Department

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.

When my family was allowed to return home, we found plenty to do: cleaning, airing out the campfire smell, lending a hand to our neighbors, and offering gratitude to all those who’d helped fight the fire and continued to pass by our house every day. We were delighted by how our community came together, the way people lined the roads, waving and clapping for firefighters, and erecting signs that offered help however they could. “Free pasture for displaced horses.” “Acreage available.” “Free coffee and soup.”

Slowly, we found our footing. Neighbors whose homes had been saved or had burned tried to right themselves from whatever swayback of emotion accompanied the news. We helped each other, talked through the sorrows and the anxieties. Some started right in on the rebuilding. The fire engines that had been coming off the mountain were soon replaced by construction trucks going up. We finally got some rain, and the charred mountains began to green. At that point, I figured it was over and “normal” life would resume. We all had plenty to do to restart the busy and full lives that needed our attentions once again.

Even so, something was still lingering in the air. It was more than just the smell of smoke that permeated throughout the summer. Although this particular fire had been extinguished, many of our neighbors canceled vacation plans. Others reported waking in the middle of the night, whenever the wind kicked up. Insomnia, I found, was rampant. My own children had nightmares about suddenly needing to get up and run. Most reported feeling some form of the jitters, and anxiety hung in the air as if it was entwined with the smoky residue. We were all breathing it in and spreading it to one another like a germ.

I could sense my own unease as well. I was on alert, even when I knew it was more or less over. Was that the smell of smoke? Where was it coming from? What was that helicopter doing up there? Was that a water tanker flying overhead, or just a regular plane?

By September, the mood started to turn. Our community held its annual Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department Fundraiser in its usual meadow in Rist Canyon—the meadow was an oasis of green amid a charred black landscape. The fund-raiser benefitted the initial responders, many of whom lost their own homes while saving others. Our family has attended the event most years, and as we expected, this one was packed. Our community needed it, and not only to support all the folks who had helped during this critical time. We needed to visit the canyon that had burned so badly, to see it up close and neutralized, to find some kind of closure.

My family wandered around the grounds. We visited the art auction, played a few kids’ games, ate ice cream, listened to music, and browsed the book sale. We hugged neighbors and shared our stories once again. For the first time in a long time, the air had a touch of cool to it, and the world seemed a little calmer and safer. When I heard my daughter laugh as she learned to make balloon animals, I sighed with relief. I thought about recovery as I watched my son browse through the antique books at the book sale, concentrating on the titles, his mind far away from dangers. One of the neighbor kids yelped in delight as she saw a bear on a nearby hillside. The whole meadow seemed on fire—figuratively this time—with laughter and chaos, noise and color.

That’s when I realized that this halting recovery, this slow rebalancing of the seasick world, was not as smooth as I had hoped or imagined. But it was working well enough. Our world, for the moment, once again felt solid and steady.

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Sweet Relief

To get more information about how to assist victims of the High Park Fire, visit rcvfd.org; for information about all recent Colorado wildfires, including where to send financial and material donations, visit helpcoloradonow.org