Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The fire next door

   FORT COLLINS, Colo. — We watched the fireworks. Then we watched the fire. It continues to singe our eyelashes.

   Last Wednesday, the pyro bombs weren't gunpowder-made but thunderheads popping off in the night. We watched them in our driveways, wondering which would bring rain.

   Instead ... .

  Though the stormfront flung hail on some parts along the foothills and twisters along the Plains, the moisture we expected didn't come.

  Three days later, one of those lightning strikes likely set asmoldering the hot spot in nearby hills that became one of Colorado's largest wildfires ever. God knows when it will subside.

  I know it's not what John Denver meant, but I've seen it raining fire in the sky, and it doesn't look like folk music. It looks like a war against mankind. It's an invincible, inhuman force bearing more firepower than an army of atomic scientists.

  With down-slope winds pushing east the first two days, the plume across our sky resembled a wall of sandpaper. When those winds subsided a day later, one-quarter of Fort Collins' alpine backdrop smoldered like an old-time city dump.

  The eastward plume reached as far as Nebraska before the winds shifted. Now? Tucson? Tokyo?

  Leathernecks who raced to the scene were dealing with flames. Those of us stationed below were dealing with the rest. I happened upon two Poudre Fire Authority firefighters holding down the fort at our neighborhood station, their associates having joined the battle in the highlands.

  "That's beetle kill," said one firefighter, pointing at a black column arising among the white high atop a ridge — flames incinerating wood already dead. "Black smoke any lower on the hill, it's a house," he said.

  This is third major fire in a month in our county. Larimer County is huge — 2,600 square miles — so there are places for most of us to hide shy of jumping in a stock pond. Then again, by Tuesday, the High Park fire, 10 miles from town, exceeded the square mileage of Fort Collins itself.

  Fire has always been nature's way amid the pines. Those who know nature best assert, however, that key factors at play aren't natural, like the lack of sustained killing freezes that once controlled those pine beetles. That's just another facet of gradually increasing global temperatures, combined with drought, that are making the West more brittle than in any time in memory.

  The Rockies have odd ways of telling us things are askew. Consider the case of "pink snow" in the highest of high country, a tint owed to red dust blown from time zones away. Scientists say the dust is carried across oceans as glaciers recede and global desiccation becomes more severe.

  The other day I spoke with an editor friend in southeastern Arizona and complained that smoke from his wildfire, the Whitewater Baldy blaze along the Arizona-New Mexico state line, was compromising my mountain views. Now it's our turn to be blocking someone's view.

  It shouldn't take exercises like these to appreciate how we all share the same river of air, the same global thermostat. The day the High Park fire started west of my city, many places along the Front Range had record high temperatures, in the mid-90s, just as they had two days earlier. And it's not yet summer.

  Climatologists caution us not to make too much of temporal events — blistering heat waves in the Dakotas, or cold snaps leaving icicles on Florida oranges. It's all about the big picture, they say. It's not about one season but many.

  But the big picture is increasingly alarming — droughts, pestilence, killer storms, wildfires like this. We see what the firefighters are doing on the ground. What are we as a society doing about that big picture? Almost nothing, as we stand out in our driveways hoping for thunderheads to do our bidding.

   Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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