Dirty haze suspends a sinking sun, blazing orange. Massive flames lick the orb. People watch in disbelief, black silhouettes on a tempestuous rim. Smoke hovers like an ashen blanket. Beyond, proud mountains bow, at once victim and enabler, fuel for an angry monster.
We see the creature kick up its first cloud of fury into a clear blinding blue sky, my beloved Grandma and I, driving home from an errand. Of all things, we just purchased batteries for her smoke detectors. We arrive at my house, and she sets off in her own little car. Curiosity twists to alarm as an internet search reveals the smoke’s source – a fire, small but furious, gaining momentum on a record-setting day of heat on slopes just west of Grandma’s house. Soon after, I am the first in the family to see that her area is under evacuation. Heart racing, stomach plummeting, I order the kids into the car. “Bring your shoes!” I urge them, without taking time to explain. We tear across town as I call other family members.
She stands in her doorway, cheerful and disoriented. Behind her on the kitchen counter, a half-cut watermelon. She wants to be sure to finish cutting it, and bring it. None of us are thinking clearly. I finish slicing it. She insists I take half. I put it in my car and completely forget about it, only to find it rotting several days later.
“What should we take?” I ask her, “Where are your important documents?” We are swallowed by her closet, rummaging through papers, searching for files, filling a cardboard box with random assortments of identity. My mom, trying to reach us from Monument on the main front-range artery, fights clogged stop-and-go traffic. My brother and his family arrive, lift pictures from walls, pile stained-glass masterpieces created by my grandfather who died the year before into the back of their car.
Grandma and I still fumble in the claustrophobic closet. One of my kids appears in the doorway, nervous, urging me to get us out of there because the smoke is billowing over the hill just beyond Grandma’s front door. How much time do we have?
When Mom arrives, we pass through the living room by an antique cabinet, originally owned by my Great Grandmother, painstakingly refinished by my Grandfather. “I’ll kick myself if we don’t take it and something happens,” she says. But we don’t have any vehicles large enough, and we don’t really believe Grandma’s house could burn.
The next day, we are allowed back in. The policeman guarding the evacuation line is kind and calm. We have 15-30 minutes. We water Grandma’s plants, reassured that all is calm and well. The social cul-de-sac where neighbors check in with each other daily is eerily deserted. Windows are shrouded and garage doors tightly shut. I tuck Grandma’s potted tomato plant into the back of Mom’s car. It’s all she wants to take. The plume that day is strangely friendly, speckled white and light gray, stretching high as though greeting the sky – the calm before the storm.
That night, my kids and I park on Mesa Road, just west of the evacuation line. We weave through crowded sidewalks. It’s like a massive street party, like a gathering for fireworks, except everyone whispers. The dark is thick with camaraderie; there are no strangers that night. A towering flash-flame on the west lip of Queen’s Canyon elicits audible gasps from the crowd.
Like almost everyone in town, we wrap our lives around official news briefings, keep track of many friends evacuated from homes. Grandma is safely ensconced at my mom’s house, although the northern perimeter of the fire presses towards that area as well. Smoky air irritates our eyes and confounds our lungs. I wipe soot from counter-tops. We drive by my children’s school with quiet respect, amazed by the sight of hundreds of incident command tents.
On the wicked afternoon when the dragon rears its head, tears across the ridge, and rages through Mountain Shadows, all of Colorado Springs shudders in horror. Heroes hold the line on the hill just 50 yards above Grandma’s house through that ravaging night. For an 84 year old woman, losing her home and her community was unthinkable. But so many others suffered this terrible loss in the Waldo Canyon Fire.
All winter long, driving to Grandma’s house, I see the mountain-side bleeding red around black charred tree skeletons. Now in late spring, it sprouts fits of hopeful green. But today it once again hides its face in smoke, as though in empathy for the humble cousin huddled at its feet, the wooded acreage of Black Forest.
Strange how the acrid stench of smoke, hazy air, whir of helicopters overhead, slide of a tear from a friend’s eye as she recalls the events of last summer, takes me right back to those moments, even as my mind struggles to wrap around the fact that the monster is resurrected. Today it rages just south of my childhood home (no longer owned by family members), now included in the evacuation zone. Long-time friends still living in the area have fled. My mom’s current home is only 4 or 5 miles, as the crow flies, from the evac-perimeter.
It seems my home-town and surrounding areas are a tinder box.
Like smoke, fear slinks past the glass panes and locked doors of our hearts. Tendrils snake ominously into the corners. There is much to fear, living on this earth. Much to love, and much to fear losing. I am reminded today how fragile life is, how precious those we love. How quickly life is shaken, and what we can see disintegrates into ashes. It’s strange that as the air is hazy and heavy, even obscuring Pikes Peak at times, I see more clearly what seems dim when the air is crisp and clean. Today I see in sharp relief what cannot burn.
1 Corinthians 13:12-13: For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.