Last night I watched on television as the news helicopter flew over the fire on the edge of Boulder, Colorado, not far from where I used to live. Only one ridge, Flagstaff Mountain, separated the new wildfire from the city of Boulder, the news anchor droned. The Feds were being called in to manage the fire because of its proximity to a very highly populated area. Calling in the Feds means it is much easier to allocate firefighting resources, such as the huge tanker planes, to fight the fire. It is taken out of the hands of the State of Colorado. Now I see this morning that Colorado Springs is suffering the same fate. I have friends in both areas. Fires rage in the state all along the I-25 corridor. Even Rocky Mountain National Park is not immune.
Just two months ago, in April, I was a participant in a writing workshop at a beautiful home near the top of Flagstaff mountain. We were visited across the day by coyote, wild turkeys and deer. There were views from the property through evergreen trees and softly waving Aspen of the snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide. The air was cool and fresh, and smelled of the sun-warmed earth at altitude. Now I wonder if that same view is through the charred trunks of devastated trees. Now I wonder if the workshop leader’s house is still there. After all, she remarked that day as we were all admiring her house that she and her husband had not culled all of the trees close to the house that were recommended for a fire barrier…in the event of just such a situation as now exists.
Farther down Flagstaff sits the Flagstaff Restaurant, an easy ride up from Boulder for good food and a commanding view of Boulder itself and the surrounding plains. A good friend of mine got married there. My family flew in from across the country, my mother included, to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday at that restaurant. This is the “ridge” the newscaster was talking about that is the barrier before the fire hits Boulder.
For the past few days it has been beastly hot and dry, close to 100 degrees and more. Each day the sky has gotten dark and purple, the wind has kicked up strongly, and lightning has cracked the evening sky as thunder growled. But each time, despite a slight smell of rain and a few sprinkles of refreshing droplets that don’t even come in enough quantity to wet the cement of the street or sidewalk, nothing much has happened. Only a few lonely puffy thunderheads form along tornado alley, east of I-25.
I felt the fear as I drove to Denver early last Sunday morning and the blanket of smoke from the High Park Fire near where I live now obscured the mountains and stretched out to the east all the way down to south Denver. The fire by Colorado Springs was just beginning that day. I am and will be eternally grateful to all those thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line to fight to contain these fires. My heart hurts for all the people who have lost their homes, their animals, and perhaps their livelihoods. Still, I wonder if there isn’t some broader lesson for us to learn.
It’s only been the last couple of hundred years that human beings have even lived in much number up against or up in the mountains themselves. It was human greed, desire for the gold and silver to be found in the mountains, that brought settlement and the beginnings of what is now Fort Collins and other towns along the Front Range. There really wasn’t much that could be done about wildfires in the mountains before there were planes that could carry significant loads of water and fire retardant. The canyons and ridges just burned. Even the Native Americans stayed out of the mountains as home for large numbers of people. Perhaps the rest of us should do the same.