By Laura Pritchett
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 dammed. 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. A Colorado native, 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.
All 10 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.
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 No. 1 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, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the west. She is a novelist and directs the MFA in nature writing at Western Colorado University.