Day Three: Watching Colorado Burn

High Park FireDay of Challenge: Day Three
Date: Early July 2012
Age: 23
Location: Fort Collins, Colorado

In May of 2012, I wrote my fourth novel over the course of six straight weeks.  It was probably my best writing accomplishment to date.  Through the rest of the summer, I edited the novel until it was shiny and ready to show the world.  In order to do this, I went to the Starbucks close to where I lived every day.  I enjoy editing almost as much as I enjoy writing.  Polishing your precious work until it shines is definitely an underappreciated part of a writer’s work.

In early July, I was in this routine.  In the morning, I went with my friends to a massive garage sale.  It was a good way to spend a morning.  I walked away with a few books.  They walked away with a couch.  As we drove back, I remember looking at the Rocky Mountains—which are tall shadows over Fort Collins.  From behind one of the peaks, a small plume of smoke was rising.  I pointed it out.  No one really thought much of it.  It was too small.

After moving the couch, I went to my Starbucks.  I ordered my regular from the baristas who knew my name far too well.  I sat down and started working.  I had the routine down.  I would edit a chapter, take a break with the internet, then edit a chapter.  During my first break, the local news started reporting on the fire.  I started keeping a peeled eye on the mountainside and the news

On day two, the wind shifted.  I stopped editing when I realized it was surprisingly dark for a summer afternoon in Colorado.  I wandered out front of Starbucks to an incredible site.   The plume of smoke was massive.  Thousands of acres were already up in flames—and the smoke was blotting out the sun across the city.

I stopped editing over the next two or three days.  I was consumed by the fire that was ballooning out of control just on the other side of the mountain.  During those days, I spent most of my time with Jordan.  James came along a couple times.  We would drive five minutes up to Horsetooth Reservoir.  It wasn’t long before the fire slammed up against the side of the Reservoir.  We stood with people on cliffs overlooking the large body of water.

On the other side, we watched as firefighters protected houses.  We watched as the fire crept closer and closer to rural neighborhoods.  We watched as helicopters made its rounds—picking up water from the reservoir and dropping it on the front lines.  We watched in awe.  We talked with people who pointed out their houses; you could see the brush in their front yard on fire.  It was surreal.

Afterwards, we would drive north.  There was a small town up there that was preparing to evacuate.  People were watering their houses down.  Most already showed no signs of life.  They were all miles down the road—at a school that would house them until the mess was over (that school had to be evacuated a few days later because the fire exploded).

My most vivid memory of this event took place less than a week after the fire started.  Jordan and I decided to go for a walk around midnight.  We opened the front door to the house.  Outside, it looked like a heavy fog bank.  Except it wasn’t.  The smoke shifted in the night.  The whole of Fort Collins was enveloped in this thick smoke.  We walked half a block that night before we realized it didn’t feel safe.  My eyes burned and my lungs felt weak.   I got this odd feeling—like I was trapped.

The fire raged for weeks.  I kept a close eye on the map.  The northern edge of the fire was raging out of control—closer and closer to a cabin that my grandfather had built with his own hands.  At its worse, my parents raced up to the cabin and emptied all the valuables just in case.  It’s scary to think how close it got.

The rest of the summer carried on like this.  The smoke rising from the mountains and the smell of smoke became normal.  I went back to editing my novel.  But the events of that summer remain strong in their strangeness.  I will always remember standing on a cliff with thousands of people—watching in awe and fear of the fire.  All of us were wondering the same thing—can this fire enter the city limits of Fort Collins?  I didn’t believe it could.  Maybe it was just denial.  A month later, a similar fire erupted in Colorado Spring and found its way into the city limits—burning hundreds of houses.

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