Photo credit: Mike Blakeman
In 2013, the largest fire in Southwestern Colorado’s history — 109,615 acres at final measurement — burned a mix of spruce fir and aspen forest on three sides of what has been my high mountain meadow home for 25 years. The fire raged for more than a month, running seven horizontal miles along a hillside in one afternoon alone. We were on standby to evacuate for two solid weeks, and although all of my neighbors on both sides were evacuated, I was not. At the closest, the West Fork Fire came within half a mile of my property.
For weeks of no rain and daily red flag warnings, the containment number stayed at 0%, as the fire continued to eat up forest, as the indefatigable firefighters, who at one point outnumbered the residents of the county by three to one, worked three shifts to save home after home and hold the line. We evacuated our horses to smoke-free counties, bought air cleaners and N95 masks for when we had to go outside. Every morning we woke up choking on smoke and checked the government interagency InciWeb site, and every morning 0% containment stared us in the face.
Then one morning the InciWeb told us the fire was 2% contained and our hearts leapt up. There was still a 98% chance that all would be lost, but 2% was hope, 2% was everything. That night, when we went to our weekly information meeting, the incident commander for the firefighting team told us that containment was not and had never been the goal on the West Fork Fire. He called containment numbers “meaningless,” saying that in this fire it wasn’t about containment; it was all about control. I looked around at the crusty-eyed, soot-streaked faces of my neighbors and could see they felt as I did. That 2% was not meaningless to us, and nothing the IC said was going to make it that way. We’d barely had time to feel good about our measly 2% and we weren’t ready to give it up. Even if what he said made practical sense, even though the firefighters were our literal saviors and he was their king, we were not going to let him take away our hope.
A fire, it turns out, can be a metaphor for almost everything. A midterm election, say. Or a country teetering on the brink of fascism. A country where those who have been elected to serve the people have a Bic lighter in one hand and the constitution in another. A country where everything good and life-sustaining, from education to civil rights, from clean air to wolves, even Amtrack, is under unmitigated and relentless attack.
I am a main character in the future of this country and it is my job as such to be neither controlled nor contained.
My father was his own brand of fire, ripping through my childhood burning and breaking things — my femur, my hymen, 98% of my hope. Not incidentally his mannerisms, his world view, were so identical to Donald Trump’s that Donald Trump has all but obliterated my father in my memory.
The West Fork Fire made it a little sadder to live here. The 2016 election, in this corner of Colorado that is still more red than purple, made it something else. During the four long hunting seasons last fall, when trucks full of men in cammo (out-of-staters, primarily, as Coloradans tend to get out of their trucks to hunt) ran their diesel engines at the bottom of my driveway in the predawn, waiting for something with a big rack to walk by, I couldn’t help wondering if, along with their elk and deer permits, they were able to purchase a tag for what I
am now repeatedly called on Twitter: snowflake, moonbeam, cunt.
In J. M. Coetzee’s remarkable novel Disgrace
, David Lurie tries to talk his daughter, Lucy, into moving out of the veldt and back to the safety of civilization, after a band of local men break into her house, rape her, impregnate her, and kill her beloved dogs. By way of refusal, she says, “You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.”
When the West Fork Fire finally stopped burning, I committed to spending the rest of my life watching these mountain forests where I have made my home regenerate, regerminate, regrow. After the 2016 election, I googled “most progressive small town in western Canada,” and went up there, looking for a potential new home. In a health food store in BC I ordered a bowl of borscht, and when the old woman behind the counter set it down in front of me, she said, “I left my country because I lost hope that positive change could ever happen. But,” she said, her accent heavy with Russian Block, “I was wrong.” I had said not one word to that woman about why I was in Canada, but she could see it in my eyes and sent me home.
The 2018 midterm elections told us a few things we already knew. We are still an intensely racist nation, a nation unsafe for nonwhites, for women, for queers, and more recently, for scientists, journalists, artists, free thinkers, and, thanks to the NRA, for school children and yoga practitioners. I wish none of that were true, but it is. It is also true that in the 2018 midterm election we achieved 2% containment. And 2% can be everything. 2% can be hope.
“The road I am following may be the wrong one,” Lucy says to her father about her decision to stay in the veldt, “but if I leave the farm now I will leave defeated, and will taste that defeat for the rest of my life.”
Sometimes a fire is just a fire, ask anyone in the town they used to call Paradise. Sometimes a fascist is just a fascist and fascists kill innocent people. Sometimes a gun is just a gun and it does the same. I am just one person, but I am beginning to understand that, small as I feel when the men with guns are sitting at the bottom of my driveway, I am a main character in the future of this country and it is my job as such to be neither controlled nor contained. Not even 2%.
The mountain to the west of me, locally known as Baldy, was charred top to bottom by the West Fork Fire. In the five years since 2013, I have watched fireweed, pencil thin aspens, and most recently, tiny blue spruce push up through the blackened earth. I have watched the animals repopulate: woodpecker first, then marmot, mule deer, bear, and elk. You should see Baldy in mid-September, those skeletal black forms still standing like totems, the tequila sunrise colors of the young aspen trees beneath. Backlit by a setting sun and quaking, I’m telling you, it’ll take your breath away.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the prize-winning author of Contents May Have Shifted
and Deep Creek
, among other books. She is professor of English at the University of California–Davis and lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.