Conflagration

Shortly after Lynn got to town, back in the ’00s, we signed up for ballroom dance classes at the Gunnison Arts Center with Anita, psychologist by day, Arthur Murray-certified dance instructor by night.

Our inaugural class was rather large, 10 or 12-ish couples learning to move their feet in tandem. One of the most nerve-wracking things Anita required of her students was to form an oval along the line of dance, and then the men would move from partner to partner to learn to focus on dance steps rather than develop bad habits with just one partner.

It was also a way to get to know our fellow students. I don’t know how Lynn fared, but the first woman I managed to attempt to converse with as we rhythmically moved our feet was a college student named Mary, who had signed up for the class with her boyfriend Phil.

Attrition over the semesters caused our class size to dwindle, and when Anita deemed we were ready to join the open-to-the-public dance showcases staged by Leslie Channell, only three couples from our class signed up: us, Jeff and Michelle, and Phil and Mary. So we got to know them even better.

Mary, a very creative type who was interested in industrial design, got a job at the arts center, while Phil — well, he ended up at Pat’s, where he was an exemplary co-worker with a fondness for Nutty Bars and a fascination for my plastic Godzilla figure. While Phil got his work done efficiently, I would round the corner on any given day to find Godzilla hang-gliding or canoeing in amazing origami constructions fashioned by Phil.

While they loved Gunnison, career aspirations caused Mary and Phil to move on following graduation, taking Godzilla with them. They landed in Louisville, Colorado, outside of Boulder, where Phil went to work for some company doing something cerebral that I’m sure I’ll never understand.

They got married and produced two impossibly cute children, Hazel and Ewan. When the four of them would come back to town, they would always make time to join us and other dance friends. When Lynn and I got married, our friend (and theirs) Bob got a very charming photo of Phil and Mary dancing with their children tucked on their backs.

This family, which has always tried to live lightly on this Earth, riding bicycles to work and school and eating mindfully, had their world upended yesterday as grass fires turned into what has already become the worst fire in Colorado history, house-destruction-wise.

The wind, as it so often does in January, blew in epic proportions coming off the foothills the city of Boulder is tucked against. When I was in college (and home on vacation in Gunnison), the January winds would snap telephone poles in half. Yesterday the gusts reached 115 mph near my sister’s house, which sits not very far south of Phil and Mary’s.

Yesterday’s gusts toppled power lines. As meteorologist Mike Nelson explained last night, perhaps with an edge of impatience in his voice for those who continue to deny it, climate change made this happenstance a major hazard: usual January winds in combination with an unseasonably warm and extremely dry December. As he showed on the recently-released drought map, the area was in extreme, if not exceptional, drought. Grass caught fire, and wind lifted it straight into the small cities of Louisville and Superior.

Houses burned by the dozen, then the scores, then the hundreds. Over 30,000 people evacuated, including Phil and Mary. Fortuntaely, their children were already spending time with Phil’s mom in Westminster (the northern part of the Denver Metro area), but it took hours for our friends to inch along in traffic to make it to the same location.

Mary and I, who exchange random texts at oddly-spaced intervals, had just conversed a couple days prior, when she informed me that Nebraska is the longest state in the world. I surmised, correctly, that they were returning from Christmas with her family in Iowa. It was mundane texting, and ordinary, and much preferred to yesterday’s terse conversation.

When I learned of the fire around 3, I told her I didn’t want to bother her, but wondered if they were okay. That’s when she gave me the report about the kids already safe and them stuck in traffic. “The fire trucks went by a few minutes ago announcing a mandatory evacuation. Scary as all,” she typed.

I didn’t hear anything else until Rita, another dance friend, reported that Mary posted to Facebook that they had made it to Phil’s mom’s house, a place of tenuous safety, since later in the evening a pre-evacuation notice spread all along the northern reaches of the Denver area, including my sister and stopping mere blocks away from my parents.

The ferocious winds, which left firefighters almost helpless in the face of the flames, finally — finally — tamped down late last night, and today, later, snow is expected in that area, but the shocking scenes of fire igniting entire rows, neighborhoods of houses, was horrific enough from 200 miles away, wondering if the carnage included the only home Hazel and Ewan have ever known.

I still don’t know; likely Phil and Mary don’t know. With reduced wind, which has allowed aircraft to take wing, and lowered temperature, along with the promise of snow later today, the pre-evacuation orders have lifted south of the flames, but the evacuation order is still in place for residents of Superior and Louisville.

Even if their house is still among the standing, Phil and Mary’s world is a vastly changed place. From here we can only remain in limbo with them, waiting to see what sort of assistance they’ll need that we can provide. And hope for the best. At least all four of them are safe, which is what matters most of all.

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