I really want to join you tonight for dog training class for Smudges, I said to my husband, but would you be okay going without me?
Of course, I would, he said. He understands exactly why.
It’s fire season where we live. We’ve just received a red flag warning, as we haven’t seen precipitation in weeks. The grasses are crunching under our feet as we walk the trails in our mountain valley, eight thousand feet in the foothills of the Rockies. Thoughts of leaving our other two rescue dogs alone while we train the third 50 miles away feels tenuous and presumptive at best.
I can still see her in my mind’s eye: Girl Ella, my friend’s Bloodhound, trapped at the cabin in Fourmile Canyon while my friend was working at her laundromat down in town. The fire broke out in the fall of 2010, and for reasons of safety and an abundance of caution, she was barred from driving up the canyon to her home.
Girl Ella died in the blaze. My friend couldn’t speak of her passing months later without tears in her eyes.
I still remember her floppy Bloodhound ears. She was only five years old.
There’s a fire across from the cabin, our neighbor-tenant phoned one Saturday afternoon in 2016. We were 50 miles away in Denver, enjoying a bit of urbanity on a July afternoon. We tore out of the restaurant, summoning the check from the waitress and running down the street to our Subaru. When we entered the Canyon for the remaining 15-mile trip home, we were slowed by tourists, stuck in recreationalist traffic, and praying under stress the entire journey that we would not be blocked from reaching home to our animals.
We arrived just minutes before they closed the canyon for the Cold Springs Fire. Fourmile Canyon, where Girl Ella lived and died, is just 10 miles to the east.
I love where you live, friends often say from the front porch. I’d love to have a valley like this someday, they say of our old townsite.
I smile and thank them, and feel a measure of gratitude that I am sufficiently fortunate to live 15 miles above the gilded City of Boulder, Colorado.
Our valley and all dwellings within were saved from that Cold Springs Fire by a BAE-146 slurry bomber dropping retardant on the flames just as we were about to be overrun by the blaze jumping Boulder Canyon. My husband and I watched from the top of the valley at the dam, with all our dogs in the vehicles and possessions in the back seat.
I can’t leave, I said to him, I need to see it go. I’d lived there 24 years on the land I’d pioneered with my former partner, without running water or solar electricity. My life is in this valley.
When the flames were doused, we had a choice: return home and shelter in place, or continue on to a local high school gymnasium with our three dogs.
I can’t think of a better place to wait this out, my husband said. We spent the next seven days feeding hummingbirds flocking to our feeders in droves, stacked up like planes at DIA, on account of being burned out of other areas. Barn swallow nestlings chirped while parents brought smashed mosquitoes on the wing from the valley still replete with green grasses. Helicopters chop-chop-chopped overhead on their way to and from the reservoir above our valley, bringing gallons of water to the larger conflagration nearby.
We slept out on the cot on the driveway, keys in the ignition and vehicles loaded with clothing, dog food, photographs, and toiletries, night after night. I say slept, because that’s what my husband did. Me, I was awake night after night, listening to the wind in the willows along the creek and watching emergency vehicles run up and down on the closed highway.
It took seven or so days before the fire was contained, to borrow fire parlance. In the meantime, eight homes were lost and a Saint Bernard named Geno sparked a massive community search—his firefighting people had been off saving the homes of others. Cats crawling to safety under granite rocks fell victim to smoke and flames.
Geno was never found, and many who lost their homes declined to rebuild.
Climate change, a term as controversial as any partisan issue in our culture these days, is upon the West as Vladimir Putin is on the lands of Ukraine. Destruction of land by wildfire, fueled by incessant drought, gusting winds, and increasingly warm temperatures is now the norm. Scientists like my husband have been studying the phenomenon and watching the numbers, speaking out warnings and telling all who would listen:
We have got to reduce our carbon footprint if we have any chance of reversing climate change. The time is well-past now.
This afternoon, I’ll be staying behind in the company of our other two rescue dogs and thinking about our new reality, as I bring in the bird feeders and watch for the bear frequenting our valley in search of apples and berries. I’ll hope that she gets enough in these drying times. And I’ll be leaving the light on the front porch, awaiting my husband’s return with Smudges, who will tell me whatever new lesson she has learned from her training class 50 miles away in a place not-so-endangered by the next wildfire.