In a time of division and hate, wildfire unites a community

Disaster response offers an antidote to the era of “me.”


Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is vice president for sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company.

Last week, the most searing image from the Lake Christine Fire in Basalt, a town near Aspen in western Colorado, was that of a Chinook chopper diving arcs through smoke to drop water on red runnels of fire racing toward town — headed, in fact, for my neighborhood and my house.

Then, with a kind of crazed efficiency, the chopper refilled and attacked again. I seemed to be witnessing more than a display of raw competence and our distinctly American pride of professionalism. The pilot almost worked in a frenzy, cutting deeper through the smoke than safety would dictate to precisely protect power lines and homes.

A July 4th wildfire in Basalt, Colorado, is fought on the ground and in the air. A plane, visible from the photographer’s porch, drops fire retardant slurry to control the blaze.
Pete McBride

It seemed that this pilot was protecting me, knew me personally, my boy Elias and my daughter Willa, my wife Ellen. I felt that I was watching a human being with purpose and mission in almost a religious sense.

I found this sense of personal care everywhere as my family and I evacuated, doing so twice, first from the towering flames and billowing smoke above our house in Basalt, and then again from the place we escaped to, peeling gravel into “Mad Max-traffic to flee orange fireballs that exploded downhill in seconds, covering thousands of feet to the valley floor and seeming to set the entire corridor on fire. 

As my family was among the 500 that escaped, I felt in my reptile brain a visceral fear: I was an animal in a trap being sprung.

But I stopped to thank a policeman named Thomas for the exhausting days of work he’s put in fighting the fire. He is our children’s school-safety official, a kindly teddy bear of a man whom I wave to every morning and who smiles every time. He found it hard to talk.

After a few minutes, he said, barely in a whisper: “We’re just trying to keep people as safe as we can.” And then without my noticing, he was gone. In part, I think, because we both understood that it was not possible to keep people safe through willpower alone.

This experience made me think of the way the replicant Roy Batty, from the movie “Blade Runner, described warfare in space: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.” Here on Earth it was huge, slow DC-10 slurry bombers flying like fighter jets, lacing perfect firelines at $60,000 a pop, then flying off to do it all again. 

But the images that burn in my memory are that of a firefighter losing his own house while defending someone else’s; and of returning to my own home to find propane tanks and firewood moved from near the house into the street — evidence of the unknown professionals who had taken on my house chores. (I felt like a fool for not having done that myself.)

This work on my behalf felt intensely personal, as if crews had rearranged throw pillows and repositioned stuffed animals on beds. I returned again to the idea that they were doing more than just a professional job. They were demonstrating an American neighborliness that had seemed lost in the modern era of “me.”

In a time when the government seems not to care about anybody at all save the super-rich, when it’s de rigueur to take children from their parents and put them in cages; when hate seems to be the dominant and growing emotion, and where differences among us as Americans are at their peak, here were whole bureaucracies, the full force of state and federal government, acting as if they were not just showing up for work but cradling my family and community in their arms. They executed their jobs with such grit to save us, as if they had not gotten the memo about the new American zeitgeist.

The resources were so abundant and so varied — the Red Cross had overwhelming numbers of volunteers, the firefighters so well fed that some said this job would leave them fatter than when they arrived — that even though I am a town councilman in Basalt, I could find few ways to make myself useful. I settled for handing out cold drinks to deputies.

Here was the greatest irony of all: Many of the local heroes support the government and our president, who has tilted our nation into new depths of intolerance and division. Ironies abound in any God-blown cataclysm, but as an American and a father and a husband hoping to build and find community in a fracturing world, I’ll embrace it all and give it back, and more, when I am able.

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