How not to fight a fire

Will we learn to confront an existential threat to the West for what it is?

 

For years, every night, before I fell asleep, I would stare out my bedroom window at the lights on the hillsides, catching my breath after every bright flicker. At 6 or 7 years old, I was anxiously, irrationally convinced that I had to be a watchdog, somehow responsible for making sure, for the sake of my family and all others, that each light came only from a house or a car, and was not a deadly blaze that would spread and soon engulf us all in flames.

I was 5 years old on June 8, 2002, when a fire that had been burning for decades in a mine underneath the soil of Red Mountain in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, ignited vegetation aboveground. It was a hot, dry, windy day. The spark ignited quickly, and my hometown soon became a living nightmare.

An ambulance passes a long line of residents evacuating West Glenwood after the Coal Seam Fire jumped the Colorado River in 2002.

The fire is a blur in my mind. I have a vague memory of the apocalyptic scene in the photographs: the hillside roaring with a bright orange; dark billowing clouds of smoke above a mountain town. What I remember most vividly is my mom rushing inside, breathless, telling my sister and me to pack up a pair of clothes and one favorite toy and get in the car. The fire had jumped the Colorado River and was on a path toward West Glenwood, where we lived. I remember my sister crying when she couldn’t find her favorite doll. I-70 was closed to the west. We navigated panicked traffic and road closures to get to my grandparents’ house in Battlement Mesa, where my parents told me they didn’t know whether our house had survived. Rumor had it that all of West Glenwood had burned to the ground.

In the end, the Coal Seam Fire burned 29 homes — ours was not one of them — and more than 12,000 acres of land. But no one was killed, a silver lining for a town still scarred from the loss of 14 firefighters in the Storm King Fire eight years earlier. 

I was terrified for years, but eventually I stopped my irrational ritual of nightly vigilance. I accepted that the lights were just lights, and that the chances of fire engulfing us in the night were low. I stopped quivering in fear around campfires and fireplaces. But now I’ve found a new reason to fear fire.

Across the U.S., wildfires now burn twice as much land as they did in 1970; the devastation is expected to double again by 2050. Part of the problem is that Western states have been suppressing fires for centuries, leaving our forests ripe for the slightest spark to turn into a blaze. But there is a larger issue involved. Dry spells in the West are becoming more frequent as we heat up the world. The climate crisis creates its own feedback loops — witness the ice-albedo effect that accelerates glacial melting, or the methane released from Arctic permafrost as it thaws. Wildfires are no different.Trees store carbon; burning them en masse releases that carbon into the atmosphere, and the trees that would otherwise absorb it are left dead. When our forests ignite, they contribute to climate change, which in turn extends and intensifies the West’s fire season.

I expect that fire will continue to be a part of my life, not sparing the places I cherish. As I write this, the Middle Mamm Fire burns south of Rifle, Colorado, below a peak I once skied in a rare window of snowfall heavy enough to fill the slopes. The Decker Fire looms over Salida, flashing red flame and gray ash among the fall colors.

In the West, we’ve long held an ethic of rugged self-reliance. We believe we are responsible for our own problems. When it comes to wildfires, we commend those who fight them as heroes, as we should, but we treat each fire as its own singular battle. We forget about the threat until the next one comes.

But we should know: Wildfires will keep getting worse. We have to face up to the truth that many of the places we love will be threatened and changed. As will we: Wildfires bring fear and pain, and they leave us scarred and grieving.

We tend to respond to trauma irrationally, as I did to the threat of fire when I was 5 years old — staring silently out the window, worried about lights in the darkness. It was well-intentioned, but it was based in a rash anxiety, and it was absurd. Staring out the window, hoping to be the vigilante hero, won’t stop the flames from coming.

If there’s a bright side to any of this, it’s that perhaps we will finally be shaken out of the sense that we can fight wildfires head-on without also facing up to the root cause. Only once we recognize that the destruction unleashed by nature is tied up with our exploitation of the natural world can we figure out how to better protect ourselves, and grapple constructively with the pain that destruction creates.

Sara Fleming is a writer and journalist from Glenwood Springs, Colorado; she attended Colorado College and is now an editorial fellow at Denver WestwordEmail HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Runner Up for the 2019 Bell Prize
The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental 
issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy. Read the winning essay.

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