuating.

Now he’s staying with a local host family as the retreat center figures out a plan to rebuild, he said.

“Just a huge thanks to the firefighters,” Miller said. “We could have lost a lot more. I’ve watched them work their asses off to protect our Stupa and Temple and it’s just been really cool to see the community come together.”

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Windsor Severance Fire Rescue
Smoke surrounds the Stupa at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Larimer County. The Cameron Peak fire burned through the retreat center late last month, destroying at least a dozen structures.

After a morning of sorting mail, Postmaster Patti Halderman stepped outside for a short break. She watched helicopters carrying water buzz over the building on their way to aid firefighters on the ground more than 30 miles away.

The normal thick haze and accompanying campfire smell had cleared for a few hours. It was the first time in days that she’s seen blue skies.

“There’s no smoke,” Halderman said. “It’s so deceptively nice, isn’t it?”

The Bellvue Post Office has found ways to stay open through other disasters and uncertain times in the past, she said, including the High Park Fire in 2012 and the 2013 floods.

“We’re going to be fine,” Halderman said. “I’m not worried about anything. We have Christmas coming up too so we’re ready for a busy time.”

Halderman’s team is preparing to process evacuee mail through the rest of the month if needed as crews work to fully contain the fire, which started burning almost two months ago on August 13. And even with the election and mail-in ballot delivery just around the corner, she said her team can handle the added stress.

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