I live in a tiny town in Colorado that is part of what is known as “The Front Range.” This is a series of towns and cities that are mostly sandwiched between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the only major north-south interstate in Colorado, I-25. In my mind the Front Range ends with Fort Collins in the north, and Colorado Springs in the south. The majority of the present population of the state lives here. To give you some perspective, Denver straddles both sides of the middle of I-25.
When my family first moved to Colorado almost twenty years ago, we landed in Boulder, which is nestled right up against and spreads up into the foothills themselves. The beginnings of the Rocky Mountains are riddled with beautiful canyons, hiking trails, national forests, and breathtaking views of above-the-timberline snow-capped peaks.
Looking out to the east you see spectacular nighttime views of sparkling city lights. On a hot summer day as the evening closes in, you can sometimes watch the birth of towering thunderheads a few miles out across the plains, flashing with bolts of lightning zapping to the ground and cloud to cloud. Newcomers flock to the new subdivisions being built. The more adventurous rush to populate the tiny towns higher up a couple of thousand feet. No doubt about it, this is a breath-taking place to live.
Last Saturday, just a week ago now, one of the reasons you might want to rethink living in the foothills began. The High Park fire started with a bolt of lightning, but could just as easily have started with a careless human act. What started as a 300 acre conflagration this time last week, is now a 50,000 acre monster very reluctantly giving up its intent to consume everything in sight. Over a thousand firefighters have put their hearts and souls into taming the blaze, putting themselves at risk to save the lives and property not only of other people, but some also leaving their own homes to the luck of the draw in order to serve the larger good of the city of Fort Collins.
The topography of all that natural beauty makes firefighting a nightmare. Big equipment is almost impossible to get up the dirt canyon roads. What air tankers are available don’t always have a convenient lake to dip into for water. Manpower is stretched thin as fires rage in other places of the American West. Last week the smoke plume carried up into South Dakota. A day later a temperature inversion brought the smoke into my house and yard with eye-stinging intensity, and I live almost twenty miles south of the fire.
Still, I couldn’t help but catch my breath as I drove home from Fort Collins on the interstate Wednesday evening just about sunset. The interstate runs north and south almost seven miles east of the fire. Against the darkening jag of the mountains, a brilliant orange sun sank into the west. Here and there a puffy cloud turned thunderstorm purple with a magnificent rose/magenta/orange belly. But the most glorious sight of all was the fire-plume itself.
An immense fishhook shaped arm reached up and across the sky as far as the eye could see. As I left the interstate and headed west toward the mountains and my home, I could hardly keep my eyes on the road. I had not previously seen the fire from that distance until that minute. To my right up north against the mountains, the sun lit the smoke plume not from above or below, but right directly through its center and across the miles of flat, drawn out immensity.
The darker shades of purple and blue and gray mixed with sickly yellow and off-white. It was the reds and oranges and pinks that really got me. Backlit by the setting sun, all the gorgeous colors of a comforting home-hearth based fire roiled against the sky. Though I knew exactly what that plume meant for the land, the animals, and the people whose lives would be changed forever by its existence, I couldn’t help myself.
It was one of the loveliest things I’ve ever seen. It was beautiful beyond belief. I was grateful it was there for me to see. Even if it also meant destruction and death, seeing it was a gift.