It was the second week in September, and bright yellow mums in buckets sat outside the Safeway, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. On impulse, I grabbed a bucket, imagining the flowers on my front porch, a spot of color against the gray hazy air from wildfires twelve miles to the north. As I pushed my cart through the store, two women stopped me to say how beautiful they were, how they wanted them, too. For dinner, I bought colors: red peppers, green acorn squash, yellow carrots.
The fire had started three days before; by the second day, it had grown, uncontained, to more than two thousand acres; by day four, nearly four thousand. The town felt oddly still, its streets empty of the usual cyclists and runners because Routt County had issued air quality warnings. That day, another fire had started in the nearby Flattop mountains to the west. A week before, a different fire to the north. The combination of three fires made the sky a dirty orange brown interpolated by gray and the occasional spot of blue. I am accustomed to Colorado’s bright, clear air, but now, our mountains were blue and dreamy, like the Great Smoky Mountains, which have always looked like ideas of mountains to me, rather than the clear, hard, everlasting rock I know. The smell of smoke in early fall was unsettlingly comforting; for me, wood smoke conjures sweaters and conviviality, friends on a hearth, holding glasses of wine.
Wildfires have a particular language, one that sounds like a complicated romance, characterized by seduction and withdrawal. The Deep Creek Fire was a wildland fire, with grass and brush becoming more receptive to fire. Firefighters work on suppression and barriers and containment and structure protection. They use direct attack when it is safe to do so and indirect strategy. I used to think of love that way, that heat and destruction had meaning, and protection was imperative.
The Safeway cashier said, “I really like this shampoo you’re buying. My hair’s so dry and it helps with that.” We talked about our hair for a bit, and then I asked her to charge me for two buckets of mums so I could pick up another on my way out. When I got to my car, it was covered in fine specks of white ash, and I looked up to see it falling from the sky, catching the wayward bits of light that made it through the haze.
At home, in my yard, the wildlife were jittery. Birds, whom I imagined to have escaped from smoky points north, tried to land in the grass and peck, but our unsympathetic dog chased them off. It’s her nature to protect us, to the point of cruelty to others who do not have her domesticated comforts. Chipmunks squeaked and taunted her. Mule deer glared at me, but continued eating leaves, rather than hustling off the way they usually do in the presence of a person. A lone elk bugled for a mate below the house and then gave up. In the face of danger, wild creatures try to do what they are supposed to, eat and mate. I poured a glass of tequila and watched the night grow prematurely dark.
The news was reporting landfall of hurricane Irma in the Caribbean. Death tolls were coming in. Irma, the news reported, was now twice the size of Colorado. The governor of Florida said, “If you don’t leave now, we cannot save you.” I felt ashamed that I wanted a cigarette, the comfort of fire in a fire.
In the West, we live among our rocks and trees, our river canyons, our green haying fields, and our irreducible mountains. And then the skies send a brief bolt of lightning down. The trees are majestic in their final, fiery moments, growing beyond themselves. Their ashes rise and are carried on the winds and come to those of us just beyond the disaster, bringing us the bits of a place we never saw, after it’s too late to see it as it was.
Emily Sinclair lives in Golden, Colorado. She received her AB in English and History from Columbia University and her MFA in Fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her stories and essays have been published in Colorado Review, The Normal School, Empty Mirror, MonkeyBicycle, Third Coast, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. Her work has been recognized by Best American Essays 2012. She teaches at Lighthouse Writers in Denver. She tweets @SemiEmily.