Big Fire, Small Moments: Lessons from the Fourmile Fire

Dramas play themselves out during Colorado's wildfire season.
June 2012

Larimer County's High Park Fire has consumed more than 41,000 acres in less than a week, and at least one person has been reported dead.

As our feature story last year on the victims of Boulder County's Fourmile Fire showed, lots of small, dramatic moments play themselves out during a wildfire—and they're often not shared. After spending several months with victims of that fire, I learned about the significant mental and emotional toll that a fire can have on a person's psyche. And that losing a home is a lot like losing a family member; the pain is very real.

From "The Fire Next Door" article: The route along Fourmile Canyon Drive looked as if the fire had barely touched it. Karen Minniear thought it didn’t seem so bad. She knew their house was gone—a neighbor had called a few days earlier to deliver the news—but Karen still thought they could rebuild. The road curved in front of them, winding its way deeper down the canyon, past signs thanking firefighters for saving their cat or their dog or for saving a home. The road climbed and fell. Trees turned from green to brown. The road climbed again and Karen gasped. Splayed before her and Pat were hundreds of acres of black. The route dipped and curved again. More black. She began to cry.

At one point last summer, I was walking through a piece of property with a man who'd lost his home. He took me to a corner of his lot, lifted up a wheelbarrow and showed me what was left of his belongings. There were charred pieces of paper and a few melted spoons. That was pretty much it. I looked at the items and then studied him. His eyes softened and he put his hands on his hips, as if he was trying to figure something out. Maybe he was a little embarrassed that he'd kept these items, which perhaps he thought seemed insignificant to me and now were useless to him.

But it was obvious why he kept them—something I didn't recognize until later. Everyone I talked to who'd lost a home saved something that at first might have seemed meaningless—spoons and glassware seemed to be a particular favorite—but meant a whole lot more. In those free-form pieces of metal and glass were an indication of life, of a past, of memories. And after everything came crumbling down—when life became a chaotic mess—those memories were the things that kept them sane. Those memories were what mattered most.