Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

Climate Change Burned My City

Surviving the Marshall Fire

Fire consumes a tree in the night
Photo by Benjamin Lizardo on Unsplash

Let me tell you a story.

I live in Louisville, a city east of Boulder, Colorado, in a patchwork of development and long, beautiful fields of grassland. When you drive in any direction, you’ll see rolling hills, grazing cattle, and prairie dog mounds punctuated by buildings that have sprouted from the prairie in dense clusters.

People are moving here in great numbers, and locals like me cringe when development takes another piece of land from us. All the same, many people benefit from a booming economy and a real estate market that is so hot it increases by double digits every year. For those of us who are renters, however, it’s another matter altogether.

But let’s get to the story. The front range of the Rocky Mountains is known for its high winds. The mountains give way suddenly to flatlands, and the wind tends to travel quickly over those mountains to hit the prairie like a slap.

When I was growing up in south Boulder, we kids used to pull our coats over our heads like wings, face into the wind and feel our feet leaving the ground.

There were storms that took off roofs, cut the power for weeks on end, and one storm I remember where winds raged over 120 mph and took the walls off houses throughout my neighborhood. The next day we walked around looking into people’s living rooms with awe and wonder, and I gave a shudder of thanks that it wasn’t our house, not this time.

We lived on the corner, and the street that ran east to west was a wind tunnel. We had solid shutters that kept our windows safe.

Everyone I knew had a windstorm story. My friend who lived in a trailer park was sitting on her couch on a windy day and a four-foot 2" x 4" came through the window and lodged itself in the wall next to her head like a giant arrow.

Anyway. This gives you background to my latest wind story, the one where a fire ate Louisville, my city.

There was a red flag warning that day and by mid-morning the wind was fierce. I drove west to deliver some documents for work, and the dust and debris made it hard to see and hard to steer. I met our clients outside their houses, and we commented on it with wonder. “Wow, it’s really wild today,” we said to each other.

The wind made me a little hopeful, because we hadn’t had any snow yet in the season, and wind usually precedes a good snowstorm. Climate change had put off our snow for months. It was the end of December, and we usually had snow by October, at least.

Suffice it to say everything was dry. The ground was parched, and grasses were brown and dead. The trees had long since lost their leaves and everything rattled with the gusts. Branches were down, and driving was treacherous. I was glad to get home in one piece.

Later that afternoon, as the winds raged, I started to smell smoke. It was just a hint of a smell, something you had to turn and try to catch, but it was there. My co-workers and I, working from our homes, commented on it on chat. “Do you smell it?” “I can smell it. It’s strong.” And then the reports started coming in. Grass had caught fire in unincorporated Boulder County.

No one knows, to this day, what started the fire. There are coal mines out there, still burning underground after 100 years. For a while the newspaper speculated about a local cult defying the no-burn order in Marshall, a small group of houses between Boulder and Louisville.

But whatever the cause, the grass caught fire and the burn spread quickly. In the 90 mph constant winds the flames galloped over the prairie. Reports from emergency personnel say it was moving as fast as a football field every few seconds, gulping down the tinder-dry grass uncontrollably.

It roared its way over everything, grass, trees, buildings. It jumped over an 8-lane highway as sparks were borne on the gale and it hit Louisville and our neighbor, Superior, in a wall of flame so that residents had only a scant few seconds to gather belongings before they had to flee. Police went door to door ahead of the fire, as wild animals and spooked horses ran pell-mell between cars and houses.

Witnesses say the fire looked like lava, pouring from house to house so quickly.

Meanwhile, in my apartment on the other end of town, the smoke was starting to block out the light.

My neighbors stood in a line looking up at the sky in wonder. I packed random items from my room into the car and put the cat in her carrier and drove out to the road in a breathless panic.

The traffic was slow and backed up completely going north, so I decided to make my way to the interstate by going west.

And drivers were spooked. At the first intersection I came to a woman pulled out while the light was red, and someone slammed into the back of her car and didn’t stop. She pulled off to the side of the road and I saw her pacing and pulling at her hair. I would have stopped, but I was far from her, and traffic was so tight.

I finally made it to the interstate, where commuters were blithely driving home, unaware of the conflagration and its effects. My nervous system was a wreck. I stayed with a friend for a week until the water in Louisville was declared safe.

Over 1,000 homes were burned in the fire. It never reached my apartment, and I am so lucky. The wind stopped and that’s the only reason the fire was contained.

Driving through the city today you see miles of destruction, twisted metal and debris and the occasional chimney sticking out from the rubble. Much of it is now being cleared, and soon construction will begin on new houses and new lives.

But me? I’m moving to a new city. It’s to a city in Colorado that has its own fire danger, but somehow, I feel I’m escaping. But there’s no escaping climate change. The crisis is real, and it’s happening now. Take heed.

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Jackie Olsen

Jackie Olsen

Come for the insights on aging, leave with a doggie bag full of frogs and exoplanets. Now more poems about vacuuming! she/her/hers