Fuel for the Fire

The battle lines have again been drawn in flame.

We know the drill by now. High wind. High heat. Lots of vegetation, some of it beetle-killed. One spark and Colorado becomes a tinder box, with too many fires and not nearly enough people to fight them.

Homes consumed. Prisoners evacuated. Summer evenings obscured by smoke.

Oh, yes. We know this well. It’s part of our memories, our fears, our DNA.

Even if we did think – hope? Pray? – we might actually dodge the bullet this time.

I know I did.

Sure, winter had been much too dry. But there had been that beautiful snow in April, that wonderful rain in May. The threat of drought had been eased. Not erased – my pleading lawn was testimony to that—but at least, pardon the phrase, damped down.

On Monday, I made the fatal mistake. I told someone that this summer didn’t look too bad. Certainly not as bad as last year.

Some words should never be spoken. By Tuesday, the match had been lit.

The last time Colorado burned, we had presidential contenders cris-crossing the state. I took up a friend’s plea that they all withdraw and give their Colorado advertising money to fire relief, where it would do more good than a thousand finger-pointing ads.

Didn’t happen.

This year, we’re at least spared the indignity of leaders-in-waiting fiddling while home burns. A small comfort, I suppose. Very small.

But then, everything seems pretty small against a wall of flame.

Especially our own efforts.

So often, that’s what keeps coming back to me. What can we do? We all want to stop it. To turn it off. To make it not happen.

And we can’t. That’s in the hands of a few brave men and women, putting everything on the line to save the rest of us.

But we can do two things. Remember. And prepare.

We all have a responsibility to be ready for the next battle.

When I was a kid learning to cut the lawn, Dad drilled me on the three things every mower needs. Fuel. Air. A spark. Take away even one, and you don’t have a lawn mower, you have a lawn ornament.

Wildfire works by the same rules.

Air, we can’t do much about. Colorado winds are what they are, erratic and sudden.

The spark? Common sense can help a bit there. But danger can still leap from the sky in a lightning strike or emerge from the embers of a seemingly-doused fire pit.

But the biggest thing we can do is remove the fuel.

And in the mountains especially, that means firebreaks.

I know. It’s beautiful to have a “hidden home” in the mountains. It’s prettier to have the trees come right to your door. I’ve seen it. I agree, it is nice.

But capricious as fire is, it still needs a path. A tree-shrouded home offers it a six-lane highway.

Clearing a space may not guarantee safety. Neither does wearing a seat belt in a car. But both do a lot to improve the odds. Three years ago, those spaces and a shift in the wind helped spare Gold Hill from yet another wildfire. In aerial photos, it looked like the homes were surrounded by a moat.

That’s what a firebreak is. A moat of dirt. A defense against the next battle.

A way for the militia – all of us – to help the regular defenders.

We’ll endure. We always seem to. The fires will recede, the destruction will end. The smoke will fade.

But the memories and the lessons shouldn’t.

And maybe next year, we can meet the fire season with more than hope.

No Room

When the planes struck, the call came. Some of our finest responded.
It’s been 10 years. This time, the call isn’t coming.
And that is a shame beyond words.
I’m sure you’ve heard the news by now. You’d almost have to have been a mile beneath Ground Zero to have missed it. On Sept. 11, New York City is holding a ceremony to remember THE Sept. 11. Political leaders will be there. The family of those killed will be there.
The firefighters and other first responders who came to the Towers won’t be. Not enough room.
At the moment, my indignation is mixed with a reluctant nod toward the logistics of the situation. On the day the Towers fell and in the days that followed, for example, there were 91,000 emergency workers on the site from across the country. Never mind the others who could reasonably claim a right to be there, such as the family of those who survived 9/11 – who also haven’t been invited, by the way; they’re on standby in case someone cancels.
If everyone who had been touched by 9/11 came to the ceremony, New York State wouldn’t be big enough to hold them all. Never mind New York City.
But at the same time, it is a shame.
If ever there was a moment when this nation came together, it was Sept. 11, 2011. It was when firefighters and police became national heroes, when politicians could briefly join hands instead of put up fists, when you could look at your neighbor across the street and say the mantra usually reserved for Thanksgiving: “Maybe we don’t agree on everything, but we’re still family.”
To reduce all that to a squabble over who can or can’t be in the crowd on the day seems silly. Even embarrassing.
A compromise, perhaps, could have worked. I think in our hearts, everyone knows everyone can’t go. The space in our hearts for that day is endless; the space on the ground is starkly limited.
But on a day of symbols, why not a few more?
Why not, say, 100 New York first responders from that day? Why not choose two each from every other state across the country, representing all those who lent a hand in a dark hour? Why not do the same with the families of the survivors, and all the others you can think of – a symbolic number to represent the many, many behind them, united with those who had lost so much?
The actual names could have been chosen by lot. There’d still be some grumbling, sure – we didn’t stop being human on 9/11 – but it wouldn’t be the deep resentment of a just honor denied.
Too late now, I know. Maybe something to consider for the 15th or the 20th.
For now, maybe it’s just enough to try to get some of that old spirit back. To recall that wherever we were, the attacks touched us, that wherever we are, we can remember.
Remember those who fell.
Remember those who lived.
Remember that out of many, we are still one.
I hope, in the end, we can all find room for that.