Tuesday, June 12, 2018

What's It Like Living Down The Street From the Durango 416 Forest Fire??

(video taken by me and my daughter, first day of the fire, minutes after it started.) 

What's it Like Living Down The Street From the Durango 416  Forest Fire?

I live in Durango, Colorado, home of the roaring 416 fire. The past couple of days, friends and family are asking, "Are you safe? Are you leaving? What's it like right now?" 

It's pretty damned surreal. Last week, when the fire was just a wee 8,000 acres, I was online encouraging everyone to still come to Durango. I told them the fire wasn't defining us. That we still had so much to offer as a town, including a relatively safe place from which you could view the incredible spectacle that is a forest fire. I'm not doing that this week.

I'd gone away for the weekend and as we were driving home Sunday night, you could see the boiling, frothing smoke from the fire from almost three hours drive away. It looks like a volcano erupting. Not just drifting smoke, but moving, folding, rolling smoke, in varying shades of gray - and sometimes orange billowing hundreds, maybe thousands of feet into the sky. 

It's a very unsettling feeling to see such a sight where you know your home is on the horizon...and you're still driving straight for it. 

Once we reached home, it was bizarre. People are just going about their lives. They're wandering main street, riding bikes, kayaking down the river, playing with their dog, running errands...with this enormous, menacing plume of smoke hanging over everyone's heads. Okaaaaayyyyyy.

We unpacked from camping and joined the multitude trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy with this big beast hanging over our heads. We went paddle boarding.

But the beast doesn't just hang. Sunday night I accidentally left a window open. I woke up at 2 am, choking on smoke and fumes, eyes stinging, nose and throat burning.  I woke up my husband, daughter and dog, and ushered everyone into the guest room, the one room where the smoke hadn't reached. We were having difficulty breathing and I wanted to go outside for fresh air, but outside was even worse. There was no where to go. My heart pounding, I struggled with terror trying to decide what to do while keeping it together for my daughter. Despite the burning eyes, nose and throat, she was giddy at her new sleeping arrangement: a sleepover with Mom, Dad and the Dog all in one room. 

I've been pretty scared since then. 

Our home is surrounded by huge, beautiful Ponderosa Pine trees. I have a dozen within ten feet of my house. Needles and limbs are in piles all over the place. They're piled because I've been trying to clear decades, or centuries, of build up off the ground since we moved in last year. The fire is still seven miles away as the crow flies, but the plume comes right over our house. As does the squadron of helicopters going to and from their fuel source. Every few minutes during the day, we're shaken by the rumbling, thawking sound of the helicopters and get a pretty good idea of how hard they're working because, at times, it sounds like a war zone. 

At night, cooler temps cause the smoke to settle towards the ground and our house, and town, are enveloped in this thick, noxious cloud. I don't know how wildlife is surviving, but they are. We still hear and see birds and deer. Cows, sheep, and horses, like their distant human cousins, go about their days as they normally do, meandering fields and rolling in dust. I have no idea what they do when the cloud sinks to the ground for the night and the air becomes acrid and angry.

In the morning, the sun shines through the smoke giving strange, orangish light. The cloud starts to lift and by around 3, you can almost not smell it. That's when you open all your windows and try to get some fresh air in the house before you have to shut it all down for the nightly return of the smoke.

I've rarely been this scared. When I can't fight the curiosity anymore, I go look at the fire to see how much closer to town it's stormed. Every time I see it, my heart races, and from deep within my DNA comes the urge to get the hell out of here. In those moments, it takes A LOT to overcome the intense urge to run the other direction. But I'm still here. We're still here. And GOD BLESS THE FIREMEN WHO ARE MAKING SURE OF THAT.

This fire won't destroy us. It won't destroy Durango. Not it's beauty, not the incredible spirits of it's courageous people. When this is all over, come see us. There's no place like it in the entire world. I think when the smoke lifts today, I'll take my daughter paddle boarding.

Donna Stewart is a freelance writer, researcher and author of Yoga Mama's Buddha Sandals: Mayans, Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls. 

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