With a wildfire raging about 20 miles south of the cabin last week, no substantial moisture for at least a month and hot, dry weather, I walk the land here with trepidation. I’m suddenly newly aware of the fragility of this landscape. More than any news article could tell me, a video of the Cold Springs fire north of Nederland showed how whole hillsides of pine trees were being consumed in a matter of minutes by the quickly moving flames fueled by the high winds. In just two or three days, the flames had destroyed almost 600 acres of forest and eight homes.
What the video and photos don’t show are the fleeing animals that no longer have homes or the underbrush of bushes, flowers and grasses now nothing but blackened ground. What’s gone is a whole interconnected web of life. When I walk these mountains I’m passing through a landscape that has taken hundreds of years to evolve. Water has coursed down through these hills and mountains, forming streams, rivers and meadows, where aspens and water-loving plants, like mountain bluebells, have taken shelter. Where the land is dryer and rockier, ponderosas took hold. Everything accommodated itself to what was there, growing in and around the boulders and rocky cliffs; grasses emerged around the ponds and in the meadows, the dragonflies (above) somehow finding the ponds. The squirrels survive on the cones from the ponderosas, and the weasels, coyotes and other predators sustain themselves on the squirrels. It’s not a landscape that can easily be restored.
Hiking up the road behind my cabin, I knew that all this could be gone in minutes. It was otherwise a beautiful day: an almost cloudless deep blue sky, winds brushing the aspen leaves, the meadows still green. But a closer look revealed drooping aspen leaves, some already turning orange (right), and the leaves of flowering plants curling, withering in the heat. On Mount Meeker only a tiny sliver of snow remained (top). Under my feet the ground was crunchy; it wouldn't take much more than a careless match to unleash a fiery destruction.
After May, which brought snowstorms and rain all month, suddenly the spigot had been turned off and the thermostat set on high. It felt ominous, like something happening beyond our control. I wanted to water the yard, keep all the columbine and lupine blooming rather than drooping, and save the young aspens that are just establishing root systems and the young ponderosas only two feet high. But I can only carry so many pails of water from the well. I can’t save everything—or anything. I just have to hold my breath and wait—and pray.