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Life amid fire - the mundane and the macabre


Life in Durango, Colo., has taken on a surreal quality. Even for those of us not directly affected by it, the fire dominates our days. Handling mundane problems, pursuing our normal jobs and hobbies, grocery shopping and gassing up the car - everything takes place against a backdrop of disaster. It's a crisis situation, but we still have to take out the trash.

We all know those who have been touched by the fire. One of my co-workers has lost a home to the flames. Several more have been forced to leave theirs. My wife and I have other friends who, at the whim of the wind, could be in the fire's path at any time.

But for most of us, the fire remains secondhand, both in how it affects us and what we can do about it. At my house, we're baby-sitting a pet so a friend who might have to evacuate her home will have one less thing to worry about. Our 9-year-old and her friends have been doing extra chores to augment their allowances and add to the pot of money they're collecting to support the firefighters. We've offered a few friends a place to stay. And my wife has been working to help evacuees find accommodations.

In other words, we've done pretty much what everyone else in town has done. Nonetheless, the truth is that so far the red eyes and scratchy throat caused by the smoke have been the fire's biggest direct impact on our lives.

That could change. In the meantime, though, life is a strange amalgam of the gracious and the grotesque.

When I got home Monday night, our neighborhood was serene. It was cocktails-on-the-deck weather, warm, still and gently cooling. The distant sound of a lawnmower lent the evening a familiar, domestic air. My dinner was ready, and the kids were flopped on the couch watching The Gilmore Girls.

Not that many miles away, the scene was anything but idyllic. I'd been talking to the photographers and reporters at the Durango Herald, and listening to the scanner in an attempt to piece together what was happening with the fire. The picture that emerged was a vision of hell - walls of fire more than 100 feet high, sheets of flame separating from the fire itself and rolling through the air, fire-spawned cyclones uprooting trees. Feeding on itself, the blaze had developed into a true firestorm.

That two such scenes can exist so close to each other in both time and space is difficult to grasp. It came to me then that I - we - have no more control over what's happening than I do over the characters in the kids' television show.

Still, for all our concern for the fire and those affected by it, life goes on. Only now there are some odd twists. Monday's Herald featured a photo of golfers playing in a tournament at Hillcrest Golf Club. Behind them was the plume of smoke rising from the Missionary Ridge Fire as it exploded Sunday afternoon. An impossible juxtaposition, it perfectly illustrated the absurdity of our situation. Then, the next morning, 2,000 bicyclists on an organized tour rode into town.

The scene on North Main on Monday evening only added to the sense of disconnect. On one side of the street was a bunch of tourists, apparently waiting for the trolley. They were probably on vacation; most likely they had heard about this wonderful place and were looking forward to rafting, hiking and seeing beautiful Colorado. What must they be thinking?

Across the street is a tent city and groups of uniformed men and women, soiled from a day combating the fire. They're firefighters and here to help us, but the image is still discordant.

We're trying to run a resort, a community and a war zone all at once. There are good arguments for not neglecting any of the three. But the tourists can enjoy themselves guilt-free - or leave, if they want to - and the firefighters have a clear and crucial mission. Their job must be brutal, but they know what to do and why.

The rest of us can only do what we can, unsure at any moment when or what more we should, or could, be doing. Or, if the direction we're headed is even correct.

For now, my plan is to put one foot in front of the other, enjoy what good there is of this summer and pray for rain. If anyone has a better idea, I'd love to hear it.

Bill Roberts is the Durango Herald's editorial page editor.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].