What we take and leave when wildfire comes

by David Frey

She had three dogs at her feet, and her girlfriend sat beside her on a motel lobby couch. The two cats were at a kennel. Their VW van was full of climbing gear, and their motel room had a couple changes of clothes.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence,” Ashley Woods told me. That was a year ago, when the Fourmile Fire came raging through the outskirts of Boulder, Colo. For four days, the house she shared with Lisa Polansky had been off-limits to them -- one of hundreds of homes residents were forced to evacuate when the Fourmile Fire came raging. The couple holed up in a motel, surrounded by the few things they were able to grab before firefighters told them to leave.

“It makes me wonder,” Woods said, airing out a Buddhist scroll she had bought on a trip to Nepal and managed to salvage from the house. “Should we just live more simply?”

Polansky just laughed. “I think you should live more simply.”

What do you take? What do you leave behind? For a lot of Westerners who live in danger of wildfire, it’s not just cocktail party banter; it’s a serious question – one that we might have to answer with minutes to spare. As I write this, West Texans in the path of raging wildfires are dealing with the same problem. The locations change. The questions don’t.

As a reporter who has covered more than my share of wildfires, I’ve seen a lot of answers to those questions. What do people take? Usually, it’s a mix of the practical and the sentimental. Legal papers. Birth certificates. Medical records. Passports. On the softer side, it’s almost always photos. Kids’ photos. Parents’ photos. Family vacations. When we have to leave everything else behind, paper, as flimsy as it is, is what we cling to.

Not that everyone is so sparing. I’ve seen families take hours to load trailers with record collections, NASCAR posters and tattered stuffed animals. Some people just plant their feet and refuse to leave.

“It’s my house,” one man once told me as he watched the flames approach. “If it’s gonna go, I wanna see it go.”

For most, though, the threat of fire presents split-second desert-island decisions. What do I need to take? What do I really, really want to keep? What can I leave behind?

Fear makes it easier, when it comes to making agonizing and heartbreaking decisions. When the flames advance, a world that seemed calm and still, that had seemed unchanging, is suddenly tossed by winds that gust like hurricanes. The sky turns black. Trees blow sideways. Smoke and hot embers streak the sky. The world we knew is suddenly gone, and in the chaos, we can’t guess what lies ahead. All the things that make up our world could vanish in a gale of cinders – and our lives along with them.

It’s not just stuff, after all. It’s stuff that we love, objects that remind us of our identities and the people we love. It’s the family silver, the Pinewood Derby racecar, the honeymoon Champagne bottle. It’s barns full of horse tack, sheds full of skis and bikes and snowmobiles, garages full of old cars this close to running again.

What gets left behind? Woods and Polanski, who have long enjoyed the classic Boulder outdoor lifestyle, lost a fortune in climbing gear and bikes. They left behind artwork collected from world travels –– sculptures and paintings and photographs, much of it too big to fit in the car.

At least they ended up with a home to go back to, though. I watched one couple whose home had gone up in flames wheel all they could rescue from their house on two or three luggage carts through the motel lobby. Some had even less.

“I have treasures from all over the world,” April Story told me. “I have a huge art collection.”

She meant to say “had,” but using the past tense about her home of 25 years was still hard to do. Her house was gone. Her barn was gone. An artist who works with wildflowers, she lost 35 years’ worth of flowers she’d gathered.

She fled with her computer and a toiletry bag. She saved her cats and rode her horses to safety. Everything else burned to the ground. “If you get out with your health, if you have insurance, you realize, you know, I’m here,” she said. “I’m still standing. I’m still breathing.”

In the end, that’s enough.

David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

© High Country News