When the West is on Fire

The fires in California have me thinking about my own dry, woody state and a wildfire that happened in my valley in July. The mountains and wildlife in my hometown are a piece of art in their own right, and the reality that they could burn away during my lifetime is terrifying.

I grew up in Colorado where we had 300 days of sunshine a year, but when the snow fell, it would stick all winter. Every couple of weeks another blizzard would come through to replenish the supply and we would celebrate another few inches on the mountain with our skis. Winter always went late into the year, and we even experienced occasional May snowstorms. This was no problem for our little town: it was the off-season so local ski-bums could skin up to the top of the most precipitated-on mountain (by this time the ski lifts would not be in service) and make their way down the mountain through an amalgamation of sticky snow, rocks, grass, and dirt. “Spring skiing” is what they called it. Eventually the temperature heats up and the only snow which remains is on the mountains’ peaks, and the flora turns green and vibrant: the grass is silky and from it sprouts smooth, velvet flowers, the forests are thick with the woody smell of pine. During the summer I am always stunned by the presence of life in these plants– I almost overwhelmed by a feeling that they are truly sentient, basking in the energy of the forest and intensity of the Colorado sun just I am. In the fall, our mountains were a gradient of hot colored Aspen trees, so bright that the leaves practically reflected off of our cheeks. Within a month or two comes the first snow fall, light at first, like the tiniest sprinkle of powdered sugar over red and yellow trees.

When I was a child learning about global warming, I did not expect to see the effects of it in my hometown. The snow had been there my entire life, in abundance. The mountains outside my door were my only sense of home, of landscape, Earth, etc. and the snow always came when the trees were still red and it always reluctantly left at the end of May to reveal a lush, wet summer brimming with life. But last year when I came home for winter break, there I was in the middle of December, staring out of my windows at bleak, brown, snow-less mountains. Longtime locals said that there had not been a winter so brown since the 1970s. I worried for my town. While a large percentage of the Aspen population has nothing to lose due to a dry ski season, there is another group of ski company employees and business owners that suffer from the lack of tourism. Beyond economic loss, less snow leads to dry summers. My whole county was placed under a fire-ban this summer: no campfires, no fireworks on the 4th of July, and no cigarette butt left unattended. One month into our third hottest summer in recorded history, two people decided they would fire outlawed tracer bullets at the local shooting range, about 20 miles from my home. A spark from the bullets led to a full on forest fire, incinerating 12,588 acres of land, burning three houses down, and displacing thousands of wildlife animals from their habitat. Next to Highway 82, a road I drove on for my whole life, I saw an entire mountain twinkling with embers and flames. The environment that was my Home and my first understanding of the Earth has disappeared into char and dust because of the carelessness of two people.

I know I don’t have control over what happens to my home. I try to stay present when I’m outside and  feel the vitality of my environment because I know it’s not going to be there one day. If I have seen things change this much in just 20 years of my life, I’m afraid to see what happens next. But the earth is resilient. The earth will fight defend herself how she sees fit and give right back to us what she receives. Maybe we’ll be compelled to take action, or maybe we’ll sit back in fear.