World on Fire

I haven’t yet written about the day last year when the sky turned black at midday. It was so dark that my garden lights came on in the dim, orange twilight. But it’s August and we’re in fire season again. I find myself thinking about that day again because I’m cooped up at home with the windows closed as another smoke plume moves over Northern Colorado. Last year, we inhaled smoke and ash from late last summer to several weeks into autumn. The fires kept our skies grey for the better part of two months. But I distinctly remember that day just before Labor Day in early September when I braved the smoky air and temperatures over 90F to harvest my garden in preparation for an unseasonably early snow storm.

September 2020 in Greeley, CO – The day that turned black.

Yes. You read that right. Maybe it feels more surreal to say it than it was to experience it. We had relentless, record-breaking, early September heat followed by snow in the midst of an ash storm. This is global weirding at its finest. And while it may not seem real to talk about such wild temperature swings in late summer, as more people experience these swings along with other crazy climate events, I suppose we have to adjust our perception of reality. As our skies turned black, I had flashbacks to photos I saw of the Australian bush fires less than a year earlier – people fleeing into the water beneath orange skies and rolling black clouds. It chokes me up to think about it.

It chokes me up remembering the photos of the long lines of cars in Estes Park, just an hour up the road, when people were forced to evacuate in the face of that orange sky.

Depending on how far you are from a fire, the smoke, dust and ash can turn the sky different colors: grey/white if you have mostly very fine particulate matter (this is what we get from the fires on the West Coast), orange/brown, if the fires are closer.

That was at the end of what I might always remember as my Rocky Mountain summer. Holed up at home as COVID began to take root – a metaphorical dark cloud. Rocky Mountain Park was my escape, sometimes weekly. Rocky Mountain, and many of the local parks in the foothills.

There were many visits to Bobcat Ridge west of Fort Collins, especially early in the pandemic. It’s a quick drive and it’s good hiking on a cool spring morning. In the valley, near the parking lot, you could find the first spring blossoms. The hillside trail passed through the edge of pine forest, across a couple of small creeks. Sometimes a herd of elk would come down from higher elevations to munch on fresh spring grass.

I haven’t been to Bobcat Ridge since before the dark day in September. The Cameron Peak fire burned right up to the parking lot at the entrance. I can’t imagine what it looks like now. But I can imagine the pines as spindly gray spires – skeletal ghosts of themselves. I wonder what happened to the elk and the mountain lions that live up there.

Just as heartbreaking was the damage at Rocky Mountain. I’ve had a chance to see more of that. In winter, the damage is somewhat masked by snow, but places that I only came to know well in the past year have rapidly transformed into something different.

What will the fire take this year? Today, there are people fleeing fires across the Northern Hemisphere – in northern California, Ontario, Turkey, Greece, Sardinia, Siberia (maybe I’ve missed some – there are people fleeing fires in so many places, it’s hard to keep track). If the smoke dissipates enough for us to see the sun today, it will set red again.

We have a lot of markers in the natural world to help us keep track of time. The tulips bloom in May, the coneflowers bloom in June, the day-lilies in July. And in August, everything dries up, the skies turn orange, and the sun turns red. Welcome to the new world.

Near the entrance to Bobcat Ridge in early 2021. We haven’t been able to go any further along the road into the park.

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