July 3, 2012

The West Is Burning

photo by Wayne Karberg
The West is burning.  I don’t know what the statistics are, but there are fires up and down the Rocky Mountains from Montana to Mexico, at least 56 named fires.  We’ve had the smoke for weeks now, but just in the last couple of days, the Squirrel Creek Fire broke out in the mountains west of Laramie and is now at 7,000 acres.  The smoke is so thick it looks like evening is falling or huge rainclouds are blocking out the sun.  Last night, as we stood outside, cinder fell lightly like snow.  The smoke gets in your eyes and your throat and makes you cough.

I remember the Yellowstone fires in 1988.  I was living in northern Wyoming 60 miles away that summer.  The sunsets were gorgeous.  I don’t remember if cinder fell, but I think it did.

I’m tempted here to do my usual rhetorical move, to talk about something bigger than all of us, maybe the mutability of life, how things must be destroyed in order to grow.  But I’m not going to do that.  Instead, I want to think about all those people who are evacuated and/or have lost their homes.  The way I want to think about it is by remembering when our house burned.

It was a Thursday night during the winter of 1978.  The reason I know that is that we were watching our family favorite TV show.  We had one of those old console TVs, and because we were in the middle of nowhere, we only got one fuzzy station (on which Granny Dynamite, when she visited from Iowa, intently watched her “stories”). So we were watching The Fantastic Journey ~ there’s a lot of scifi fans in my family.  My mom was lying with her back to the fire, and I leaned back against her with her belly for a backrest.

The power flashed and the TV cut out.  This is not uncommon.  The power lines were aboveground then, and so it happened every so often.  It would take a day or two for the power company to come out and fix it.  But in this case, my older brother Jim went down into the basement to flip the switches. In doing so, he opened the door to what we called “the Rustic Room,” and smoke came billowing in. Quick investigation showed fire on the ceiling of the kitchen. 

Our gnome-like hired hand Fay was asleep upstairs, so Jim ran upstairs and met him at the top and knocked his glasses clean off.  Fay came downstairs in his red longjohns and continued fighting fire in them for the rest of the night.  Jim investigated upstairs and ended up having to jump off the second-floor roof into the rose bush.  I was told to get out and go to the car, as they were going to take us kids to our aunt and uncle's house.  Since smoke was billowing from the room you go through for the front way, I went out the back.  I was by myself, about 9 years old.  Pitch dark, but I glanced up and I could see the flames coming out a window and I could hear the fire popping and crackling.  Somehow that was the worst part.  It seemed this living breathing thing that cackled and taunted me in its own language.  I went the long way around, past the lilac and through the thistles and bouncing bets.

The firetrucks took a while to make it the 25 miles from Lovell, and then they had to pump from the creek.  People came to help.  But I didn’t see it, of course.  Us kids went stayed overnight elsewhere.  Our house did not burn to the ground, but it might as well have.  It was left a craggy hulk, and everything was ruined by the fire or by smoke or by water damage.  To this day, when I open boxes of memorabilia from my childhood, they smell of smoke.  Yep, I think, that’s the Ranch.

We got by.  We moved a trailer right next to the house to live in.  There weren’t enough bedrooms, so I slept on the couch.  All our stuff was gone, but the very kind people of Lovell took up a collection and gave us clothing and kitchenware and all kinds of stuff. 

How did it affect me?  Well, I actually think I just took it in stride, really.  It was one calamity in a long line of calamities.  Us kids joke that it was a miracle we survived childhood, but now that I am a parent, it is not at all a joke.  Being terrorized by any number of wild and semi-wild animals.  Chasing buffalo as a kid, with no truck or anything nearby to save you except one person with a rifle. Accidents like falling off cliffs, getting run over, hunting accidents where arms are shot off.

But I digress. 

I think I am more affected by it as an adult than I was then.  I get it now, the gravity of losing your home and everything you own.  Your memories.  A security, something you take for granted, will always be shattered, kind of like when the person who is the linchpin of your family passes away. 

We used to know this in our bones.  We were much more vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and of each other.  Major shit happened all the time.  People died. Mother Nature took us out.   Just as I like my indoor plumbing, I am not at all romantic about a happier golden age closer to nature.

So I’m sending the best thoughts to all of you who have been evacuated or lost your homes and my heartfelt thanks goes out to those firefighters who step up every day.


Melospiza said...

This is such an important perspective. I admit that in years past I both sympathized with people in the path of the fire and, as a former biologist, felt...well, that fire was one of the tradeoffs they made by choosing to live in exurban development where fire is part of the ecosystem. This year, though - I'm starting to get it. I find it really upsetting to watch footage of the fire and even more upsetting to see the aftermath.

Tamara said...

Very good point, M! We need fire to clear out the dead wood, all the underbrush. But you're right - this year it's off the hook. The perfect storm.

I imagine being a scientist sometimes helps in these situations, though maybe not if the calamity happens to you. Gives you an objective distance, in general.

Thank you so much for stopping by!

~ Tamara