The thing about the world as we’re coming to know it now—a world in the process of changing at timescales we can perceive from the relatively puny span of a human adulthood—isn’t just that extremes pile up.
No, the thing is that these extremes cozy up to one another in bizarre and frankly disturbing ways.
The entire winter was too warm here in central Colorado—other than when it was too cold. Spring has also been too warm (and occasionally too cold). Dry, too. Way too dry. And windy. Have I mentioned the wind?
On days when those winds surged up from the south, they carried a haze of smoke from fires across the Southwest, including the large, persistent, and wholly depressing blazes in our neighbor state of New Mexico.
On May 12, I texted my husband a picture looking northeast from our deck, saying simply, “And so it begins.” A smoke plume had erupted on High Park, a flat that stretches between our place and Pikes Peak. As the fire spread that afternoon, pushed eastward by whipping winds, the southern front broke over a low rise, revealing an orange frill of flame at the base of the billow of smoke. Through binoculars, I could see those flames torching individual trees—at which point I stopped looking through binoculars.
In the next morning’s calmer air, High Park was submerged under a placid white sea: a pool of woodsmoke that had settled over thousands of acres. A few hours later, the sea had evaporated under stirring winds. Lazy whisps rose from the fire zone, marking different sites at the perimeter of the previous day’s burn. As windspeeds rose in early afternoon, the whisps coalesced into a fresh plume as the fire found its footing and began to run again.
Checking local newscasts, “on the scene” reporters spoke earnestly into their microphones; held at a distance by road closures, they gestured at anonymous smears of smoke in the background. I couldn’t help but think: they should be here. We have grandstand seats.
We’ve been in this position before, tracking the erratic travels of a wildfire from the high perch of our property. The emotions these events provoke are hard to categorize; I feel eyewitness intimacy, even though I’m removed by distance and the fortunes of wind direction. Watching the progress of the High Park fire, I felt the usual mix of relief and anxiety: no, this wasn’t going to be “our” fire—but the entire region was parched, and my world seemed poised to spontaneously combust. Meanwhile, the wind continued to rampage like a mean drunk, looking for any stray ember to pick a fight with.
Under these conditions, we did what we always do. We reviewed what take and where to go in an evacuation—although we realized we need an alternate place for horses in case the route southward was closed. We discussed the circumstances under which we might stay to defend the house. We talked through projects that would further harden house and barn against wildfire: mowing (again), more tree-thinning and low-limbing, get up on the roof and check the screening over the vents, skirt the back decks with tight-mesh metal screens to prevent embers from blowing under them.
Despite the lack of immediate danger, the sense of imminent hazard was all-encompassing. This is what fire weather does: it puts me on edge and keeps me suspended there. The wind, which is usually aggravating, feels overtly threatening. I become distractable, constantly walking to windows or stepping outside, scanning the horizon for smoke and sniffing the air. Work projects stall. When I heard one expert recommending moving livestock onto dry lots or overgrazed pastures during Red Flag conditions, I barked something that was a mix of expletive and derisive snort: the drought has been so bad here that we have nothing but overgrazed pastures.
The fire burned on, blowing up some days, making a run here and there, glowing on a couple of nights like a perverse mile-wide campfire. In the calm of early mornings, it was settled to scattered smolders. When the wind kicked up in the afternoons, I’d start watching for smoke billowing from a blow-up, and would usually see it. On occasion, the smoke trailed back and forth like sea grass riding the tide as the wind shifted directions.
May 19 brought yet another Red Flag Warning, meaning high winds, high temperatures, and low humidity. The next day’s forecast, however, showed a Winter Weather Advisory, with potential for heavy snow. The eighth day of the fire, May 20, dawned gloomy, but the gray sky was due to low clouds rather than smoke haze. By the end of the day, it had drizzled enough to deposit almost a tenth of an inch of water in the rain gauge: our first measurable precipitation in 24 days, during what would normally have been some of the wetter weeks of the year.
The next morning, I sank a yardstick in the smooth cushion of snow on the back deck and measured 21 inches, with heavy snow still falling. At the end of the day, I recorded 1.73 inches of water in the gauge. Flipping through my weather logs, I have to go back to August 2016 before I find a comparable single day accumulation.
We live in an arid region, at high altitude. The weather, by default, is harsh or fickle or dramatic, and sometimes it’s all three all at once. Heavy snow in May isn’t typical, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Around this time twenty-two years ago, we were bailing out the foundation of the cabin we’d just started building. A late-season blizzard had dumped four feet of snow; as it melted, water collected inside the concrete stem walls like the world’s most ill-conceived swimming pool.
Part of making our home here has always been figuring out ways to be prepared in the event we’re cut off. In the face of consecutive drama, though—fire one day, ice the next—I was rattled. How do we prepare to run yet also be ready to hunker down?
Maybe, in the end, the logistics are the same: get organized, pay attention. But the mental part is tricky. This latest weather whipsaw left me wrung out. Usually on a snowy day, Doug or I will build a fire. We’ll settle down in the living room, basking in the coziness of warmth and togetherness. Last week, neither one of us was in the mood. We hung out in the living room, but the fireplace stayed cold. We let the furnace, its flames unseen, do the work of warming the house.
A week later, the terrific dump of snow has melted. The ground was too dry to tolerate mud: the water simply vanished into parched soil. The moisture has brought a surge of greening grass, though, springing up practically as I watch. It’s already tall enough to shiver under the wind of today’s Red Flag warning.