The crisp weather I associate with fall arrived early this year. The grasses and wildflowers and weeds that had shot up in June matured, set seed, and began to spin the landscape into gold by mid-August. If clouds bothered to assemble at all, they lost interest in organizing themselves into thunderheads. The cloudless sunrises typical of a Colorado summer were matched, increasingly, by cloudless sunsets.
As August ebbed, the twilight bookending the days started going Technicolor, with vibrant and wide-flung displays of magenta and fiery orange. Then the coloring agent for our showy sunrises and sunsets began to make itself evident during the day: a haze of smoke from distant fires in the Pacific Northwest and northern California.
Pikes Peak faded to a murky cutout on the horizon, and disappeared altogether some days. The hills and buttes looked grayish rather than tawny. Our views lost their clean edges and the blue faded out of the sky.
After a wet spring and early summer, the haze was a pointed reminder that wildfire is and always will be part of the reality of this place. My joy in the botanical wonders that filled our summer was spiked, in part, by giddiness inspired by a respite from being incessantly fire-aware. As rains from thunderstorms in early July soaked into the ground, I imagined the trees around us drawing in water from soil that had been drought-parched for so long. Several Ponderosa pines near the house we’d considered cutting down because they seemed to be dying rebounded. For the first time since it was put up more than ten years ago, the roadside sign on the way to town that displays fire danger was reeled down, albeit briefly, to “Low.”
I knew this luxuriousness would, like the wildflowers, be fleeting. This is a semi-arid climate: dry is the default setting. This year’s early precipitation—a snowy February, record-setting May rains, ample monsoon thunderstorms in June and July—was an anomaly. The rain total for August was one of the lowest in a decade. The tall vegetation tanned, then dried, then toasted, and now shatters when you walk through it. September is always a dry month for us, but so far this one is looking like it will end up being downright parched.
Last week, I mowed the thick but brittle grass around the house, refreshing the moat of defensible space around our home. Cutting down the native grasses is always a bittersweet task. The mature grasses have a beauty I did not know of before living here. I love their colors, and their diversity. I love watching their threads and plumes and sprays nodding in the breeze on the hillside outside the kitchen window.
Once the job is done, the mowed area looks tidy. It will be the first area to show green next spring, and the wildflowers there will pop with less grassy competition. The more immediate benefit is the ease the short-cropped vegetation gifts to my mind. Trimming the grasses and shrubs will help lay a fire down to a lower intensity, should one approach the house.
Maintaining defensible space is one of the obligations that comes with living at the wildland-urban interface, but cutting the grass—along with thinning trees and trimming brush—also carries an aspect of ritual. These activities are a bow to the fact that wildfire is one of the sculptors of the landscape I cherish. Acknowledging its power and adapting, as best I can, to its rightful role here is part of what makes living on this high ridge different from living in an apartment in Brooklyn or on cul-de-sac at Denver’s fringe.
Cultivating such equanimity was much, much easier when we were surrounded by verdure in June. A philosophical attitude toward fire gets harder as red flag warnings enter the forecast and the leaves on the young aspen trees I planted last fall crinkle, the groundwater level settling beyond the reach of their their roots.
Making peace with the concept of wildfire is not the same thing as coping with the threat, or with the aftermath. The complexities at the interface where human habitat meets fire-prone landscapes proliferate the more we learn—about forests, about fire, about our land use patterns, about the unintended consequences of our actions. My thoughts are with all the Westerners contending with fires burning in landscapes they love, now and in the years to come.