It was a “gentle” (no wind), clear blue, big sky, beautiful, sunshiny, Colorado morning when I walked into the local Home Depot. It had been a very mild, extremely tinder-dry fall and winter. It was nearly the end of the year and there had been no rain or snow for months.
I walked out of the door twenty minutes later with my shopping cart, into an apocalyptic world. At least the scene mimicked what movie makers have taught me the apocalyptic world will look like. The sky was as dark as the last vestiges of twilight. The parking lot lights that come on as night approaches were illuminating a horrific scene.
The air was filled with smoke, ash, and what appeared to be charred pieces of paper, or leaves, all caught up in countless tornadic whirlwinds doing their independent dances across the parking lot. Beneath my feet were spinning piles of debris, rolling and blowing across the tarmac.
I was nearly blown down several times by the winds that were later reported as being from 50-115 MPH. I would have been, had I not been holding onto my shopping cart. A cart that seemed very eager to join its brethren, who free from human intervention, were flying across the lot, seemingly scattering, trying to get out the way of some unseen monster.
There actually was a monster. The fire-breathing dragon that was in the form of an urban wildfire, or more accurately, a number of them.
I wasn’t consciously (more about that later), scared at all, just totally fascinated by what I was experiencing. I didn’t have a sense of being in any danger. I was just trying to imagine what was happening. The sights, sounds, smells, and taste (yes taste, I could taste the air), amazed me. Mesmerized me. I was smiling. This is pretty cool, I thought.
On the way to my car, a gentleman was wrestling with a sheet of plywood trying to guide it into the back of his SUV that threatened to either blow out of his hands or lift him into the wind like a kite headed into the netherworld. I shouted, asking him if he needed help, he said “no”, but yelled back that the situation was “gnarly.” (I live in Colorado, after all, where there is talk of changing the state grass from Blue Grama to…..well, that is another story….)
I became aware that I was looking forward to the sanctuary my car might provide. I opened the tailgate which was immediately filled with white and black ash and acrid smoke. By the time I got into the driver’s seat (with another good dose of ashes and smoke entering with me), I was beginning to realize I was having some trouble breathing. I started the car and the ventilation system, cleaned the air somewhat. I was aware that the car was rocking and shaking in all directions from the gusts of wind as if it was a rowboat caught in a stormy sea.
I thought I would make a call to see if my bride could tell me what was happening. No answer. As I hung up from that call, I got a video call from a friend. I wanted to share the amazing experience I was having with them, so I showed him what I was seeing. He immediately said, “Don’t you think you should probably be getting away from all that, rather than talking to me?” I thought for a moment and decided that was probably a good idea, though I didn’t really think I needed to.
Before I left, I wanted to record what I was seeing. I have an I-Phone and have recorded hundreds of videos, but at that moment I couldn’t remember how to do that. Disappointed, I decided to leave. But which direction? Drive into the wind and hope to drive through the smoke, trying to get on the other side of it, (I thought it might be a car or truck fire on the nearby expressway?) or go in the direction the wind would be pushing the fire and smoke. I knew I would never be able to outrun it. What I didn’t know at the time was that there were multiple massive lines of fire were racing my way from both the South and the West.
While I typically recommend turning towards “things” that come into people’s lives, I decided to go away from and in the direction the wind seemed to be headed. Good guess. If I would have gone in the other direction, I would have been caught up in the raging miles-wide fires. Ancient DNA wisdom kicking in? Luck?
I drove ½ mile and suddenly emerged into the beautiful blue sky that I had seen walking into the store. I looked into my mirror, saw the massive smoke cloud, and realized I had headed in the right direction.
When I arrived home, we immediately got the order to evacuate. I thought that order was a little overdone, (the same attitude I had for years when we would get tornado watches and warnings back in the Midwest). After all, I knew the fires were to our south and headed east (I should know, I just came from there). Then, I looked to the west and saw a huge smoke cloud coming our way and understood things had changed in just a few minutes.
Evacuate, what does that mean? I had just listened to someone on the radio who had been in a flood, and I remembered he had said “Take your computers and medicines and important papers.” So that’s what we did. We also threw in a few clothes. As we walked away from everything else we both confided later that all that remaining “stuff”, that was our home, didn’t really matter. Somehow in that moment, I realized that’s exactly how it will be upon my death.
Evacuate, ok, to where? Obviously away from the fire and smoke, but where to? By the time we got to the major highway, we joined 30,000 other people who were trying to evacuate. We knew of some back roads (I like to drive those, and even though we were new to the area, we had done a fair amount of scouting, never realizing that it would help us get out in an emergency like this). So we wound our way around the traffic and to our son’s house. We found out later that some people waited in their cars, trying to evacuate, for an hour and a half.
They were right to ask us to evacuate. In the next seven hours over 1,000 families lost their homes. The picture above leading this story is a stack of free “sifters”. They are so that those families, returning to their homes can “sift” through the ashes of their lives looking for some relics that they might use to help establish another.
People have asked me about my personal experience with this and here is what I have come up with to date.
Denial is an amazing thing. If my brain doesn’t know or can’t comprehend what is happening it minimizes what it is experiencing (“It’s no big deal”, “the authorities don’t know what they are doing”) and is fascinated by what it is witnessing. It can keep me from paralyzing horror, or it can kill me (and others).
If I have not been trained in how to respond to certain situations, I freeze. How do I take a picture of all this? What direction do I drive? What stuff do I evacuate with? Where do I evacuate to? What route is the best?
Sometimes my brain guesses right, and sometimes it doesn’t.
My thinking can be “impaired” by anxiety and fear, even if I do not consciously feel either. I am reminded of the adage that in times of crisis, we do not ascend to the level of our aspirations, we descend to the level of our training (or previous experience).
Give me a tornado, or the back end of my car swinging to the right on an icy road, and I know what to do. A wildfire? No data. Until now.
This community, from the government down to individual citizens have responded to this in ways I’ve never witnessed. I have lived in many places and been in many situations where tragedies similar to these have occurred, but never have seen something work like the emergency response system of this county and state.
Our home didn’t burn. We lived through an unprecedented event. An urban wildfire. It won’t be the last. Our natural world is changing. It isn’t “if” it will happen, the only question is when, where, and how it starts. There are still major portions of our county and country that are tinder dry because of the drought condition in our world.
I am grateful for friends who can guide me in the right directions when I can’t determine them and I am grateful to my ancestors whose DNA messaging suggested I ride with the wind.