Fighting the logic of fire

A writer reassesses her love for the West

  • Fourmile Canyon Fire burning near Boulder, Colorado.


When the call came to evacuate, I was six hours away from a home that had taken me years to find.

I was at a Labor Day writers' workshop on the Western Slope of Colorado. The news came in a text: A colleague ran up to me, his face pressed close to his phone to see the words against the glare of the sun. Did I know that the road to my house had been blocked? Something about a fire?

And there it was, the stomach plummeting. Surely this couldn't be happening, I thought. Not less than three months after we'd bought what was supposed to be our dream home -- the one we'd never leave -- our house in the foothills above Boulder.

I'd spent 15 years trying to get back to the West. Born and bred an Easterner, I'd bounced around Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts through my college years. Then graduate school took me out to California, where among the redwoods of Santa Cruz I began to learn what I had been missing. I bought desert property on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, outside of Carson City, and dreamed of putting down roots.

But my first husband, a native Californian, seemed to monopolize the role of Westerner, fencing the swallows of Capistrano and the wildflowers of Death Valley into his private past. I felt he saw it as his birthright, and his alone; I could never quite share my love of the West with him. And so, one divorce and one remarriage later, I rattled around the country -- Wisconsin, Texas, back to Maryland. Finally, my emotional statute of limitations on moving back West expired, and I came home at last.

The house above Boulder was mine the minute I walked into it, with its translucent light, its ponderosa meadow, its grass-scented winds. Here, I thought, I could make amends for the years of exile. But here, of course, was just a few miles from Fourmile Canyon, where an errant spark from a fire pit that Monday morning ignited the costliest blaze in Colorado history.

Hurtling eastward on I-70, I called my husband and we ran through our ill-formed evacuation plans. He got out with the dog, the important papers, and the family photos just as sheriff's deputies stretched yellow DO NOT CROSS tape across Lee Hill Drive between our house marker and the mailbox. I drove a panicked six hours back to the Front Range, wondering what awaited me.

As I descended out of the mountains into the sprawling valley that holds Denver, smoke spread ominously across the twilight sky from my left. The flames came into view as I turned north. Orange blazes licked up and along the range of foothills I had just begun to call home. I had never seen such an inferno.

As a geologist, I knew our home faced danger. It was a dumb place to build, of course -- in a tinderbrush canyon that burned every few decades, if not more often. And climate change was making such fires more likely every day. We'd taken the easy and obvious steps like mowing a perimeter around the house, but we hadn't yet done any extensive mitigation work. Our home was on a rolling, relatively open landscape, and the previous owner had taken out a number of trees a few years earlier.

Suddenly I felt an unfamiliar empathy with all those people quoted in news stories whose beach houses wash away in hurricanes, or whose cliff-top homes finally give way to erosion. I had always felt a sort of cold superiority toward them, for who could be so stupid as to flout the logic of geology? Now I just felt stupid myself -- because I knew that, if our house burned down, I would want to rebuild it in exactly the same place. I had spent so much of my lifetime trying to get here, and I refused to give up my little piece of the West.

Yet as we huddled at my cousin's house, glued to every television news update on the fire, my Western dream was quickly turning into a sobering Western reality. None of the East Coast natural disasters I had experienced ever caused me to question the very basis of my life. But here, I found myself rejected by the very land I had waited so long to embrace.

A week later, when the fire subsided and my husband and I finally returned, the house looked as beautiful as ever on the outside. The cedar paneling gleamed dully in the fading light, and nuthatches had resumed their incessant tapping on the sides. Inside, ash had drifted onto a few windowsills, but otherwise there was little sign of the conflagration that had raged just over the ridgeline. Little visible sign, that is.

For our house survived the blaze, but my unambiguous love of the West has not. We live now in an uneasy and separate peace.

Embrace or Death-grip?
Pat Munday
Pat Munday
Oct 17, 2010 11:48 AM
Summoning sympathy for Alexandre Witze (“Fighting the logic of fire”) is like summoning sympathy for the 12-year old who just learned there is no Santa Claus.

If we continue trashing the West with 5,000 square foot homes in rural subdivisions, we will wreck that “very land we have waited so long to embrace.” By definition, Witze is totally right on one point: these are “dumb places” to build. To live in such a place is not an embrace—it is a death grip. We do, however, need to embrace community, neighbors, and denser housing—places where people live close to work, school, and infrastructure such as water and power.

Pat Munday
Walkerville, Montana
Franklin Carroll
Franklin Carroll
May 24, 2012 06:06 PM
It is an uneasy peace between those os us forever Western and our last best places. Our tales too tall to tell are truth disguised in humor, or sorrow plain and simple. It's not Disneyland. It was never Disneyland. It's our West where a falling tree can end everything for elk and human alike. It's a place where a tree falling in the forest does make a sound. It's a place at once so beautiful and so terrifying it defies imagination. The Chinese wors for America are "Beautiful Land." Can you imagine? And most of their word construction came from those fighting to find a passage through the toughest places in the West. So, welcome, Alexandre, to what it is to be Western, to be in the West, to love the West, and get ready to clear leather and fire some rounds. You'll need a chain saw and a box of matches. You'll need a wary eye and a way of sleeping ready to fight or flee. That's why we love it. That's why it's us. We don't take it for granted. We love it but we know it is not a benevolent presence. We're always one land slide, one fire, one falling rock away from an eternal perspective on this heaven of the West. And you who live in Boulder are the most unwary of all. Lulled into some false sense of the verge of the wilderness tamed you are doomed to continue to burn and broil, just like California. Learn to burn on purpose and take back the best with the rest.