A summer in the eye of the wildfire storm
November 27, 2002
Four fires occurred this summer within a half hour of our house, two of them six miles away. Three are still not officially out, a firefighter friend tells me. They will probably not vanish until a few snows into January. Fire creeps underground; it is embers beneath stumps, heat in pine duff. This fall brought mudslides and then lime-green spears of oak, jutting and ubiquitous on the slopes of Red Mountain in Glenwood; the elk will like that.
The season now burned into our memory began when sparks emitted from the 80-year-old underground coal fire, blowing into the straw-dry scrub and oak brush, flying, in high winds, miles ahead of the rising flames. The fire jumped the Colorado River and the four lanes of Interstate 70, spread sideways and up slopes; it would be “zero percent controlled” for days, while we in the valley winced at every 40- and 50-mph gust. That night, from Carbondale, 12 miles away, we could see pinpricks of flames lining the dark “U” of the valley.
The dirt lot at the bottom of Carbondale’s Red Hill, where I live, was filled with cars, trailers, boats; people waited, sitting in lawn chairs, sharing water. Long lines formed at the four local gas stations. A friend, his skis and other prized possessions in his truck, camped in our spare room for days after watching flames curl over the ridge of Red Mountain, which shades Glenwood Springs proper, and his apartment.
In 1994 Glenwood lost 14 firefighters on Storm King mountain, just above town. The previous few mornings that summer, my husband, Mike, and I had seen ashes on the back deck of our house, and our neighbors had brushed them off their trampoline, from the fire in Paonia, 40 miles to the southwest. The Paonia fire was threatening homes and buildings, and firefighting efforts originally focused on it.
I still remember walking around on July 5, pushing a baby stroller in the baking heat, suddenly seeing the silvery, flashing undersides of leaves whipping in the wind. Afternoon winds are normal in the mountains, but this was abrupt: I remember wondering, “Where did that come from?” That night a friend phoned with the dreadful news of the lives lost in the blowup that piled black clouds thousands of feet in the sky. One of the firefighters, Kathi Beck, was a college kid who had a subscription to Climbing magazine, where I worked; we got a call from an anguished professor of hers, wanting to help with an obituary, or just to talk to someone.
Starting June 11 this year, for days we in the Roaring Fork Valley hunched near radios and drove or hiked to vantage points, though I had to force myself to take even half an hour away from the airwaves. It took two days for us in Carbondale to smell the smoke, which had been blowing in the opposite direction, but then the whole town smelled like a barbecue.
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After four days, the evacuees were allowed home, and I drove my two sons down valley to see our history. Halfway to town, as we rounded a bend, we saw, on the skyline of the Flattop Mountains above and behind town, three waving geysers of flame. Above them billowed opaque brown and black clouds, mushroom piled on mushroom. The first column was pencil thin and the next thicker, both diminishing and rising as trees exploded. The third column was fat, oscillating, jelly-like.
“Oh, my god!” shouted Roy, 5, clapping both hands onto his cheeks – thrilled, I’m afraid. (After 9/11, in an attempt to be reassuring, I had told the boys that no planes except for the F-16s were flying above the country. “F-16s!” they had exclaimed, turning to each other in delight, and ran to the window hoping to see one.) “Oh, my god!” he said again. For once, I didn’t correct the expression.
On the ridge of Red Mountain, the dusk sky limned perfectly spaced black toothpicks. Just behind it, the mountain’s long red flanks looked like sand dunes, denuded of green scraps and even much black.
We parked by the slow river, the kids quiet now. In dusk, with me holding Roy, and Teddy, 8, in an unusual but spastic transport of modesty shuffling inside a jacket tied around his pajama shorts, we watched. We asked questions of another bystander, overly loquacious though he was, to share the sight with someone. Low discrete pockets of flame glittered against the inky slopes on both sides of the river. Homes were gone – roofs were on the ground. Storm King was burning again.
Driving the slow miles back up valley, I searched for meaning, for the ideas – about respecting the power, and the unexpected, in the mountains – that I’d tried to seed in their minds when we hiked the firefighters’ memorial trail on Storm King. But my awareness was on the miles the car was covering, their extent, unremembered this week.
I said, “See, guys, doesn’t it make you feel better, you can see how far away the flames are.”
Teddy said, “Not that far.”
Alison Osius is a 14-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley, and senior editor of Rock and Ice magazine. She, her husband, Mike Benge, and two boys live in Carbondale.
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