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What really matters when fire is near

Debra Crawford

I’ve been carrying my grandmother’s pearls in my pocket. Not that my hometown of Glenwood Springs usually affords much chance to wear them, but things have not been usual lately.

On June 8, my family and I were evacuated from our home as the wildfire known as the Coal Seam raged across the mountains on two sides of our tourist town. Early that Saturday afternoon, my friend Brenda called.

“Something’s wrong,” she said. “It smells like a barbecue, but I think it’s Storm King again.” Storm King is the mountain behind her house, which eight years ago erupted in a fire that killed 14 firefighters.

Glenwood carries that sad memory like an ever-present burden.

By mid-afternoon, a dusty plume rose west of town, and I listed what to take if we had to leave. The kids. The dogs. The cats. Some food, water, insurance papers, medical records. A change of clothes. As many photos as we could carry. Anything else? And I thought of my grandmother.

For 40 years after WWII, she and my grandfather, a retired army colonel, lived in the arid hills of Southern California. They’d evacuated in advance of numerous wildfires, but their home never burned, even when a fireball skimmed their roof and melted the contents of their galvanized metal garage. I once asked if she grieved to lose her car or the Chinese snuff bottle collection she’d hidden in the garage. “It’s only stuff,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. At least I had my pearls.”

My grandparents were adventurous. They’d lived in China in the 1940s, where my grandfather was an advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Once my grandmother was hospitalized in Beijing and feverishly told my grandfather to leave the hospital to buy her a casket. When he returned, he said,

“Here’s your damned casket,” and dropped the delicate, cool pearl necklace into her hand.

In the unease of that Saturday afternoon I stuffed that damned pearl necklace into my jeans. I called Brenda and told her answering machine she could stay with us.

That was just before we watched the sky in our neighborhood turn red, as the bloody sun disappeared behind roiling billows of white, gray and blackening clouds. I tuned in the radio and heard the tension in our sheriff’s voice: “The fire’s jumped the interstate and is headed to Storm King.”

That meant, incredibly, that it had crossed the Colorado River and a four-lane highway less than five miles from our house. It was headed our way.

My husband and I bolted, chasing kids, animals and boxes into the cars.

Police and sheriff’s vehicles cruised our street, megaphones blaring, “Leave your house. NOW!” In barely 20 minutes, we grabbed what we could.

I glanced around. “What IS this junk?” We drove away in a slow, frightened procession of refugees.

We were lucky. Like many of the 3,000 evacuees, we stayed with friends.

That evening, we watched from downtown as the fire raged a mile away, along the ridge above our home, torching 100-foot-tall spruce trees like matchsticks. The next day ,we climbed the mountain east of town and looked across the valley at backfires being set to protect our water treatment plant and new community center.

No one slept well. When we weren’t frazzled with indecision and exhaustion, we inquired about our friends and reassured our distant families. Brenda, a nurse, was at the evacuation center at the community college, helping other evacuees. We fielded calls from a Denver TV station, and when a reporter asked how I decided what to take, I recalled that last look. “It’s only stuff,” I said.

Like most of the evacuees, we were allowed to return home, cautiously. Soot had blown in through open windows – but our house was safe.

Twenty-nine homes were destroyed in our town, but no human lives were lost, no serious injuries reported. And the people are pulling together in extraordinary ways, donating money, goods and labor.

Glenwood Springs reopened for business, graciously welcoming visitors. But our collective psyche has been singed once again.

So we’re keeping photos packed and by the front door. And though my grandmother’s pearls are no longer in my pocket, I know exactly where they are.

Debra Crawford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (hcn.org). She is a writer and works for the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in

Carbondale.


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