The Fire This Time

When the High Park inferno spared our home, our first emotion was relief. But even though we were lucky, we didn’t realize how much work was still left to do.

November 2012

Recovery, I have found, does not take a smooth or quick trajectory. It’s not an “every-day-will-get-a-little-better” type of thing. It’s full of stops and starts, backtracking and loops, and certain days feel like you’ve been thrown right back where you began.

This has been true for my community, Bellvue, which has been trying to recover from this summer’s High Park Fire. It’s been true for my family, which was thankfully spared from disaster yet still is seeking a return to normalcy. It even seems true for the mountains themselves, which already show signs of greening—although on other days, because of the eerie way the light sometimes hits, they only offer infinite silhouettes of charred ridges and skeleton trees.

It started with a jolt: a reverse 911 call at three in the morning and an officer pounding on the door. After we left our dirt driveway on that dark and suffocating June night, we drove along a quiet county road surrounded by farmland, sending sparks of hope into the air: hope that our house would be there when we returned, that the wind would shift, and that the world would right itself again. We spent the first few days of our evacuation watching the surreal scene unfold from a nearby ranch. The smoke and ash and howling winds complicated the efforts of others to salvage what they could, everything from their worldly possessions to their beloved pets and farm animals.

Then, suddenly, there was nothing to do. We milled around. Normal life was suspended, and that left us unsure of what to do or how to spend our time. Go to a movie? It didn’t seem appropriate or fun. The prospect of going on a hike seemed impossible—and ill-advised—because of the heat and wind and soot. Watching the fire from the relative safety seemed to only increase the anxiety and sorrow. We thought about using our sudden windfall of time to take a vacation but then quickly ruled it out; we needed to stay, and help—and hope.

So we waited in a thickening air of anxiety. The wind roared in one direction, and then another. We studied maps and consulted with neighbors as the fire encroached. Because we’d chosen to live at the base of the mountains, rather than in them, we felt certain our home would survive. But we knew others whose homes wouldn’t, and they knew it too. The community gathered in various local places—the school, the post office, on a ridge offering a good view—mostly silent yet buzzing with nervous energy that seemed to have no outlet. Stuck in the middle of our landlocked, solid-ground Colorado, the ordeal and its aftermath left us feeling seasick.