Elizabeth Key

It was July 3, 2018, when we fled our Hillcrest home and the hotshots were called in. We watched from Willits as the choreographed fire dance began; flames popped up and the chopper released rains of red retardant. The hillside was studded with brush fires crowning our home. 

We had run with little else than the clothes on our backs, thinking they would have the fire out in a matter of hours. In the midsummer evening, I stood in my mother’s yard, relegated to witness. I regretted grabbing the passports instead of the family photos; we were not running to a European vacation. I reminded myself to be grateful that we escaped with our lives, but this was little comfort, because the fire felt surreal. My stubborn neighbor was still up there searching for his cat. I left him a desperate, demanding voicemail telling him to get out. 

On the Fourth of July, we drove to Redstone in our borrowed clothes to disengage from the helpless horror. Unfortunately, the lack of cell service did not mitigate people at the parade from asking me if my house had burned. Redstone has always been a sanctuary for me, but nothing could erase my anxiety on that day. It felt wrong that we were celebrating while flames were probably incinerating our livelihoods. When we returned, we would either have a home or be homeless. 

That night the evacuation order was still active and first responders stood sentry in our neighborhood. The status of our house was unresolved. We bunkered down at my mother’s home in Willits and watched the hillside ignite through her windows. The firefight intensified as the winds whipped up an inferno that engulfed the hillside in minutes. We once again fled through drifting embers, driving past the wildfire bearing down just beyond The Tree Farm. An American flag, backlit by the glowing orange sky, looked like an omen of apocalypse. We skirted the fire, driving east to the Front Range, leaving the feverish scene to the professionals. 

We returned the following week. The American flag flapping phoenix-like in the foreground of the charred hillside. Our house was sweltering yet standing, covered in ash and fire retardant. It was like entering a frozen moment, the abandoned cantaloupe withering on the cutting board, my glass of Cabernet untouched on the counter. The rolled and tucked away outdoor rug was the only sign of the firefighters’ battle preparation. Basalt mountain suffered great gouges from their trench warfare. I inhaled the smoke of destruction and knew it had been knocking at our door. The heroic measures of those firefighters saved not only our home but our entire community. 

Later I proffered a Starbucks card to the first fireman I encountered, saying, “You saved my house. I thought it would burn.” He responded, “Me too; I was in your neighborhood.” My shock cleared into the reality that this man had walked toward the blaze on my behalf, while I ran from the encroaching flames. My eyes pricked, readying for tears. That cup of coffee was a paltry offering of my immeasurable gratitude. 

A year later, I hiked up to the burn scar, just hundreds of feet away from our home. I marveled at the beauty in the aftermath of the disaster. The scorched earth and blackened bark were stark against tuffs of new growth and flowering cacti. Just like the phoenix, nature would emerge from the ashes, rejuvenated but not to be replicated. That pinyon forest was hundreds of years old and will take centuries to replace.

Today I live in Redstone. A brush fire recently ignited from a fallen powerline, but this time the firefighters had to come from Carbondale, a 21-minute response. Redstone volunteer firefighters are scarce and desperately needed. The community had to mobilize to save itself. Locals swiftly coordinated, passing pickle buckets of river water and dousing the flames before the fire department arrived. 

In this changing climate, the best way to repay the heroism that saved our community is by volunteering to stand together with our firefighters. The Carbondale Fire Department services Missouri Heights, Carbondale, Marble and Redstone. Volunteers need little to no experience; essential training will be provided. (Provigil) For more information about what it takes, the application process, the courses and sample schedules, go to: www.carbondalefire.org/volunteering/

The Lake Christine Fire left a harrowing scar on the landscape. Photo by Elizabeth Key