Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Colorado Burning

This past weekend I was in Colorado near the end of a vacation exploring many of the riches of the Southwestern landscape. Yet as we entered the land of 14,000-foot high mountains and endless vistas, there was also the distinct and tangible presence of smoke.


Yes, smoke.


Colorado was, and is, on fire. At the time there were 8 fires raging, with three more starting that very Saturday near Estes Park, Leadville, and Colorado Springs. On Sunday, for my Father-in-Law Brian Morse's birthday we had planned to hike Mt. Elbert. Yet, the Waldo Canyon fire shut down Highway 24 out of Colorado Springs, making us change the destination to Mt. Bierstadt which was much more accessible from Denver. I've done a few 14ers before and so I know how amazing these hikes can be, with views that are so amazing as peaks and valleys stretch to the horizon. Often the views themselves are exhilarating. 


Amanda and her brother Nic on the top of Mt. Bierstadt.
You can see the smoke to the North shrouding the horizon.
Yet this hike was different in that in every direction, the horizon was shrouded in smoke.


To the North, the fires near Estes Park, Fort Collins, and elsewhere provided the distinct low-level grey clouds that stretched horizontally along the horizon in the direction the wind blew. The South held the freshly burning Waldo Canyon fire, preventing any line of sight toward Pikes Peak which we might have just been able to see on a clear day. To the West, more fires obscured the Mountain Ranges that held many more 14ers although we could see nearby Mt. Grays and Mt. Torreys.


So while we hiked through the pristine meadows and forests of the high alpine climate we were also faced with the reality of Colorado burning. It is true that these very climates need forest fires to rejuvenate and replenish the forest. Fires are a part of the reproduction of the natural order in these places. Yet as it stands today, with 12 fires scattered across the state, many of which the causes yet to be determined but likely caused by man, is this not something to be concerned with?


Fast forward to today, a day when the White House announced President Obama would be visiting Colorado Springs and the devastation of the Waldo Canyon Fire on Friday. This fire, spurned on by high heats, low humidity, and strong, changing winds, leapt over containment lines and into the Northwestern housing areas of the city. Yes, the fire actually entered the city. While I lived in Colorado Springs, I stayed in an apartment complex off Centennial Boulevard that is literally across the street from the homes that burned just North of Garden of the Gods. My good friend Jeremiah Colon was evacuated from his apartment last night, having to move in with his Mom over on the Eastern side of town. Today, my Father-in-Law Brian received his pre-evacuation notice along with the rest of Palmer Lake. Its real and personal to me, with family living throughout the Colorado Springs region and having lived there myself for nearly 6 years.


Picture of the Waldo Canyon Fire
from my Father-in-Law's house on
pre-evacuation notice
Some critics have claimed that we should not be spending all the time and effort to save homes and forests in a region where it is not "if" a fire will start, but "when." Its their problem, building homes in the hills and habitat which should have remained wild, are some of their claims. Or perhaps they decry that they deserved this catastrophe, perhaps an act of the wrath of God that didn't like one particular group or another.


To be clear, I think such claims are simply ignorant (stupid!) in stating it is valid for not spending public funding and resources in funding. 


Because where do you draw the line on public safety? Or in other words, where do you live? Can you name me one place on this entire planet that is not suspect to some form of natural disaster? Because if you think that money and time should not be spent protecting the neighborhoods of towns in Colorado, what about the Eastern sea-board and the billions of dollars spent recovering from hurricane damage over the years? Or what about earthquakes in California and tornadoes in the Midwest and South? How about lightning strikes, monsoons, and flash floods? Volcano eruptions and dust storms in the desert? 


Using such an argument, (which is definitely a minority view but is present on the comment sections of the news articles regarding the wildfires - check out this link and scroll to the comments, disgusting) then absolutely nothing should be done for a single flood, hail storm, tornado, fire, or shifting of the land. My question is where should we live then?


We live in a dynamic, living world. The forces of nature are necessary for there to even be life on this planet! Weather, plate tectonics, and all the other aspects of life that change rapidly or slowly bring the very things that we need to live on. We can live no-where that is not at risk to some form of nature's power. Archeology shows how many ancient cities burned down multiple times, only to be rebuilt again and again (i.e. Troy).


After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans many claimed it a waste to rebuild a city located below sea level, and even I questioned some of the validity of doing so without increasing the precautions against a similar catastrophe in the future. Which is exactly what happens, and needs to happen, throughout history. We learn, adjust, and improve our technology against earthquakes or hurricanes. We develop better systems of predicting weather or suppressing fire. The Netherlands systems of dykes and pumps have expanded over the centuries, as well as the construction of buildings that can withstand all but the strongest of earthquakes.


Aftermath of the Waldo Canyon Fire at Mt. Shadows
Ultimately, what we are arguing over are the responsibilities of the social contract. What is the responsibility of governments for the safety and good of the people?


It is a matter of order and chaos, even if not placed in those extremes in most people's minds. Do we simply pursue our own ends and look out only for our own interests, which is chaos? Or do we understand the need for order, a reason for government, public service, and safety?


Do we help each other or not?


So while we can easily look at large homes burning in the suburbs of Colorado Springs and think we should not help out "those" people (and trust me, many of these homes were not even that big, so it was not just a rich neighborhood) the reality is any and all disasters are personal, and not something that simply happened "to them." The fires in Colorado are much more personal to me than the tsunami was in Indonesia, and yet I truly believe that relief, support, and aid is necessary in both situations.


What if the next disaster happened to me or to you? 


Did they have it coming to them? Was someone sinful, prideful, or stupid, and so they are getting what they deserve? More so than any other city, town or location? 


I think not. Its about our situation in this world, and our choices to support and love each other in the face of the forces outside of our control.


We can rail against welfare or advocate for better insurance for those that can pay, arguing over the best or right way to address natural disasters (whether FEMA, National Guard, or local firefighters).


Yet, when it all boils down, its about helping each other. We are in this together. 


As I hiked Mt. Bierstadt this past Sunday, I saw the smoke and my heart ached at what was happening, not because it was unnatural but because of the loss and hardship it was creating. My heart wants to help, my mind longs to engage in helping others even though I have a job and responsibility that is far from Colorado.


But if we stop and think, it isn't just Colorado that is burning. The world is burning, hurting, suffering, and groaning. Hunger, poverty, thirst, and war rages on. We all have a choice to make each and every day, and that is are we out for ourselves or are we there to help each other?


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(If you would like to support the efforts of fire fighters, or those displaced by the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs or elsewhere here are some current needs reported to the Denver Post)

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