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Sitting squarely in town, historically means nothing to fires

On the evening of June 26, 2012, a friend in Idaho sent me a message with an urgent question. “Are you OK?” she asked. “The evening news just provided stark evidence that you all are now threatened.” Not far from where I live, when the Flagstaff Fire ignited, twenty-six homes were evacuated, and twenty-four households in Boulder went on pre-evacuation alert.

But there is compelling evidence that I was neither alerted nor alarmed. Here is the complacent, unrattled response I sent to my friend’s concern: “Thank you for thinking of us. We are a good distance from this fire, and we are squarely in town, not in the foothills.”

A decade later, I can only wonder what on earth I was thinking. How could I have been so confident that, since I was “squarely in town,” I could dismiss my friend’s concern for my safety as well-intentioned, but unjustified?

Embers are lightweight. An intense wind can make an ember almost animate in its migrations. My house is four blocks from the open space of grasslands and forests. If the location of the Flagstaff Fire had not made possible a quick response from firefighters, windborne embers would have had no trouble finding me.

In 2022, millions of us in Colorado’s cities and suburbs still reside in the intact, unscathed houses we occupied before Dec. 30, 2021. In the days and nights since then, every moment we spend in our comfortable homes offers a reminder: we cannot explain our own good fortune, nor can we explain the misfortune that the Marshall Fire brought to hundreds of people who — like us — lived “squarely in town.”

Rereading our exchange from 2012, I am struck by my lapse into historical amnesia, forgetting a pattern that was almost universal in the Euro-American settlement of the American West.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, fires regularly laid waste to Western towns and cities. In April 1863, a fire swept through Denver, leaving “most of the eastern half” of the town “in blackened ruins.” Flagstaff, Arizona, was an epicenter of cyclical combustion, with major fires in 1884, 1886, and 1888. In 1889, three major cities in Washington Territory — Spokane, Ellensburg, and Seattle — went up in flames, leaving their residents hard-pressed to rebuild. In that same year, the residents of Durango watched a fire destroy their downtown.

Throughout the West, Euro-American settlers harvested timber from local forests or sometimes imported ready-cut wooden houses for on-site assembly. They then packed these structures close to each other, with little or no preparation for emergency water supplies. Frequent, devastating fires became a feature of Western urban life. When people caught onto the pattern, they made more use of building materials like brick and stone, created permanent fire departments, and set up better systems for supplying water to firefighters.

Here is the lesson that repeated misfortune taught Western settlers more than a century ago.

Living in a city offers no exemption from the catastrophe of uncontrolled fires. With that recognition, Westerners were positioned to embrace practices that reduced the power of fire to inflict sorrow and loss.

Affliction and hope turned out to be neighbors.

Patty Limerick is the faculty director and chair of the Board of the Center of the American West. To respond to this article, please use old-fashioned technology and call 303-735-0104.

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