Where There’s Smoke. . .

There’s fire. And indeed there was.

December 30, 2021, 1 pm. I’m driving home after taking a walk at Barr Lake State Park, a favorite place of mine, about 10 miles east of where I live. Heading west into the predicted strong winds, I smell smoke. A few miles east of home the smoke is thick, and visibility is dropping. I can’t see flames, or tell the source. A mile from home, by the post office, visibility is less than a block. This is scary, eerie, unsettling. Continuing home, the air clears, and pulling into my driveway, the sky is blue, the smell of smoke is strong, and the wind gusting. My car is the only one in the garage. Where’s BA (my partner)?

Turns out, she was at the post office, posting a letter. We probably passed each other and didn’t notice in the smoke. I turn to the internet and discover two fires burning in Boulder County, one north of Boulder, already contained, and the other, soon to be known as the Marshall Fire, burning much closer to us, wildly out of control and propelled by 100 mph winds. My smoke question is answered.

A few minutes later, I receive a text from my friend Nancy, offering a place to stay if we need to evacuate. Say what? We live in town, close to a mile from big open space areas, although there is a path and small drainage ditch directly behind our house. Surely the fire won’t encroach on us.

Moments later, the power goes out. What if we do have to evacuate? I’m a planner, I’ve given some thought to this. I know where my important papers, extra cash, passport, all that good stuff is. I have a go bag in my closet, although its a bit of a mess, as I’d gone through it prior to my Mexican trip a few weeks ago. It’s been on my list to sort through. Top of the list now. BA, on the other hand, doesn’t work that way. I coach her a bit. Get a week’s medications, clothes for both today’s weather and the incoming snowstorm, her laptop. She rounds her stuff up. I load my car with my emergency supplies, along with cat food, cat litter and cat box.

Behind our house, there’s a steady stream of cars heading north, away from burning Superior. A neighbor and I chat about the process, I lend him a travel charging block for his phone which is out of power. The evacuation notice arrives on my cellphone at 2:32 pm. I text Nancy that we will take her up on her very kind offer. We finish loading our cars, and head out, joining the traffic jam. I lead, with Ziggy the cat on my lap (we hadn’t replaced our carrier) He does surprisingly well, alternately snuggling and looking our the window. BA follows in her car.

As is common in evacuations, there is a bit of “you can’t get there from here” going on. Initially routed west, past burning open space, we eventually wend our way north and east, arriving at our friends home after a bit more than an hour (normally its a 15 minute drive). En route, I receive calls and texts from family members, checking in, offering shelter if needed. Good to hear from them, and we chug along.

Stunned, headachy from smoke and tension, we gratefully unload into our friends home. Also cat lovers, they have a guest room with a comfortable bed and we set it up so that Ziggy has a safe and private place to stay, access to his people and not to other people or cats. After a cuddle with the fuzzy boy, I go downstairs, needing to see what’s happening. The TV images are horrific, with neighborhoods burning, conjecture, etc. Nancy receives texts suggesting that mutual friends have lost their homes, I receive one from a friend that she has lost both her home and her beloved cat. Grieving begins, along with that stunned numbness and and overwhelming exhaustion.

I take a shower, grateful to feel clean and smell much less smoky. We watch more TV, see descriptions, and also note that the newspeople aren’t getting things quite right, with Louisville, Marshall and Superior names being misapplied to places I know are somewhere else. That I know some of the places very well is unsettling, to say the least. After a snack, we retreat exhausted to bed. Its a restless night, and there is rest.

Friday, Dec 31, 2021. New Year’s Eve.

In the morning, sipping coffee, we once again view the news. The fire is now largely contained. The news of so many homes lost is devastating, and it’s difficult to determine exactly where. I need to move, so I walk to a nearby supermarket, crossing “normal” paths, and pick up a few items. It’s good to exercise, and disconcerting to experience normal in such close proximity to abnormal. Cognitive dissonance, I believe it’s called.

Along with many neighbors, we drive back into the evacuation area, anxious to see if our house is standing. It is. No power, water or heat; not habitable at the moment, but it’s there, waiting. I speak with a neighbor who shows me a partially burned hardback book he found on his driveway. Had it landed on the roof, our neighborhood could have joined the conflagration. We return to our friends, where we continued to scavenge for information, both relieved and uncertain.

We have a pleasant evening, enjoying a chicken stew, a bottle of Prosecco and fine conversation with our friends, before once again going to bed early. Its New Years Day in far eastern Canada; good enough for us. The winds have dropped, and the predicted snow has begun to fall.

January 1, 2022. New Year’s Day.

The new year has begun. There’s snow, about 8 inches worth, and its cold. I go out and shovel our host’s driveway and sidewalk. It’s the least I can do to contribute and demonstrate my gratitude for their hospitality. Maps and information showing the burned areas are now available online (thank you internet and emergency services!). Preliminary data suggests around a thousand homes have been lost, along with surprisingly few businesses given the intensity and magnitude of the fire. Louisville, my town, has sustained the majority of the losses, although there are whole neighborhoods gone in nearby Superior and unincorporated Boulder county.

Later that afternoon, the evacuation order for our part of town is lifted, and we choose to return. Electricity has just been restored. While we don’t have gas and are under a boil water order, we can go home. We do so, seeking some semblance of “normal”. Once again thanking our hosts, we pack up the cars and the cat and drive home.

The house is cold, about 41 degrees F (5C). We have supplemental baseboard heat in our sitting room, so it’s a bit warmer. We set up some space heaters in our bedroom, and add another layer of blankets. After a dinner of leftover soup (the advantage of the cold during the power outage is that the refrigerator and freezer stayed cold enough to avoid food spoilage), we sleep well in our cold bedroom, so grateful to be home.

January 2, 2022.

We wake up to a sunnier sky, a bedroom that is almost warm, and the relief that we are indeed home. I head to the YMCA which is serving as a shelter and is also dispensing space heaters to assist in warming homes without heat. I pick up a box of two for us, and two for neighbors. Setting up these high-powered heaters, the house warms further, getting to be around 60, which feels nearly tropical under the circumstances. It’s a bit like camping inside, as we are cooking on the induction burner I use when traveling and boiling a lot of water. And we are home. We clean up the minimal amount of ash in the doorways, and I become more grateful that I had done an “energy smart” analysis a few years previously, which had our home more well sealed and insulated. Less smoke and and ash entered our house than those of our neighbors.

Week one after the fire. December 31-January 6.

Services are gradually restored. Gas is turned back on late Monday, and the boil water order lifted Thursday evening, one week after the fire. Information continues to filter in, as numbers are updated on homes lost or damaged. The original thought on the source of the fire, downed power lines is found not to be the case. We still don’t know how it started. I see a few clients at my office, which also didn’t burn. I’m exhausted.

I take a few short walks around. It’s heartbreaking to see the lost neighborhoods, so familiar and nearby. Two blocks down the bike path one finds total devastation, blocks of homes reduced to rubble, I-beams resting on foundations. It’s bizarre and eerie. The smoke feels toxic, and it likely is. Now I wear my N95 mask outside, and use my good cloth masks with filters indoors. Oh yeah, this is all happening in the midst of the Omicron wave of Covid-19.

Week 2 after the fire. January 7-13.

Things trundle on. President and Dr. Biden visit, touring the burned areas and offering consolation to some of those who lost their homes. FEMA is present, setting up emergency aid, along with the state and county. Assessment and planning begins. GoFund Me accounts appear for many. This is often how I discover more people I know who “lost everything”. Despite the massive losses of homes, it is surprising that only 2 people are missing and suspected to have died in the fire. Sadly, many more pets were lost, and memorial services are held for those stricken by such losses.

I continue with my little bit by little bit mantra. Slowly restoring normalcy inside the house, as we can use central heating and cook normally in the kitchen. Once water is restored as well, putting away the camping gear. It’s more normal inside. Outdoors, not so much. As the snow melts, I discover small damages and also a burned paper in the garden. It’s today’s featured image, from someone’s state income tax instructions. I walk a little more around the area, exploring more damaged areas. I discover a burned area of bike path and fencing, homes not burned, but just a block from home. Closer than imagined. It could so easily have gone the other way, destroying our home, too.

Burned paper from the fire, found in my garden.

Each time I encounter a new area of loss, I am met with grief, sadness and a debilitating exhaustion. I find that I get little done for a day or two afterwards. Things slowly become more real, despite the sense of unreality about the whole catastrophe. It happened right here, worse than imagined, and clearly related to climate change.

Week 3 after the fire. January 14-20.

Life continues on. Some things are “normal”, and a great many things are irretrievably changed. Kids attend local schools, none of which burned. Shops reopen, and others never will, while others continue rebuilding. I see more areas of loss. I think I’ve had a first glimpse of most areas now, although integrating this will take a while. I work on developing new habits. My daily walks for years went through areas that are burned, neighborhoods destroyed. Open spaces, long familiar and restoring venues, sources of solace in nature, are indefinitely closed.

Some of the emergency services are closing down, shifting from short term to longer term recovery. It’s becoming clear that recovery will take years. It’s not going to be “over” anytime soon. People from nearby areas who have been through natural disasters, whether fires or the big floods of 2013 provide both support and an orientation to the long term nature of recovery.

And of course, given the nature of such an unprecedented fire, come all manner of questions as far as community and rebuilding are concerned. What can be done to protect in the future? Different building materials, house spacing, fences, care of open spaces, etc, etc, etc. We are just at the beginning. There is a natural longing for “the way it was before”, and at the same time, the dawning realization that before is long gone and will not return.

Through this all, the community has rallied around itself well. Pop up free shops arrived, with clothing and other necessities for those in need. We were able to donate some rolling duffles we no longer needed. Something I hadn’t realized would be really handy for the displaced. Obvious once you think of it. Food is provided by restaurants and community members, furniture donated, people are helping where they can. Good to see and experience. In conversation, I also discover, that many, like myself are quite shaken, exhausted and still in shock. And we are “lucky” we have homes. Hearing from those who have lost homes, I note that their challenges are massively amplified. Recovery will take a long time, and we are all changed.

It has taken me more than three weeks to get this first bit of my experiences out. There will be more to follow, and I have learned the importance of not over committing myself. Honoring the process and the journey. Little bit by little bit.

Peace and healing to us all.

22 thoughts on “Where There’s Smoke. . .

  1. Oh, my goodness, Steph. I am in tears as I read this! I’ve never been quite that close to a brushfire, but I was about a mile (as the crow flew) from one which went on to burn out a lot of Laguna Beach. I am glad your house survived, and especially glad that those on either side of you also survived Life is so fragile, even without the threat of fires, and it seems even more so when so much of an urban or suburban area is destroyed in such a short time. I will think of you as you begin the recovery process, and will look forward to reading future segments of the story. Hugs!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have never really written about “my” fire. Reading this brought back so many images of the day, the day after, the weeks after, the return home. It’s a life-changing experience and when I learned that all was well with you an BA I breathed a sigh of relief. You’ve written well and clearly. I’m glad you did. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Martha. Your support is much appreciated. I just re-edited the piece as I discovered all manner of bits I’d missed on the first past. It is amazing the difference in understanding the direct experience of an event brings. Not the same as reading or talking about it, no matter how empathetic one may be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True. I learned — among other things — to keep my gas tank filled. Crazy. The morning after we were evacuated we were allowed to go home to no power or anything. My neighbor’s siphoned gas out of their old truck to fill up my truck. Irrelevant memory, really, but the experience of that kind of uncertainty and sadness… Wow. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Heather. Yes on the preparedness thing, and I learned more about what does/doesn’t work. Most of the “fireproof” safes didn’t do the job, as papers inside were reduced to ash by the intense heat. Jewelry okay sometimes, papers not so much. I may start using a safe deposit box at my bank.
      So many considerations. . .

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Steph, thank you for letting us know of your lucky escape. I corresponded with Martha the day after the fire and she said that you and BA had evacuated. I saw footage of the aftermath and was completely shocked by the devastation. The vista in the footage had an eerie familiarity to me and I realised that was because I had seen that area before in your blog posts.
    Having recently been through a storm with winds over 100kph, it seems virtually impossible to be able to defend against a fire coming toward you at that speed. I am sure this will be in the minds of all those who have lost houses and those like you who were fortunate enough to have a home to return to, thereby adding to the anguish being felt.
    As you know, the scars of the trauma will be felt for many years in the community long after homes are re-built. It is difficult to ever feel safe again. I guess the only thing you can do is be there for one another. One day at a time. Take care, Steph. Love to you all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tracy. Growing up in this area, high winds this time of year are common, but the fire propelled by the wind is, as you rightly noted, really unfightable at times. So much change. Thanks for the support, and stay well yourself!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so sorry! I can’t imagine how hard it must be to live through a terrible fire like that. Even though your house was saved, you were definitely impacted. And you’re right, recovery takes a very long time and things will be a bit different from now on. I do hope we can learn to control these fires better, for everyone’s sake. Hang in there!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing this. It is so beautifully written. I cried when I read it, and I lived part of it with you two. I am so very grateful that your home was spared, but I know it has been very difficult to see the devastation of your beautiful community. Just seeing part of it the day I had to go to Costco was very emotional. We will always be here for you two and Ziggy. We love you! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nancy. The kindness and generosity offered by you and Tony is wonderful. And I see you continuing to help others. Love to you! And I truly hope we never need to offer you shelter, but if its needed, we’re here!


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