Friday, July 20, 2012

Remembering fire

The Lightner Creek Fire from downtown Durango on June 27
(photo by Matt Kenna)
It's only early July, but already this is a fire year to remember.

We started this summer remembering ten years ago, when the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires ripped a path from the Animas Valley to Vallecito and beyond. I remember standing on the campus of the Fort, watching the fire advancing under a great volcanic plume, flames cresting the southern flank of Missionary Ridge and presenting the beast a clear line to town, while helicopters and slurry bombers gave it all they had. I remember the ash started to fall on us then. All the scene needed was The Doors singing "The End."

The good guys won that one, by the way, and Apocalypse Here was averted. Others, however, were not so lucky, as the fire instead just turned and chewed its way east.

This year, though, our remembering has given way to intense flashbacks, as the Mancos area burned, as Bondad sparked, and as -- as I write this, in fact -- Lightner Creek valley burst into flame just three miles west of Durango. Meanwhile, Colorado Springs frantically fends off the Waldo Canyon Fire, and Boulder fights the Eldorado Fire. And numerous other areas of Colorado and the West are again jittery, scanning nervously from their mountains and valleys and neighborhoods for plumes on the horizon, while at the same time keeping a hopeful eye out for that dark cloudbank marking the return of the monsoon rains.

These events, though, even as they are happening, remind us to remember other things, as well:

  • We live in a fire ecology. We need to remember that, understand what that means, and continue to learn how to do that better.

  • Firefighters and police officers and National Forest rangers are brave and vital members of our community. They deserve our remembering and acknowledging of that (like, say, through, tax-supported pay worthy of their role) even when their services aren't in immediate need.

  • Our neighbors are our greatest resource. But only if we remember to appreciate and nurture those connections when we don't need their help.  

  • When disaster strikes, the kindness of strangers can mean the difference between hell and mere purgatory. You gotta remember to pay that shit forward.

I realize that all this philosophical musing can be easy from a safe fire-free distance. Despite the spectacularly hazardous conditions (Durango and Silverton both canceled their Independence Day fireworks displays) we here in Durango proper have thus far again been spared a fire fight. But I nonetheless know of what I speak. For watching all this unfold all around us, I also remember my own experience with fire.

Ours was an unexpected encounter – no watching fire fan out from a spark, or tracking its roll toward us on the internet. No time to pack the car with various most-valuables and pets. No pink slurry lines or water falling from buckets hanging from helicopters or firefighters hacking a defensible perimeter around the house. The firefighters came, but only in time to wet down the embers that had been our home.  

For my wife and I, that also meant there was no wondering, worrying, or fretting about what to save. We just came home and fire had come and gone, leaving a blackened frame of wood sizzling in a deep bowl of February snow. Our material world had been reduced to the level of the Bronze Age -- a situation further complicated by Sarah’s being six months pregnant.

But what could we do? We placed our remaining earthly possessions into the back of our Subaru (it all fit, with room for the dog) and went out into the world.

In the nearly twenty years since then, our lives, of course, have adapted to their suddenly altered paths, and in ways that now just seem natural. I remember the house fire rather clinically now, as something that just happened. But, after all that, and all that time, there are still things that I remember as powerfully now as when they happened:  

  • The night of the fire, we had dinner and a bed, care of neighbors who acted like it was obvious that we’d have dinner and a bed in their home.

  • We soon had a house to live in, free of charge, with another couple who made it seem like our room had been reserved in advance.

  • In the next few days, clothes appeared on our new doorstep, materialized at work, arrived in boxes from old friends, relatives, and friends of friends and relatives.

  • For the next month, acquaintances we’d been too busy to maintain contact with asked us out to dinner like we did it every week and it was their turn to buy.

Thanks to those, and many other kindnesses -- including a woman who helped us finance buying her house, turning down higher offers from real estate agents and buyers because, she said, she wanted our family in the house she'd raised her family in -- that by the time our son was born, he had a home to arrive to. We were a bit impoverished financially, but we knew we would never be poor in any other way.  

So, I think I remember something that I pray those people who have tragically lost their homes to this summer’s big fires are now learning:

The fire will pass. Things will get replaced. Community endures -- if you make it so.

Remember: There is still light after the fire.

Read this story in the "La Vida Local" column in the Durango Telegraph
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