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'Everything's On Hold': Hotels Become Second Homes For Those Fleeing Cameron Peak Fire

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Matt Bloom/KUNC
Thornton Streeter (left) talks to his partner's daughter, Sienna, outside of the Loveland La Quinta Inn on Friday. The family fled their home earlier this week.

Thornton Streeter’s two dogs aren’t used to being leashed.

Ozzy, a German Shepard, and Amber, a mutt, normally run free on Streeter’s property north of Masonville. Now they tug at their owner as he steps outside a Loveland La Quinta Inn for a walk through the parking lot.

Streeter is among dozens now sheltering at the inn off U.S. Highway 34. The hotel is one of six the Red Cross has set up to house evacuees fleeing what is now Colorado’s largest wildfire ever recorded, the Cameron Peak Fire.

“Everything’s on hold,” he said, pulling the dogs toward a nearby trail. “It’s a tragedy because it’s so vast. It’s affected so many people.”

After starting on Aug. 13, the Cameron Peak Fire has expanded to more than 167,000 acres with no sign of slowing down.

While much of the fire’s northern border is contained, a new hot spot on its southeastern edge has caused a fresh round of evacuations in communities north of Estes Park to just west of Horsetooth Reservoir.

The exact number of people who have fled is unclear. The Red Cross said it was housing 759 people across Northern Colorado as of Friday afternoon. Even more residents said on social media they were staying with family or friends.

“Packed my ballot first because I’m not missing a chance to vote,” one person tweeted.

“Under the monster,” said another.

Melissa Venable, executive director of the Red Cross’ Northern Colorado chapter, said due to the pandemic, the organization is opting to house residents without a place to go in separate hotel rooms instead of a large centralized shelter.

“There have been times when evacuees have been sheltered for three or four days, but then the evacuation gets lifted so they go home -- only to come back four days later because the evacuation is in place again,” Venable said. “Can you imagine if you had kiddos doing online school and all that and you’re stuck in a hotel? These poor families.”

The number of evacuations is only expected to grow. On Friday, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office announced more evacuation orders along the Big Thompson Canyon. A Red Flag warning remains in effect through Saturday night due to high winds forecasted in the fire’s burn area.

Last week, Eva Bednar was finally able to return to her home near the fire’s northern edge after spending more than a week at an Embassy Suites in Loveland. She, her husband and teenage daughter worked and attended school all in the same small room.

The situation proved difficult. Crates for the family’s two cats and rabbit took up a lot more space than they expected, she said during a phone interview.

“There’s just nothing you can do about the fire,” Bednar said. “We’ve just been trying to stay busy and positive through all this and we’re glad to be back safely.”

Ross Reed, a postal worker from Red Feather Lakes, also recently returned home after spending more than two weeks with his mother at a Candlewood Suites in Fort Collins.

After work, the two would use the small hotel room kitchen to cook dinner and tune in to the fire response team’s daily updates on social media. Reed said it was the longest time he or anyone in his family have been evacuated.

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

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Matt Bloom/KUNC
Dozens of evacuees are staying at the Loveland La Quinta Inn. It's one of six hotels the Red Cross is using to house residents.

In a field near the La Quinta in Loveland, Streeter let his dogs off their leashes. His partner’s 8-year-old daughter, Sienna, joined him from their hotel room.

Earlier in the week, the family had planned to start homeschooling Sienna. Instead, she has mostly been playing with other kids stuck at the hotel.

It’s the second time the family has fled home this year due to the Cameron Peak Fire. The first time, Streeter was in London for work. This time, he’s glad he can be there for them, he said.

As the dogs played, Streeter tried to cheer Sienna up.

“You’re rocking some really nice tennis shoes,” he told her.

Sienna shrugged. She said nothing.

For now, the family waits to return home and assess any fire damage. Many of their neighbors are in the same situation.

“None of us have been informed because it’s too dangerous up there,” Streeter said. “So it’s a waiting game.”

After walking the dogs, Streeter and Sienna walked back inside the hotel. They planned to go for a swim and try to keep their minds off the fire burning several miles away.

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