Monday, October 19, 2020

Winter Wind meets Fire Summer

The sound is both familiar and chilling: a high-pitched whistle accompanied by a whoosh of tree branches, reaching a crescendo that resembles a frantic scream before fading to a low moan. There's a thrilling harmony to the wind that I can appreciate. Sometimes I sit next to the window and listen, watching the trees bend sideways while random debris tumbles through the grass. This is the downslope wind, heralding the onset of winter in Colorado's Front Range. Summers have their share of storms, but summer doesn't contain the temperature gradients necessary to generate these blasts of air rushing down from the Divide. The Winter Wind is different. By October I've almost forgotten what it feels like. Its return reignites a thrilling familiarity: the way a 50 mph gust will stop me mid-stride, frantically jumping off my bike to avoid being toppled, the exhilarating spice that ground blizzards add even to the most basic runs around home. Wind, like winter, is a dynamic circumstance that I've learned to embrace. 

Now, in this forsaken year of 2020, the sound of the Winter Wind has become chilling on a whole new level. By Saturday, that whistling sound sparked anxiety reactions that I couldn't fully control, so I took a CBD capsule and hid under a blanket, rolling from my stomach to my back and taking deep breaths. It was cold outside and a little chilly inside the house, which is how I justified the blanket. Truthfully, I was strung out and using the most basic comfort sources to pull myself together. If I had a higher tolerance for harder substances than CBD, I would have turned to them. On a better day, I would have set out on my bike. On this day, the smoke situation was too unpredictable. I didn't know whether situations might rapidly change and force us to pack up our vehicles and evacuate. Instead, I shifted between doom-scrolling and eyes-closed breathing exercises whenever a wind gust roared past. I'd ridden my bike for nine hours the previous day and planned for Saturday to be a "rest day." Of course, this was by far the most restless day of the week. 

It all started on Wednesday. The Cameron Peak Fire had a bad day on Wednesday. This blaze has been active for more than two months but had been holding steady around 130,000 acres for nearly a week. That period of relative calm ended when the west wind arrived, driving an explosive surge that pushed it to 155,000 acres in a single day, becoming the largest fire in Colorado history. Since then it's grown to 203,000 acres, making Wednesday's run seem almost small. But at the time, I took it hard. We'd enjoyed several days of deliciously clear air, freezing temperatures were in the forecast, and it was starting to seem like fire season was almost behind us. But as I drove to town for my usual weekly errands and appointments, all I could see was this smoke plume pouring into clear blue skies. The Cameron Peak Fire broke my heart all over again. 

It's difficult not to focus on all of the losses these fires represent — the forests and wildlife, the vistas and trails, people's livelihoods, their homes. It's difficult not to widen this perspective toward a difficult future, when all of this loss, literal scorched earth, is simply a new normal fueled by climate change. October fires are the scariest yet. When the worsening drought and heat of summer mix with increasingly convective seasonal winds, the outcomes can only be catastrophic. I couldn't help but ruminate on a dark future as I ran along the South Mesa Trail, grateful for this potentially last window of clean air as an enormous plume of smoke billowed to the north. I made strong time up Shadow Canyon and scrambled to the summit of Bear Peak from the ledge where Beat and I were married last month. From this vantage, I looked toward the smoke plume and broke out in tears. This isn't the first time I've cried about the Cameron Peak Fire. There was the trickle of tears that surprised me as I watched a single plume from a spot fire rise from a nearby valley while traversing Mummy Mountain. That was September 4, when the fire was still at 23,000 acres. I cried a little more openly on Mount Evans a week ago, as I sat more than 75 miles away watching a pyrocumulus cloud mushroom into the sky. This run on October 8 drove the blaze to official megafire status (over 100,000 acres.) That it keeps ballooning skyward is both predictable and surreal, not unlike watching COVID cases climb. Like any out-of-control phenomenon, the encroaching smoke is a reminder that for us, too, it's only a matter of time. 

On Friday, I just wanted to go for a long ride. I filed away a training excuse by signing up for the Fat Pursuit 200K, a winter fat bike race scheduled for early January in Idaho. In truth, I'm skeptical that I'll actually end up at the start line for this race. There are so many unknowns with the pandemic. Traveling to a different state to participate in a winter race, even if it's mostly self-supported, seems like an iffy proposition at this point. Still, for now, the Fat Pursuit is something to look forward to, to take my mind of the present. Any excuse to spend most of a day riding a bike is a good excuse. 

I headed south away from the Cameron Peak smoke plume and climbed toward Gilpin. The National Forest land to the west is threaded with a seemingly endless maze of jeep roads that, in theory, are fun to explore. I write "in theory," because by now I've learned that most of these roads are only marginally rideable and actually not that much fun — a morass of babyheads strewn along 25-percent grades with fleetingly rare flat stretches buried in ankle-deep sand. But it's still a place within a day's biking distance from home that feels new and exciting. At least a few times a year, I resolve to go exploring. 

After the summer-long, pandemic-fueled rush on recreation, it feels like the crowds are finally calming down. It helps when it's still 32 degrees at noon and the winter wind is howling out of the west. I like this weather. It feels safe to me, quiet, and with a couple extra layers, I can ride as hard as I want without becoming thirsty or overheated. It's bliss. Well, it's bliss until it isn't. As I rolled along a series of drainages below Yankee Hill, I had to contend with a continuous ribbon of ice threading through the babyheads. Since I didn't have studded bike tires, the ice made all of the easy lines impossibly treacherous. If I wanted to ride at all, I had to hug the eroded berms, bouncing over all manner of rocks and ruts.  

Somehow in the midst of battling ice and rocks, I climbed to nearly 11,000 feet, where the lovely pine forest opened to the scrub spruce and brush of the subalpine zone. Up there, the wind was so strong that I could no longer ride west. It was impossible. Gusts pushed me sideways and backward as I swerved and bucked over babyheads. Even hiking proved difficult. The wind seemed determined to grab the bike from my hands, wrenching my arms as I marched, head lowered, into an invisible wall. I scanned my GPS and saw the road would soon turn north, so that was something. I could see a ribbon of dirt rising up a hill to my right, but I wondered if I even had the strength to push my bike to the top. 

"This is the winter I remember," I thought. "Hello, West Wind, my old friend."

Shoring up the sum of my strength, I shambled to the top of the rise and caught my first unobstructed view of the full and ominous power of the West Wind — a smoke plume, stretched into lenticular waves thousands of feet over the Continental Divide. Smoke almost entirely blotted out South Arapaho Peak, which was only a dozen or so miles away. The base of the plume was almost black, dark enough to see a distinct red glow reflected from a not-so-distant fire. "East Troublesome," I thought. East Troublesome was the latest fire to erupt in Grand County. On this day it doubled in size from 3,800 acres to nearly 8,000. And of course, it's nearly doubled again since. 

Still buffeted by a strong crosswind that carried a chill so deep it seemed to flash-freeze my gloved fingers, I wrestled the bike to a clearing. An awkward gust nearly toppled me, but I jumped just in time to avoid a shoulder hit. This was as good a spot as any. I plopped down in long-dried grass that has been ready for winter since August and slowly removed my backpack. The wind genuinely seemed strong enough to blow the entire pack away if I wasn't careful, so I kept a tight grip as I removed a sandwich from its container and leaned into my pack to take gulping bites. It was a terribly uncomfortable spot for a lunch break, so cold and windy. The East Troublesome smoke plume was alarming from this vantage, to the point where I involuntarily shuddered and looked away. Still, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge the moment in this way. 

Sometime during my weird apocalypse picnic, Everclear's 1993 hit "Fire Maple Song" floated up from a deep abyss of memory. For much of the bumpy descent into Mammoth Gulch and Tolland Road, I probed this memory for lyrics to a song that I'm not even sure I've thought about since the '90s. Impressed with my recapture, I rewrote lyrics that better fit my mood: 

Lying down in the grass with the wind around us as we watch the smoke erupt. 
Listen to doomsday reports on the radio. 
They tell us how the mountains turn to fire, every year now. 
We’ll lay in the grass all summer just to watch the world burn to the ground. 
I can’t smile. 
Now I can’t smile.

As I neared home, the smoke plume grew closer and darker. I was lucky it stayed south of me throughout the day, but my luck was running out. I could see flakes of ash wafting through the air, and then I tasted something acrid in my throat.  

My breathing soon began to sound like a high-pitched whistle. I was glad I was only about twenty minutes from home. I carried an N95 mask for such situations but opted to race the encroaching plume rather than fiddle with putting it on. I had no idea how bad the smoke had become near Boulder. Our home meter registered an AQI over 400; some places in town recorded 600. Both are so far beyond hazardous that the EPA doesn't even have a health rating for that level. The sky over town turned an apocalyptic shade of orange. Beat was caught out in it during a run, and had no choice but to stumble home in air so bad he was barely able to breathe. I'm not even sure what I'd do if I met an AQI of 600. I doubt my mask would offer protection enough to allow even a slow walking pace before my asthma became unmanageable. I feel like I'd be wholly trapped if the AQI rose to 600, like I'd just have to lay down and die. I know this is overdramatic and it would certainly not be that bad. But it feels that way. 

In hindsight, it's a risk to venture outside at all during such a volatile fire season. I can't know which way the wind will shift, and what will happen to air that was perfectly breathable only an hour before. But on this evening, I simply slowed my pace to reduce the wheezing. I reached smooth gravel and finally pavement, where I could pedal easily and watch the evening sky with a renewed sense of awe. 

I felt guilty for feeling such awe. This was still smoke, carried by the West Wind at such a high speed that it looked like molten lava flowing through a volcanic stream. I hated it, but I had to admit it was beautiful. 

Then came Saturday. My Friday ride took most of nine hours — 68 miles with nearly 10,500 feet of climbing — so it seemed prudent to take a rest day and try to get a few things done. I did not get anything done. Instead, I managed to catch a super early report about a new fire in Boulder County. It was only an acre at the time and seemed trivial. But within the seconds it takes to write a Twitter comment, the report grew to eight acres, and then twenty. Suddenly it was hundreds of acres, then thousands, racing down Lefthand Canyon toward North Boulder. People way out in Denver posted photos of an all-encompassing black plume that reminded me of The Nothing from "Neverending Story." I caught news of friends evacuating, friends who were certain they would lose their homes, and then the fire jumped the divided highway and continued burning near suburban neighborhoods in the plains. People who live miles east of the foothills started evacuating. It was chaos, true chaos. It took two months for the Cameron Peak Fire to become the largest fire in Colorado history. It only took six hours for the Calwood Fire to become the largest fire in Boulder County history. 

I didn't take it well. It was just so sad, and so close to home, with so many unknowns. We live a few valleys to the south and weren't under immediate threat. But this whole region is such a tinderbox right now. It's hard to feel secure, and everyone is on edge. Beat and I discussed our evacuation plan. I imagined escape routes I might take if a smoke plume erupts nearby while I'm out running on trails — it could happen. I might get out with only the clothes and pack on my back. If we're lucky, we'll have time to fill a vehicle with bikes. Of course, if we're truly lucky, a neighborhood wildfire won't happen at all. What are the odds, really? I didn't want to think about it. I knew another day of doomscrolling would do me no good, so by late Sunday morning, I decided another long ride would be prudent — nay, necessary. 

It was another day of strange weather. There was a thick fog and temperatures near freezing when I set out a few minutes before noon. The inversion brought much-needed humidity and drizzle to Boulder, but it also prevented the air assault that firefighters had planned for the now-nearly-9,000-acre fire that had already burned 26 structures in fewer than 24 hours. I had mixed feelings about the fog. Any wet weather was a good thing, but I knew it couldn't last. Indeed, as I climbed above 8,000 feet, the inversion cleared. It was much warmer than it had been on Friday, and nearly as windy. 

I effectively rage-pedaled into the headwind, burning off a fair amount of negative energy as I repeatedly glanced to the north for evidence of a Calwood smoke plume. So far, the smoke didn't seem too bad. I climbed to the top of Caribou Hill, another huge rock-strewn grunt, and sat in another dry field of grass to eat a sandwich while facing the wind. This time, I faced James Peak. It was a nice view. I love James Peak.

When I turned to descend, I saw a dramatic smoke plume that I hadn't noticed before. It was confusing. It looked fresh, and far too close to be part of the Calwood Fire. The Calwood Fire started north of Jamestown, which from this vantage would be a fair distance to the northeast. This plume looked like it began mere miles away. A new fire? Was that even possible — a new fire just one day later, in the same general area, in October? It seemed so unlikely. But this looked real. And it looked like it might be burning near Ward or Gold Hill, which was the direction I had planned to ride to close my loop. As I coasted along Peak to Peak Highway, I didn't see fire trucks or other indicators of a close fire. But just to be safe, I cut downhill early on Sugarloaf Road, rather than take the Switzerland Trail to Fourmile as I'd planned. 

Later I'd find out this was a new fire. The Lefthand Fire, which forced the evacuation of several mountain communities in and around Ward, and grew to several hundred acres over just a few hours on that windy, warm afternoon. It seems so surreal. The hot and dry weather only reigned above 8,000 feet. Below that altitude, the inversion held, which was a blessing for the Calwood Fire. Indeed, the shift between microclimates was dramatic. I crested the final rise of Sugarloaf in full sun with the hard wind at my back, then plunged into a thick fog that dropped the temperature at least 20 degrees in seconds. My fingers again flash-froze, and I started to shiver. It felt calm, quiet, and safe. I wished the freezing fog would never go away. 


  1. Wow, Jill, those pictures are incredible. Please stay safe!

  2. Wind is the one element that puts me on edge. I went for a run and trees were falling all around me. Couldn't get out of there fast enough. I know there is tons of beetlekill over there, so maybe a new, healthy forest can grow back.

  3. Beautifully written. What a tragic year. Yes, it's forsaken.

  4. I found this this morning and thought of this stream of thought post of yours...

    I am not a book…
    I am not the same story
    each time I’m opened…
    Even as you’re reading me,
    I can feel the words you’ve read
    spiral in your wake…
    a calm lake disturbed by the oar
    of your attention.

    - Peregrine

    Jeff C


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