Colorado’s wildfires require a drastic and collective fix

Climate change should be seen as a number one priority.

 

I live on a county road near the evacuation perimeter of what is now Colorado’s largest wildfire. Yesterday, the sheriff’s deputy was outside, his lights flashing red-blue-red, giving my house a strobe light effect. He was directing traffic as people fled the mountain with trailers filled with cattle and horses and goats and belongings.

The wind was roaring, first one direction and then another, which is why this fire blew up again. The Cameron Peak Fire has been burning for two months — a long two months — leaving me and most of my neighbors with a hacking cough and guts that feel like they’re filled with clay.

When we get the occasional blue sky day, I’m so relieved that I play hooky from work and walk up this county road, getting in exercise while I can, trying to clear my head while I can, obligations be damned. I truly find it hard to care about anything, which is saying something, given my personality. Even work is difficult on smoky days — my brain feels gritty because of ash and helicopters overhead and the grim anxiety in the air. It’s hard to process things, to be productive, to think.

I thought I’d be better at this, more resilient, less fazed. As a person born in Colorado, I’m used to wildfire. Plus, I know that these forests needed to burn. Not like this, sure, but we all knew they were a tinderbox, and it’s just a flat-out, predictable truth that they were going to go. On top of that, we know climate change makes it worse.

The Cameron Peak Fire could be seen from Loveland, Colorado, in mid-August. As of late October, the fire had grown to more than 200,000 acres and was only 64% contained.

All ten of the largest wildfires in Colorado have happened since 2000, this Cameron Peak Fire at 207,000 acres as of this writing, followed by Pine Gulch, Hayman, West Fork Complex Fire, Spring Creek Fire, High Park Fire (which had me evacuated in 2012), Missionary Ridge Fire, 416 Fire, Bridger Fire, and Last Chance Fire. And as I wrote this essay, the Lefthand Canyon Fire, the CalWood Fire, and the frightening East Troublesome Fire sprang up, driving thousands from their homes. Such pretty names, sending remnants of trees into our lungs. No wonder most of my novels written over the past 20 years contain wildfires, because they truly have been part of my lived experience.

Such pretty names, sending remnants of trees into our lungs.

I’ve always believed that it’s expectation which causes suffering, that we only are sad when things don’t go the way we want, and thus I feel I shouldn’t be suffering now.  But living it, and expecting it, are two different things.

Familiarity doesn’t make it any easier. When the body senses biological threat, the result is cortisol, inflammation, pain. After all, particles are daily being lodged into our lungs. People are truly suffering here, in body and in spirit. Honest admissions of despair are rampant, and nobody is embarrassed about it.

COVID makes it harder. Let’s be honest: Our friends don’t really want us evacuated into their little homes and sharing air, nor do we want to put them in that position. So we stay put, always on the edge. I never thought I’d take breathable air for granted. Lowering my expectations that far seems, well, sad. 

Some things help. Friends, offers of assistance, memories of the good days, and, yeah, air purifiers. We can also think ahead to prescribed burns, thinning, fuel reduction, forest management, fire resiliency, and Aldo Leopold’s idea of “intelligent tinkering,” where we make forests more resilient to climate change via smart restorations of natural landscapes. All this is good, but what would help most of all is to have others extend their empathy and make green-living the priority.

Wouldn’t it be a miracle if the whole damn world banded together and realized climate change was the number one priority? Accepted that science was real? Got it together, made some changes at home, such as not buying anything unnecessary? Because that is part of the true fix. At some point, drastic measures will happen, because the suffering will extend to all, and to such an extent that it cannot be ignored  though I wish that weren’t necessary.

This morning, I woke up to birds still at the feeder, a fawn walking by, winds calmer. It’s creepily quiet, with no traffic because everyone west of me is evacuated.

It is still a sad time and I feel broken, but the air quality has moved from Hazardous to Moderate, which has me thinking that perhaps we, as a people, could move in that direction, too, especially during the clear-sky times when we can think and get to work.

Laura Pritchett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, (writersontheerange.org), a nonprofit spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a novelist and directs the MFA in nature writing at Western Colorado University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.