Fourteen thousand three hundred acres of forested area destroyed. Five hundred nine homes turned to nothing more than ash and rubble. Two lives consumed by smoke. It is still hard to believe that, just over thirteen months ago, the first spark of the Black Forest fire ignited. The flames may have only raged for nine days, but the impacts it left will remain for years to come, not merely due to the fields upon fields of smoky tree limbs it left in its wake, or the barren earth it helped to reveal. Not even because of the hordes of homes it brought to the ground. The impact goes much deeper than the visible–the smoky plume that licked the sky for days inexplicably changed every life involved. Mine included.
June 11th had started like any other day. It was summer, so I was free to do as I pleased. At around noon, my younger sister, Jess, and I decided to go out for a walk. Being summer, the bees were buzzing, the trees around me were a vibrant green, and the sky was a cloudless blue–so deeply blue, I remember. As I walked through this summer paradise, Jess was next to me talking about something, I don’t recall what.
And then I saw it: a cloud. It wasn’t the puffy, white kind that a day like this called for. It was grey and dark, but much unlike a storm cloud. It loomed in the distance behind my house. Jess’s voice fell to white noise as I took a step forward, inspecting that cloud.
Then the screams came.
I perked up immediately at my older sister’s thrill screech cutting the air. Suddenly my heart was in my chest as I started racing towards her voice, trying to find her though the trees. In my alarm, I left Jess behind. When I found my older sister, her eyes were wide in panic.
“Where’s Jess?” She demanded. I looked behind me, and Jess was slowly hiking up the hill. My older sister raced forward and grabbed Jess’s hand, tugging her towards the house.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I raced alongside her.
“There’s a fire.”
My stomach dropped beneath me. A fire. One of my worst fears was materializing in front of me. Just the summer before, the Waldo Canyon Fire had eaten away Manitou Springs and Woodland Park. Though it had been a good couple miles from my home, there had been nights I had trouble going to sleep over worry that fire would rage all the way to Black Forest. My fear had been uncalled for. As my sisters and I came closer to my house, I saw that grey cloud for what it really was: a smoke plume, rising high and mighty into the sky. Now my fear was called for.
When we rushed inside, my other sister had her hands tightly wrapped around a phone. I would learn later that we were one of the first responders to the fire. But not at that moment. I raced upstairs to where my parents had our front door open, watching the fire, conversing over what to do.
Eventually, my parents turned to my sisters and I to tell us we had to pack a bag. It was an essay question come to life: there’s a fire, you can only grab a few things, what are they? At the moment, I didn’t know. I was shaking too badly to even think straight. I stood in my room, shaking, looking around at everything, imagining my carpet, my bed, my dresser–everything going up in flames. I couldn’t decide what to bring. I wanted to bring everything, save my whole live somehow. But I couldn’t. In the end, I took my iPod, some money, and a few articles of clothing. It was all I could think of needing.
We packed our cars full of computers, important files, our few bags of clothes, food, textbooks for our upcoming school year. While we were packing, the walk between my car and garage gave me a full viewing of the plume in the sky. The pine trees bordering my house always seemed so tall. They tower over me at a height of at least 75 feet. But this plume stretched to at least seven times their height. I had to lean back just to see the top of it.
After we packed out car, we weren’t sure what to do. The fire, though close, still wasn’t close enough to evacuate. We had called the fire station and asked. They instructed us to stay. There had been hope as we waited around that maybe the fire had been caught early and contained. That was my first miscalculation.
When a police officer finally pulled up our driveway, alerting us to our need to evacuate, we were ready to go. We climbed into our cars and left. Not knowing exactly where to go, we ended up driving to the nearby Memorial Hospital, thinking the parking lot would be a good place to stay. When we arrived, my mother called her parents, and we made the decision to go stay with them.
The next couple of days would pass by in a blur. Watching the news. Watching as houses like mine were literally consumed by fire on TV. Watching police officers give updates. Watching the list of known houses that had burned and the ones that were still safe. Constantly hoping and praying that I would wake up to find my house still in the green.
There is, of course, more to this story than just the fact that it was my house. It had nothing to do with material things, my fear. It had nothing to do with my pictures and my clothes and anything that marked my life thus far turning into ash. It had to do with my father.
While the rest of my family and I were safe at my grandparents’, my dad stayed down by the fire, watching his house. It wasn’t merely that he owned the property: he had built that house from the ground up. He had been there for the foundation; he had laid every piece of tile; he had made every drawer and cabinet; he made every architectural and engineering decision on that house. He even poured the concrete for the driveway.
During those few days, my fear was for my father. Not the house. Fear that this work he had done for ten years would suddenly be down the drain. I couldn’t have that. He would be ruined. It wasn’t fear of my house being ruined, it was my father.
In the end, my house would remain standing. Those 75-foot tall pine tree trees surrounding my home would keep all their pine needles. The ground would remain green and luscious, not blackened to the color of charcoal. And though my living quarters would remain unchanged, I did not escape that fire unscathed.
Like many of the survivors–including those who were lucky and those who were unlucky–I realized how little material things mean. Just the other day, after a cross country practice, I returned home to find that I had left my rain jacket at the park. Though it was one of my favorite coats, I know that whether or not I find it will mean little to nothing. It is a jacket. A few pieces of fabric stitched together with thread. Had the fire taken a change of course and consumed my house rather than someone else’s, I would have lost that jacket a year ago, along with everything else I own.
I guess what has really changed me is not this simple realization, but rather a deeper understanding of the infinite strength of humans. Even though my house was spared, I had a few friends whose houses were not. When I heard of their loss, I couldn’t imagine the shades of grief they were going through. Every time I see them, though, they seem stronger and happier than they were before. I guess it is true that what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger.
It is this motto that made me realize, in the end, my father wouldn’t have been ruined if the house had fallen. Every day there is grief and loss in the world. People lose their jobs after ten years of work, maybe more. Natural disasters strike unexpectedly just like this fire did. And yet not everyone is ruined. Rather, their ability to overcome it is a testament to human strength. It is a testament to the fact that, when our world goes up in smoke, we find a new way to breathe.