Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Red flag October

Two weeks ago, the East Troublesome Fire didn't exist.  

Last week brought what was likely the worst week of wildfire in Colorado history as East Troublesome roared through 150,000 acres in a single 24-hour period, leaping across a mile of open tundra and rocks above 12,000 feet to torch beloved trails on the eastern slope of Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park scrambled to rapidly evacuate from a fire that started near Kremmling, nearly 50 miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide. 

This week brought as much as two feet of snow and record-breaking cold — down to -24F near Grand Lake, where the ashes of an estimated 100 homes are still smoldering. Fire officials reminded people that this isn't the end, just a breather, like throwing a wet blanket over hot coals. We can take a few moments to catch our breath, but soon the blanket with disintegrate and the coals will flare up again. I looked at a weather forecast for ten days of pleasant temperatures and sunshine as though it was the most upsetting scenario possible. 

I spent the week battling an existential crisis, sparked by wildfires. The places I love are burning. The sky is filled with smoke. I can't breathe. I feel like I haven't been able to breathe for months. Years. There's no refuge in nature, thanks to the smoke. There's no refuge anywhere, thanks to an equally out-of-control pandemic. Newspapers are closing. Journalism is failing. Nothing I do or have ever done has any meaning. Democracy is dying. The whole world is burning.

I write "battling" an existential crisis because I am working on shifting my perspective, believe me. I've long battled fatalism with demanding yet purposeful distractions — training for races, planning fun escapades, reading and writing about the grand adventure of life. Like many people, I've met my match with 2020. These October wildfires have been especially troubling because they show the effects of explosive environmental change in real time. I am a person who loves places. Perhaps this love is different than the love I feel for people in my life, but the emotion burns just as bright and loss cuts deeply. The Tonahutu Creek Trail where Beat and I backpacked in August. The Saddle between Hagues Peak and Mount Fairchild. Spruce Canyon. Hollowell Park. None of these places will be the same in my lifetime. Because of climate change, they may not ever fully recover. Maybe Colorado will become the next Arizona. 

I get it. That's reality. Things change. Things end. Acknowledging the hard truths doesn't make them less hard. 

I think about ways I can contribute to positive change. I voted. I donated to a fund set up to help those impacted by our closest-to-home blaze, the Calwood Fire, which thankfully is now mostly under control. I daydream about training to become a volunteer firefighter ... if it wasn't for the barrier of, you know, being a 41-year-old asthmatic with high sensitivity to smoke. I acknowledge that there's a lot more I can do on an actionable level. But really, when it comes to existential despair, perspective is the only thing over which we have any control. So I'm working on sharpening my outlook and refocusing on the aspects of life that deserve gratitude and joy. 

I thought about this on Friday as temperatures dropped to the teens and an icy fog enveloped the landscape. I had been closely tracking the horrific progression of the East Troublesome Fire, including a Twitter thread from a woman who was live-tweeting a phone conversation and subsequent radio silence as her grandparents hid in a bunker while the wildfire surrounded them (they were later confirmed dead.) It had become a lot. It had become too much. Beat rightly criticizes my fixation on Twitter during natural disasters and political upheavals, but I only want to know what's happening, right now. I do recognize that I need to take a step back. Friday offered a welcome breather, even though news sources informed me that just above this inversion, red-flag winds were still blowing and humidity remained low in the wildfire zones. Within the cloud, though, it was easy to feel safe and calm. 

One of my favorite places to visit in icy weather is Bear Peak. Well, Bear Peak is one of my favorite places, period, but frost and snow paints this mountain with a delicate beauty that feels wholly unique. The west ridge still bears the scars of a 2012 wildfire. The fire came within a mile of the house where I now live. Neighbors talk about the terror and awe of watching flames move down the hillside while they packed up to evacuate during the night. Firefighters were able to put out the Flagstaff Fire before it damaged private property, but we all live with awareness of the ongoing risk. Bear Peak's burn scar is a daily reminder ... and yet it's beautiful. Spring wildflowers are abundant, summer views are expansive, fall brings rare crimson hues to the chokecherries, and winter coats the skeleton trees in ghostly frost. There can be beauty in destruction. 

I'm grateful for friends. My favorite people are scattered all over the world, and the drawn-out pandemic makes it feel like I might never see some of them again. But they've all been wonderful during this time. Australian friends frequently send us memes to commiserate about the ridiculous state of American politics. Canadian friends send drool-worthy photos of the places they'll take us when and if we can ever return. For a wedding present, our Alaskan friend Corrine sent us an amazing quilt, an Aurora Borealis pattern that she designed and sewed herself. Now, even when confined at home far away from the Great Land, I have something to carry my imagination back to Alaska. 

All of these gestures warm my heart and keep it from going completely rigid. I've also valued visits in person with local friends. I'm lucky that most of my friends are runners and bikers, so socializing outdoors is not an issue. On Saturday, we had another day of wind and heat sandwiched between record cold. I took advantage of it for a longer training ride, pedaling down to Arvada to meet up with my friend Betsy. We rode east toward the plains, and I daydreamed about a long-standing goal to ride gravel to Kansas. Maybe next year. The air quality was not good — above 100 AQI for most of the afternoon — and I started to wheeze even before I commenced the climb back into the foothills. But it was a good day. Friends help take the edge off disheartening views of haze. 

I am grateful for Beat. Like many couples, we've been spending a lot of time in close proximity since he started working from home. I tend to become snippy when I haven't carved out enough alone time, but overall the togetherness has been enjoyable. We have flexibility for more weekday adventures, such as this Monday morning run around Walker Ranch after 10 inches of snow fell on Sunday. I was giddy when we woke up to our first subzero temperature of the season (well, it was -0.2F. But that counts.) Beat sternly reminded me to pack for contingencies in the danger cold, but I wasn't concerned. Putting on these winter layers feels like slipping into a pair of comfortable old shoes. 

I am grateful that winter is coming. I suppose in COVID times I'm blessed that I experience the opposite of seasonal depression. I can be surly about summer — especially awful smoke-filled summers — but my personal reward is the intensity, beauty, and solitude — finally! —of the darker months. Winter will bring some reprieve to this terrible year of wildfires, although any extended dry period still carries risk. The next couple of weeks will be trying. It's been so dry that meteorologists expect this October snow will vaporize into the air rather than melt into the ground, so fuels will remain dry and the current fires will keep their foothold. The Cameron Peak Fire flared into a monster after it was doused with September snow, so I'm braced for the worst ... but hoping for the best. 

I'm grateful for racing. I may feel dubious about the responsibility of participating in a winter race during a pandemic, but I feel no guilt about training. I value the process. The goal brings a sense of purpose, even as the practical side of me recognizes that it's rather fruitless. Then the existentialist in me fires back that everything about life is absurd. Might as well do what you love; that is purposeful enough. 

I love how racing and training immerses me into both new and familiar places. I love using my body in a tangible way. I love the simplicity of these endeavors. I'm beginning to understand that my reason for endurance pursuits is not that they're hard — it's that they offer a primal and satisfying simplicity that feels more natural, and in many ways easier than modern life. My recent 150-mile ride to Mount Evans reminded me of this relaxing respite from day-to-day ennui. I don't know if I'll end up heading out to Idaho in January to push my bike 200 kilometers through deep snow. But if it does happen, I imagine I'll effortlessly turn my brain off and probably crush it. I can't wait. 

So ... life is good. Yes, East Troublesome is still smoldering in Rocky Mountain National Park. And yes, COVID cases are skyrocketing. And yes, in less than a week our Democracy seems doomed to end up in a serious grinder. And yes, I read too many books about climate change and I can't stop thinking about them. Wait ... where was I again? Oh yes, perspective. My perspective. I'm still working on it. 


  1. Jill, we had the same here over Christmas with our fires. There is too much sadness in the world and stewing on every little bit of it isn't good for the head. For mental health reasons I simply turned off and tuned out to a large degree. There was nothing I could do to change the outcomes of the fires (other than donate some to a rebuilding fund) so I stopped beating myself up by "unfollowing" the reporting. Having been stood down on leave without pay since April this year, I have been using the same strategy for the Covid thing. Apart from knowing the general gist of what is happening, there is no need to dwell on every bit of negativity (of which there is plenty too much!)
    Thanks for the snow photos. We don't get much of that here.

    1. Argh, sorry to hear that you are still furloughed. I really hope for a turnaround soon. But you are right, dwelling on negativity does no good. If the post-election turns into a dumpster fire, as seems likely, I am going to go on a news fast. Hold me to it. ;)

  2. I was poised to come out to my family vacation home in Estes Park this past Saturday and called it off on Thursday. I spent the day fretting about the fires and constantly checking the news feeds to see how close it was getting to town, interspersed with weeping thinking of the wildlife. The house has been in my family since 1969 and we've been making multiple trips a year out there our whole lives. This year due to COVID I didn't get out there until the end of Sept and was looking forward to another trip. I finally had to get away from the news last week because there was nothing I could do anyway, and went for a bike ride. Felt much better after. I'm heartbroken about Rocky and the folks around Grand Lake but am thankful for where things didn't spread yet. It will definitely be a different landscape after this but there's still beauty to come through the fires. I'm glad you had some snow fun to pull you through--and hopefully will have many more to come soon!

    1. That's a positive outlook. I appreciate your perspective. I hope your family's house remains safe, and that you can visit again soon.

  3. I'm conflicted. Death is of course horrible. But as a firefighter for over 20 years I've seen some rebirth and renewal from fire. Many of our forests have not been allowed to burn like they are supposed to and are unhealthy. However it is true that climate change is causing extreme fire behavior and more high intensity than before. Here's hoping for a big winter for you.

    1. It's true, Colorado has wide swaths of beetle-kill forest that they probably haven't managed as well as they could have. But I'm struck by the numbers. So far this year, nearly 700,000 acres have burned. That's more acreage than all of the wildfires from 1960 to 2000 combined. A lot of that has been sagebrush and grassy hillsides. The East Troublesome Fire jumped a mile of alpine tundra across Continental Divide ... hard to see what's natural or manageable about that.

      This is the first year we've had fires in October, and thanks to the seasonal winds, it's been by far the worst month of the season. To manage the risk, forest managers have currently closed effectively all of the forests in the Front Range. We can't even go hiking on our favorite trails. It's understandable, as 28 percent of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest has burned. There's a lot of indicators that norms have been shattered, and we're looking at a likelihood of increasing difficulties ahead.

  4. Looking into a approaching storm is both mesmerizing and terrifying, looking away is only a short respite of ignorance. Death always comes (physical and metamorphic ) but leads to rebirth of some form as we are bound to earth's cycle of life. Perspective. ....a life long epic journey never a destination :) a conditional acceptance, me thinks.

    Jeff C


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