Waldo Canyon Fire

I have always wondered at wildfires. I’ve thought that I would like to share some dry forest with a wildfire and not know which way it was going next. I’ve thought I would like to feel the press of its heat, like a hand at my back as I ran from it uphill. I’ve never been very close to one, and such musings should be tempered by that fact.

But isn’t there something terrifying and majestic in all that raging destruction? Isn’t there some weird peace that settles over you when you ponder that helicopters and chemical retardant and earth movers can’t control a fire. In a time of Nature’s Submission to Man, isn’t it a wonder and a terrible wonder when Man is caught off guard, on his knees before Nature?

How does it happen, where does it come from? Lightning strikes a dry bristlecone. Maybe the sun ignites a pile of leaves. Smoke whisps. A snapping sound becomes perceptible. The wind rises and flames begin to reach from this shrub to that then up into the tops of the trees. Night falls and we rest from our city building to look out over the hills. And we see Hell crawling toward us.

Last week Colorado Springs was devastated by the Waldo Canyon Fire. It is still burning, but is largely contained. Two people died. More than 10% of the population were evacuated. Hundreds of houses were consumed. Many thousands of acres above the city and to the west were touched with flame. When I saw pictures of the neighborhoods burning and the hillside lit up I was moved by the power of it. I was overwhelmed when I saw neighborhoods I recognized, and I thought of beloved mountain retreats and caretakers I know up on the slopes of Pikes Peak. I emailed a handful of friends and old coworkers who were affected but safe. I imagined the loved ones of the two dead people going to the sites of their deaths, searching for bones, for relics. I read today about this weekend’s town meetings during which families where told their homes no longer existed; they could do nothing but huddle, weep. I imagined the hands of the mothers holding her children’s faces, and the arms of the fathers pulling them to his chest. I imagine now the late night discussions between mother and father of what to do next, where to begin tomorrow. I think their faces must glow with courage.

There is majesty and horror in a wildfire, in all of Nature’s movements. But there is something uniquely beautiful in the life that flourishes in its deathwake: first sweet morels, then sage, then a hopping bird, then sapplings, then strong columns of young trees.

Here are some lines by John Blase, a writer I like from Colorado Springs. His family’s home was put on evacuation watch while they were out of town:

“What is the shame for human beings to weep at the passage of time and to feel it in the disappearance of the objects of our past? These emotions give us all literature and music and art. They give us our humanity.” ~ Bill Holm

The neighborhood, our neighborhood, was in pre-evacuation status.
The list, our list, had to be made. So from fifteen hundred miles away
we put our heads together, she and I, and typed consonants riddled
with vowels that represented the things of earth we hold most dear.

The neighbors have a set of keys to the house, our house, so with hearts
that grew beyond their usual largesse they ungrinchingly stepped from
room to room to check it twice, the list that is –
*entire shelf of photo albums plus large framed picture of the kids
*lockbox
*leash and harness for the beagle (don’t forget beagle)
*stack of bills and car keys
*her laptop computer
*three specific stuffed animals in kids’ rooms
*my cowboy boots

If the fire kept breathing we believed, she and I, that we could take
those seven seeds and replant a life, our life. But as other souvenirs of
our brief season flashed across our smoky minds we ached at the
thought of her father’s Greek fishing hat and the turquoise ring I
bought as a child in Santa Fe and the silver Christmas star that hangs
year-round in our kitchen window, the one etched with the word,
our word: H-O-P-E.

Poem from The Beautiful Due. Picture from the Denver Post.

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About mbdeaton

I study neutrino oscillations in neutron star mergers as a postdoc at North Carolina State University. Previously I was a graduate student at Washington State University, using the Spectral Einstein Code (SpEC) to simulate hydrodynamics in strong gravity. I like the following questions: What happens when black holes and neutron stars collide? What is the role of radiation (neutrinos!) in an event like that? What makes Fred and Doerte such fine teachers? What's physics for? What good can a scientist offer his local community, as a scientist?

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