It was Father’s Day, 2010. A Sunday. We had thrown a party the night before and were lounging on the couch in a sleepy haze. A knock on the door. Our elderly neighbor wondered if we might be willing to climb the hill at the top of our street to see what that plume of smoke was all about. It was fire season after all, and she was a little worried.
At the top of Crisp Hill we could see it perfectly; a column of flame and billowing tower of smoke coming from Shultz Pass. Our mountain was indeed on fire, and the wind was blowing straight to our neighborhood. As if on cue, Isaac’s phone rang. It was his godbrother the fireman. “Hey Ike. Looks like there’s a fire at the pass. It’s pushing toward you guys. You will likely have to evacuate. You might want to start packing up.” Yep. Indeed it was time to pack up.
We didn’t have to go far. My inlaws live less than a mile away and directly across a highway that served as a fireline. From the roof of their garage we could watch the whole horrific and fascinating show unfold. I could never have imagined fire could move so swiftly and spread so fast. We watched the slurry bombers fly overhead, dumping the red solution on the flames and trying to beat back the inferno. It was horrifying, and yet so fascinating. Everytime I tried to get down off the roof and look away I came right back. It was easier to watch then to not know what was happening.
Thanks to a combination of brilliant wildland fire teams and winds that shifted at exactly the right moment, our neighborhood was spared. Barely. The flames came precariously close, but thankfully not a single structure was lost. That is, until the rains came.
What do you get when you combine a freshly scorched mountainside with a 100 year rainstorm? The most destructive flooding imaginable. Waves of muddy water and heaps of boulders rampaged through the streets destroying homes and property. They could stop the fire, but nothing could stop the floods.
That wonderful Crisp Hill upon which we stood the day the fire broke out protected our street. The flood waters split on either side and went around us. But many many neighbors were not so lucky. Many homes were declared a total loss. Others sustained $80,000 worth of damage. Home values plummeted. Sandbags and concrete barriers went up overnight. No longer a simple rural neighborhood, we were now the scene of a natural disaster.
Fast forward 6 years. The flooding has ended. Between extensive drainage projects installed by the county and some vegetation regrowth on the hillside, we are no longer in danger of sliding away.
My (almost) three year old and I have an accidental tradition of playing hooky one day every October to make our way up to the Inner Basin to see the changing Aspens. This year, I decided to hook up the bike trailer and attempt to ride the old waterline road, rather than hiking from Lockett Meadow. This service road for our city’s water supply is an iconic autumn ride across the very mountainside that was scorched off in a flaming inferno six years ago. The road had been closed for a long time, and badly damaged after that. I hadn’t been on it since fall of 2009. It seemed like a perfect outing for our Mama/Son date this year.
As we pedaled up the road, I was able to see the destroyed hillside from a whole new perspective. As heartbreaking as the total devastation was, in truth, Shultz Mountain had been excessively overgrown pre-fire. Unhealthy, tightly packed pine trees jammed together and sharing every fungus and parasite imaginable. Ponderosa Pines are meant to be spread out with grasses and other undergrowth between. Shultz Mountain hadn’t seen the light of day through the closed pine canopy in 100 years. The Forest Service had the area scheduled for a massive thinning project, but it just didn’t happen fast enough.
Now, with all of the trees gone, the experience of riding the Waterline Road is very different. Erie in its barrenness, and yet the long view is breathtaking and exceptional. Clear views of the pillowy rhyolite of Mt. Elden to the south (part of which was also burned in the fire), and the dome of O'leary Peak and the Cinder Hills to the north. We can see the red roof of Grandma and Grandpa’s garage from up there now, the one we sat on watching the flames those years ago. We can see Crisp Hill too. The wonderful tiny landform that protected our home in the aftermath of the destruction.
Even more inspiring than the perspective, is the regrowth. In the space the overgrown pines used to occupy, Aspen are moving in. Those gorgeous and iconic beauties whose green leaves cool the hillsides all summer long and whose bright yellow colors draw visitors from all over the world every autumn. The Aspen move into the space where fire has scorched out all other growth. They come to the rescue, filling in for what was lost. Far from a second rate replacement, these trees are a pinnacle of grace, beauty, and inspiration. They put the scraggly pines that came before them to shame.
Most of us, at some point in our lives, will have a wild, hot, scorching fire burn through us. Something so utterly devastating that nothing is left standing. The flood waters will rage. The boulders crashing down the hillside of our souls will rip out every last shred of all we recognize. We will be left in a smoking ashen heap and utterly unable to recognize ourselves anymore.
Only through the flames of the scorching crucible can the Aspens emerge. Only after the dust settles can we truly have the long view so completely hidden before. The hormonal disaster that was my body during and after pregnancy was my fire and flood. It burned me out, left me hollow, and quite nearly washed away everything in my life. Thank goodness for the “hills” that kept me from being a total loss; my husband, my beautiful son, my best friend, the doctors I finally reached out to for help.
The recovery and rebirth has not been easy, and some days I’m still on the journey. I wouldn't wish the experience on anyone, and yet, it has become an indelible part of me. It has shaped me into a more refined and wiser version of myself and illuminated compassion and understanding for others I couldn’t have had before. It certainly cleared out a lot of the overgrowth and excess I hadn’t even realized was there before.
If you find yourself in the fire and the flood, know that the rebirth will come. Hang on. Find shelter behind your hill and ask for help. The trees will grow. You will, one day, breathe again.