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Consumed by Fire

On the front lines of the Hayman blaze.

What did this house look like a few days ago? Metal tends to survive, although it bucks and twists in the intense heat. Here is a folded bed frame, bent into a stiff curtsey; a wood-burning stove; a fireplace grate. A tea kettle and an iron poke out from the ash, as do the skeletal remains of a desk, surrounded by a handful of ceramics -- a cup, a glass, a few plates. A shovel has been reduced to its blade. It's all on ground level now, the wooden floors having been neatly removed by the heat, a magician pulling out a rug. The fireplace and chimney always seem to survive, leaving a spinal column without a body.

What you see when you look at the destruction depends on where you stand. A forester sees acres charred and, later, an ecosystem reborn. Homeowners, imagining their own tragedy, see the fire in terms of houses disappeared in a whirl of thick smoke and advancing flames. Insurers calculate their losses. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals try to get us to think of the displaced animals. Those with some distance will wonder about the vast expense and whether our work was worth the cost.

One afternoon at the end of our tour, while returning from Rampart Range Road 1, we pass the Gray Back fire crew filing into a Woodland Park church to attend a service for their five colleagues killed while driving to work the fires in Colorado. A month later, two pilots will perish when their slurry bomber crashes while fighting the Big Elk fire, outside of Estes Park. Last week, a helicopter crashed. We all count the dead.

The predictable raft of articles about why we find ourselves at the mercy of such terrible fires are again floated. It's the same old story: The causes of today's massive forest fires (too much suppression of natural fires plus too little thinning of trees has resulted in a dangerous buildup of fuels) and why we find ourselves fighting more of them (more houses in flammable areas) are well-known by now. No doubt there will be another huge debate at the end of this fire season over prescribed burn policy. In the foothills community where I live, every year we set a small prescribed burn in a local park. Every year, residents there complain about the smell of smoke.

Such public pressure pushes hard on the forest managers who plan and oversee prescribed burns. The paperwork to set even the smallest controlled fire looks like an urban phone book. These days, a burn boss puts his career on the line every time he goes to work.

When you get down to it, people are simply frightened of fire. At the very least, most refuse to understand it.

I can see how people come to regard fire as a sentient being. The sight of a single house standing, surrounded by acres and acres of charred forest and husks of homes, can be mystifying as well as sobering. Seemingly at random, fire picks and chooses what it will burn. Although there are usually good reasons for why one thing burns and another just a few yards away does not, a raging fire appears to move without pattern, without sense.

Despite what you may have seen in the movies, most firefighters don't take the fire's behavior personally. The closest I can come to explaining it is by imagining how a rancher regards a predator: There's nothing to say about a wolf eating a lamb except that it's normal wolf behavior. So, too, with a fire. It doesn't know you, and it's got nothing against you or your house in particular. It's just hungry, is all.

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