In the 18 minutes it took to evacuate my board-and-batten cabin in Colorado, I operated under a mountainous range of delusions, not least of which hinged upon my faulty understandings of metals, the flukiness of wildfires, and the persistence of history and memory.
Danger, for one, didn't seem imminent. When a neighborly deputy drove by delivering news that a fire had started "over in Wall Street," of all places, two miles away, I couldn't see any evidence of it. Surely officials could contain a young, accidental blaze at this civil hour, in this advanced era. There was nothing wild about it. Only moments later, when the cool morning light shifted to Martian hues, did my antennae extend. I swallowed my skepticism and recalcitrance, and started to pack, though my illusions mounted by the minute. Surely I would be back home later that day, maybe tomorrow: one pair of underwear, check. Should I take my grandfather's gold pocket watch or my enamel-plated anniversary necklace? No, they were metal and would survive. Maybe they would blacken slightly, like a kettle on a stove over time, but they certainly wouldn't incinerate. I wonder: Why did my training in chemistry, my basic understanding of melting points, vanish in those weighty moments?
My husband, David, and I closed windows to the smoke, turned off propane, and took one last look at our library of books, the inseparable architecture of the 120-year-old cabin, and the sprawling apple tree out front, drooping with fruit. Although we might have stayed longer to douse the property with well water, other vehicles squealing past urged us out. As we slammed the car doors, ochre smoke had started to curl over the ridge directly above us, and the cabin looked as dry as it must have been, after 40,000-plus days under the Western sun.
Forest fires have the force to black out everything: soil, sky, comfort and routine. As the grim days of evacuation drew on, it became obvious how deluded I had been about the fate of our cabin. One hundred and sixty-nine structures ultimately burned in the Four Mile Canyon Fire of 2010, which was classified as the most destructive in Colorado's history. Of course, that record has been eclipsed in short order this summer -- twice -- by the High Park Fire (started June 9; 259 homes) and the Waldo Canyon Fire (started June 23; 346 homes).
After a 10-day exile, we drove back up the canyon past obliterated home sites. A bathtub, even a neatly chopped woodpile next to a naked foundation, had survived the arbitrary winds and flames. The air itself was charred. Reason, too. I couldn't believe that our tinder cabin still existed, not after the fire had spun like a compass around it, not after I heard that firefighters extinguished flames a mere 12 feet from the northern eave.
But it survived. Every square inch of pine, cedar, spruce -- even the ripe apples -- remained, though much of the surrounding forest was blackened. I was surprised by what didn't disappear in that burn zone. Old gold-mining equipment glinted amid the funereal charcoal forest, artifacts left from the early, hungry days -- a gold-mining era I had earlier seen as more environmentally destructive than today's. Most exposed from that time were narrow mining roads weaving through the forest, chocked up on foundations consisting of granite and milky quartz. In fact, one firefighter speculated that our cabin had survived thanks to one such old mining road that runs up the slope behind the cabin; it acted as a natural firebreak.
In a press conference after the Four Mile Fire, Sen. Mark Udall cited "rock gardens" as one landscaping weapon that homeowners could use to defend their properties against wildfire. With that in mind, I began adding rocks to weak points in the mining road. I lined flowerbeds with rocks. I hauled stone from one end of the property to another to create a terracing effect. Zealously I thought of Terminus, the Roman god of boundary stones. But the boulders never seemed Herculean enough. So I sought out Ezequial Quintana, a 71-year-old mason. He's been building rock walls up and down Four Mile Canyon for more than two decades, using only his brawn, a crowbar, a pick, a sledgehammer, and (in the last few years) a small Bobcat. He hefts rocks ranging in size from watermelons to small cows and fits them together by eye, without using mortar.
Ezequial has now built a 50-foot-long wall, several feet high, on the roadside edge of the cabin, protecting it from post-fire flooding and erosion. Perhaps the barrier will keep out flaming pinecones -- more mobile than Robert Frost ever imagined in "Mending Wall" -- or even prevent a fire from scotching to a neighbor's property in the future. But I have no illusion of safety, nor any certainty about what the walls can keep in or keep out.
Undoubtedly, there will be a "next" fire. When it comes, I hope the old boards and beams survive. If not, I know that the stones, accumulated with collective sweat over the centuries, surely will.
Filmmaker and writer Erin Espelie is executive editor of Natural History magazine, and is premiering her film, True-Life Adventure, at the London Film Festival this month.