Paul Andersen: When smoke gets in your eyes … | AspenTimes.com

Paul Andersen: When smoke gets in your eyes …

Paul Anderson
Fair Game

Holy smokes, it's been a smoky out there. Our beautiful azure Colorado skies have been converted into a toxic atmosphere provoking angst rather than joy beneath a choking cloak of smoke.

A neighbor of mine up the Frying Pan at Seven Castles remarked that during the height of the fire scare, when we all had the jitters while on pre-evacuation status, he felt a deep sense of unrest in a scene that was strange, eerie and apocalyptic.

That feeling went beyond the logistics of escaping the flames, beyond the physical threat to our homes and earthly possessions. The feeling was an ominous dread that a malevolent force beyond our control was stalking the neighborhood and could, at will, plunder our lives and the places we call home.

As if we had it bad — when compared with the fires raging in California, ours was a small flare-up, a minor blaze. But for those who lost their homes in El Jebel, the Lake Christine Fire is a lifetime trauma from which it will be difficult to recover.

As of last week, the cost of the fire was $16.8 million. Those choppers racked up the air miles, and their countless sorties were pricey. But such are the costs of ongoing efforts to quell the blaze, and a good investment it has been.

Instead of being annoyed by the wop-wop reverberations of choppers overhead, the sound became a comfort, just knowing that each flight was lessening the threat to homes and the communities that have so graciously celebrated firefighters as the heroes they are.

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A campfire is quaint and cheering, but when more than 12,500 acres of forest are consumed by roaring flames and converted into airborne particulates, you begin to see fires differently.

These monsters are beings unto themselves, fed by copious amounts of fuel in fire-suppressed forests that have been secured from the flames for short term security, but with the long term consequences we're seeing today.

These fires have lives of their own. They fester like demons amid unquenchable infernos that Dante pictured as the hellish payback for our sins and foibles. Those who believe in karma may be wondering what debt we in the Roaring Fork are paying. For starters, how about the eviction of the Utes?

A takeaway from the smoke that fills our skies is the undeniable realization that downwind/downstream airsheds and watersheds, once infiltrated with pollutants, become part of the commons.

When the air is filled with acrid smoke, our lungs filter out the impurities. It's the same with our watersheds. When pollutants are present, like in Flint, Michigan, the entire community endures the risks.

Fires and their toxic exhalations move at the whim of the winds, and the winds have brought home the Cache Creek fire and now the incineration of Northern California 1,000 miles away.

When burnt pine needles rained down on my roof and the roofs of my neighbors, we found ourselves caught up together in an insidious combination of elemental forces. Such events kindle fascination as described by a blend of fear and awe at the inexorable elements of destruction.

My neighbor said he and his family still have their bags packed. My wife and I, too, have a stack of keepsakes ready to throw into a vehicle. Such vulnerability is a humbling experience attesting to the intermittency of our homeland security.

Our lives and our belongings are as if on loan to us for the short time we exist and yet we cling to them, our fingernails dug into whatever assurances we can find in a very insecure world.

As if the uncertainties of international relations, economic fluctuations, political intrigues and community dysfunctions are not enough, wildfires are breathing down our necks with the torrid vapors of conspicuous combustion.

The German language offers two comprehensive words that speak to our shared angst. Zerrissenheit — "torn apart" — intones an internal/external chaos we strive to avoid or deny. Weltschmerz — "world pain" or "universal angst" — reflects an existential sense of dismay and a deep sorrow for the state of the world.

When smoke gets in your eyes, it's hard to see beyond the tears.

Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.

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