I’ve been to the airport six times since I moved here, and quite frankly wish I earned frequent flyer miles for the commute. It was returning from there on Labor Day after dropping Julia off to return to University of Arizona that I found myself on Route 470 one more time. This time as I left Denver International Airport I noticed a funny cloud near the Flatirons. As time went on, I realized this funny cloud was smoke. The smoke increased with each mile I traveled.
My orientation in Colorado is still somewhat iffy, but the flume of smoke looked suspiciously close to the foothills in Northwest Boulder the closer I got. My heart began to thump and my anxiety increased: Tigger was home alone.
By the time I entered Boulder proper, smoke hung over the city like heavy drapery. I was somewhat surprised to see there was traffic on 28th. Shouldn’t everyone be worried about this crazy cloud of smoke?
Turns out, my orientation was 100% right on; the smoke was coming over the rise in the foothills less than 5 miles from where I lived. A dangerous fire, fed by wild winds that reached gusts of 65 mph was burning just beyond in Four Mile Canyon. I’ve never been this close to a forest fire. Ever.
I made it home, and Tigger was fine. But I wasn’t.
This fire was huge and it was not far away. The cloud of smoke was tornado like in its shape and then it would spread like the Blob, making the exact location of the fire hard to determine. People were losing their homes, pets were trapped inside, and there was no telling where it would burn. The weather had a huge influence. One of the newscasters said a perfect storm had been created for this fire; dry timber, no rain, and insane winds, red flag warning. The helicopters and planes that help fight fires could not fly in this weather.
Something strange happens when a natural disaster occurs near your home. At least for me. The air was thick with smoke and windows had to remain closed. My eyes burned and throat hurt, and ash was falling on my outdoor deck and furniture, but I didn’t want to leave my home. Friends offered me respite from the fire and its smoke, but I chose to remain. Why? Because it was MY home. This was where I belonged. I wanted to be in the comfort of my own home until my safety was threatened. I thought about what I would take with me if the fire came further west, and realized that so long as I had Tigger, I would deal with the material loss. My heart would break to lose the place I so loved, but I would survive.
I knew that I would learn to deal with large amounts of snow, extreme thunderstorms with large hail, and maybe even tornados. I guess I just didn’t realize how tragic and real forest fires would be in my move west.
Eventually, the winds died down enough for an attack by air. The flame retardant that drops from slurry bombers looks like giant buckets of blood. Despite that macabre association, it is a welcome sight and something I watched from the driveway out back. In fact, all over Boulder, you would see people standing perfectly still on sidewalks, at cafes, while in groups or alone, necks craned upward watching the endless air traffic. After each drop, the cloud would darken to an angry, aggressive black.
The only other time in my entire life I have noticed air traffic, was on 9/11. Though, at that time it was the sound of planes returning to the air after days of absolute silence.
On Thursday, day four of the fire, it was like a war zone. Helicopters filled with water drawn from Wonderland Lake, where I normally run, hovered above looking for hot spots to drop on. The noise was unsettling, and reminded us that the evening’s winds could feed this fire in a way that might involve evacuation for the neighborhood immediately across the street. North Broadway, an asphalt road, was all that lay in between who would need to leave and who could remain.
My friend Nicole came over Thursday for ‘girls night.’ We ate pizza outdoors down the street and worried as the wind picked up, but went back to my place, curled up on our respective couches and settled in to watch a chick flick, “She’s Out Of My League.” We paused the movie about halfway through after another friend called to check on us, worried about the wind. So, we decided to take a walk to the end of the street to see if anything was happening. The smell of smoke had increased, as had the wind. We walked down Yellow Pine and both of us complained as ash blew into our eyes. My skirt was being whipped wildly and I had to hold it down with one hand, the other holding Tigger’s leash. Tigger was completely nonplussed, delighted to be included in the evening stroll.
The fire did not come up over the foothills despite crazy winds. And the following day, the fire’s containment percentage grew. 169 homes were lost with eleven homes belonging to firefighters who were fighting the blaze. Thousands of acres were destroyed. So many families were left with nothing but the shirts on their backs as they had escaped. I cannot imagine the emotions one experiences with such a loss. When I left my home in Wayland willingly, I sobbed hysterically as I said good-bye to the structure that provided me with shelter. These families had no choice.
As I write this, I am filled with a sense of wonder that such a dangerous and destructive fire has been beat senseless by the brave men and women who march into danger to protect others.
I hope I never see such a thing again, but am reminded once more, that life turns on a dime. We are given the gift of life each day. Our task is to receive and honor it because no one can say what will come in the next moment, hour or day. Today of all days, we should remember this.