Indelible images remain from summer of High Park Fire

The rains have come; the fires are being extinguished; and the crews are moving to their next assignments. Bees are active; school kids are planting pine seedlings; and we no longer look to the west with furrowed brows.

There are aspects of this fire season I won’t forget, and some I never want to forget. Also, with apologies to those who suffered the most from these fires, there are things I will miss.

I will miss the sense of community. We are united in such times, sharing our common concern and pitching in time, money and emotional support. We all saw the gauntlet of “Thank You Firefighters” signs along the route the crews traveled between their bivouac and the battlefield. Even more impressive were the fans who learned the timing of the crews’ shift change so they could line up alongside their signs to cheer and wave.

I’ve never been prouder of our school district and its devoted employees. The leadership and staffs of the Cache La Poudre elementary and middle schools went above and beyond the call of duty, reaching out to families in trouble, raising money, hosting meetings and organizing social gatherings to remind the fire victims they are not alone. While many of us have known it for years, this experience drove home a powerful truth: our schools are more than educational institutions; they are community pillars.

When other memories fade, one will always remain. After a week of evacuation, we were allowed to return home. The National Guard checked our IDs and whisked us through with their best wishes. Spirits were high. Our family was among the fortunate ones. A firefighter later told us our densely populated foothills neighborhood would have burned like the Waldo Canyon subdivisions if not for luck in the wind.

We busied ourselves scrubbing the stink from the refrigerator and replacing air filters clogged with ash, all the while watching that ominous behemoth of brown smoke arc to the northeast. On that day, like all days, watching the smoke brought mixed emotions, feeling glad to see it moving away but guilty willing the beast in someone else’s direction.

Only two hours after exchanging smiles with the guardsmen, the monster turned toward us, as if it overheard our excitement about returning home. It now loomed over us, the column filling the sky, now more like an approaching hurricane or a tidal wave about to swallow a fishing boat. Flames just over the ridge seemed closer than ever.

We knew something had gone wrong even before our cell phones vibrated with orders to re-evacuate. The valley took on that surreal orange hue as the ceiling of smoke dropped, immersing us, obscuring even the closest hills. Without the big-sky views we Westerners love and expect, claustrophobia amped up the anxiety.

Our throats burning, we piled back into the car for our second exodus, worrying about the firefighters getting trapped in a raging valley by the dramatic shift in the wind. We reminded the kids about the 1994 South Canyon fire that killed fourteen men and women.

The comedian George Carlin poked fun at the expression “save the planet,” and our arrogance of assuming that Mother Nature, with her breathtaking power, could only survive with intervention by us insignificant humans. I get the joke now.

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