When Mike and I closed on our house in June of 2002, the Hayman fire was burning to the north and west of Colorado Springs. Ash fell on my car in the days before closing, and when I drove between Colorado Springs and my apartment in Denver I could see the glow of flames behind the foothills.
Despite the ash and the glow, the Hayman fire didn't scare me. I was new to the west and didn't understand the 'wild' part of wildfire, the part that means unpredictable and uncontrolled. The fire was big but seemed far away, even when our insurance agent mentioned that we were lucky to have pinned down our policy before State Farm stopped issuing new policies in our part of town.
I won't make that mistake again, not being afraid of wildfire.
Mike and the kids and I went to tae kwon do class on Saturday, June 23rd at 12:30pm. At a stoplight near our house I glanced to the west and saw a slim column of smoke trickling up to the sky. The smoke was just behind a hill at the edge of town, narrow like a campfire but taller than any campfire could ever be. I said, "Kids, that's what a wildfire looks like," because it couldn't be anything else. It was a curiosity, but I was certain it would be put out that afternoon. It was so small.
Ninety minutes later we drove home. I looked to the west again and saw something different.
Not a campfire anymore, and so close. That scar on the hill is a quarry above the neighborhood my kids' daycare is in. There are homes there, and two elementary schools. It's part of the city of Colorado Springs, not a remote mountain town. Part of the city. Cities don't burn in wildfires, I thought. Cities have fire hydrants, and roads. Fires can't cross roads.
For three days we watched the smoke and the news. The fire was called the Pyramid Mountain fire for a few hours and then renamed the Waldo Canyon fire. I drove to a parking lot down the hill from our house many times to check on where the smoke was rising. Sometimes it came over our house, but sometimes the wind blew in the other direction and the sky was clear through our windows. The air smelled like a campfire even on the clear days and we had to stay inside. The kids' daycare was closed because it was in one of the earliest evacuation areas, so Mike and I split the days to stay home with the kids. It didn't feel like a holiday, though, and it didn't feel like a weekend; by midday Tuesday everybody was tired of each other's company.
Mike wanted to pack in case we got evacuated but I thought he was being ridiculous and told him it was pointless and alarmist to pack. The fire wouldn't cross the ridge, I said, because the idea of it coming into the city was absurd. On Monday night my Facebook feed went into a panic with people seeing flames from town, so I drove over to the parking lot to check. The flare had burned out by then, just glowing at the edges. The city was safe. Of course it was safe.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, we saw what wildfire means.
Or rather, we didn't see it. We didn't see anything but smoke pouring over the city, yellow and vile. The fire came over the ridges and raced down the hills and nobody could tell what was happening except for the smell, the coughing, the stinging eyes. We knew that there had to be houses burning but we didn't know which houses, or where.
We were evacuated, which meant that we tried to drive home from the kids' gymnastics and found a police barricade between us and our house. Mike and I were in separate cars, each with one kid. He and Elisa hit the barricade first and he managed to talk his way past it to get our pets. Tory and I drove south and went to Target, because I was sure Mike wouldn't think to pack underwear. I wandered around Target, buying everything under the sun except underwear.
We came home five days later after an impromptu trip to Texas (props to Mike - he packed underwear for everybody). While in Texas we'd learned the toll of the inferno on Tuesday: 346 houses burned to the ground, 2 people killed, smoke damage, water damage, and partial burning on hundreds more homes. A Colorado Springs landmark, the Flying W Ranch, was completely obliterated. The President had visited and walked through the rubble. Aerial photos showed whole streets with nothing left but driveways and foundations. Friends of ours had lost their homes. It seemed unreal, like it couldn't have happened. Those houses were in the city, with fire hydrants and roads and hundreds of firefighters trying to save them.
Our house was undamaged, with the nearest flames something like 2.5 miles away. The only physical mark left on our property was the ash clogging the kids' wading pool and highlighting every cobweb on our porch. We were lucky, except that it wasn't luck that kept the fire from crossing into our neighborhood - it was firefighters.
Despite the unchanged view from our east-facing windows, our world is different now. The hills that are the backdrop to our daily lives are charred, with darkened skeletons of trees sticking up on the ridges like the hairs on a balding man. The flames came within a few hundred yards of our daycare, and flying embers melted holes in the sunshade canopies above the play areas. The ground is dark.
On the second weekend in July I climbed to the top of the ridge in Ute Valley Park to see a broader view of the aftermath. I wanted to document what the city looked like in those first raw weeks, when the west side was plastered with signs thanking the firefighters and police and every conversation started with a discussion of whether you'd been evacuated and where you'd been when the flames came over the ridge. It was astonishing to see how capricious the fire had been, complete destruction nestled together with intact homes and emerald green lawns on the same cul-de-sac. All the homes on entire streets were not just burnt but vaporized, and the next streets over on either side are untouched. (I'm not posting pictures of destroyed property out of respect for those who lost their homes, but I'm sure you've seen some of the photos of foundations...now picture fully normal, non-destroyed homes within 10 yards of those concrete slabs.)
Three weeks on, four weeks, five weeks, my whole family still stares upward to reassure ourselves that the gray we see in the sky is a cloud, not smoke. My mind fills in an image of racing flames as I drive to daycare past the charred hillsides of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. A wisp of feathers in the air as a bird passes fools my subconscious into seeing a tendril of smoke. There's a recurring nightmare where fire bursts onto a ridge and pours down toward houses on either side. I get nervous on Tuesdays. I'm afraid of wildfire now, even when it's no longer burning.
There's a basic sense of safety and permanence that goes along with life in a city, a very reasonable belief that you can always get to your home when you want to go there. A certainty that if you leave your home it will still be there when you return. But then there is wildfire, dispassionate and driven by the winds, spilling over ridges and canyons and roads and fire hydrants and hundreds of firefighters.
And afterwards, in the midst of ash and grief and rubble and nightmares about flames, there is regrowth.