Steamboat Springs Julie Grady first smelled smoke while walking to the reception in her homemade hemp wedding dress. The newlywed (formerly Julie Sokolowski) had just exchanged vows below towering pines at a remote camp in California's San Gabriel Mountains.
Her daughter, 11-year-old Anala Sokolowski, played "Ode to Joy" on her violin. A bluegrass band, whose instruments were packed in by mules, also provided music. About 50 of her and groom Ken Grady's closest friends and family members had made the four-mile hike into Sturtevant Camp in the Big Santa Anita Canyon for the weekend-long wedding ceremony that had unfolded just how she imagined - so far.
The smoke smell quickly became an afterthought at Saturday's reception.
"'They'll get it put out, it's not that serious,' was my initial impression," Julie Grady said. "Nobody panicked. Everyone just partied and had fun."
"I forgot about it," Ken Grady added. "I didn't think about it at all."
That was harder to do the next morning.
"Sunday morning we awoke, and there was definitely more smoke in the valley," Ken Grady said.
As the Steamboat couple and their wedding guests enjoyed a pancake breakfast at the United Methodist Church camp managed by Julie Grady's stepfather, Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team personnel showed up and suggested an evacuation because of wildfire. The rescuers initially said the evacuation was voluntary and that people could hike out or be airlifted, the Gradys said, before the atmosphere turned tenser.
"At the last minute, they said everyone had to be airlifted out," Julie Grady said. "The fire department must have been in some sort of a panic. : At the last minute, they pretty much did a forced evacuation. At that point, I guess I was a little panicked."
The clamor of helicopter blades, the flying of dirt and rocks and the heat of a chopper cabin quickly replaced the serenity of the canyon retreat. Anala Sokolowski was one of about 10 children at the wedding, and she said the deafening helicopters were the scariest part of the whole nuptial adventure.
"At first it was, like, shocking, and I didn't know how to think of it," the Steamboat Springs Middle School sixth-grader said. "Initially, I was scared, but then I wasn't as worried."
It wasn't until they reached their cars and headed out of the canyon on Chantry Road that the wedding-goers saw the fire that rescuers feared would surround them.
"It was completely out of control," Julie Grady said. "We drove out and there was fire everywhere. : It was quite larger than we had expected."
The wildfire was 57 percent contained early Tuesday, The Associated Press reported, after covering 538 acres of mountain terrain northeast of Los Angeles. The AP reported most of the more than 1,000 people evacuated had been allowed to return to their homes by Tuesday.
But reached on Julie Grady's cell phone Tuesday, the Steamboat couple and Anala were at the bride's parents' house in Wrightwood, Calif., awaiting an opportunity to return to Sturtevant Camp and retrieve their and others' belongings that had to be left behind. Items left at the camp include backpacks and things that were packed in by mules, which include the bluegrass instruments, alcohol and food.
"All of our stuff is still at the camp," Julie Grady said. "We're just hanging out. We don't know what we're doing at this point."
There's no rush to leave, though, the couple said. They do not have a honeymoon planned. Julie Grady is her own boss and Ken Grady, a Steamboat postal clerk, has plenty of vacation time to spend. Although the second half of their wedding weekend didn't play out as expected, the couple is far from upset. Plus, Ken Grady said, plenty of guests were more than happy to fly out and avoid the four-mile hike.
"I think it's just icing on the cake of a beautiful weekend," he said. "I'm not mad at all. On the contrary, I think it was neat that everyone got to have an adventure like that. : The whole adventure is something they'll never forget."