Living – Places: 32

Darwin was constantly impressed with the kindness and cooperation he observed in nature, and he wrote that "those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring." He and many of the biologists who followed him have documented that the ideal way to win at the evolutionary game is to maximize friendliness so that cooperation flourishes.
– Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity⩘ 


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Rocky Mountain springtime. Two days ago, it was 70° F / 21° C!

Suprise snowfall, mid-April, 2020

Ever since the aliens visited, gravity has been doing unusual things.

Interesting icicles

Because of social distancing, we've been taking our daily walks on our own property. When we moved here 20 years ago, we made a series of wood chip pathways the wander around the property so that we could enjoy our property and leave most of the wild plants and flowers undisturbed. Little did we know how valuable those pathways would become this year.

We walk about an hour a day, winding up and down and around a dozen circuits. Normally, when I look out over the property, I mostly see the Ponderosa pines and the wild grasses. But, of course, these walks give us a golden opportunity to really see what is happening as springtime progresses. One thing that has simply amazed me is the wondrous beauty and sheer quantity of small and tiny wildflowers blooming everywhere, nestled down amongst the wild grasses!

Here's a sampling. To fully appreciate the scene, in your mind's eye, multiply them each many times, in some cases like the Prairie Mouse-Ears and Sprawling Daisies, many-thousand fold.

A couple notes: The day after I posted these, there were several new types of flowers blooming, including the beautiful Blue Flax, and now it's raining, so I'm guessing there will be even more tomorrow. What a gift! Also, there was a fair bit of a breeze blowing when I took these. I did my best to take the photos as the flowers were waving gently to and fro past my lens, but please forgive that some are a little our of focus. I want to remember this spring, so I think they're worth posting anyway.

From the top: Prairie Mouse-Ear, Whiskbroom Parsley, Low Penstemon, Sprawling Daisy, and Woodsorrel.

Prairie Mouse-Ear
Whiskbroom Parsley
Low Penstemon
Sprawling Daisy

Prickly pear (Opuntia⩘ ) blooming on the first day of summer.

Prickly pear (Opuntia)

We had a visitor today, a juvenile Cooper's Hawk⩘ . We see them around in our trees once in awhile, but this is the first time we've seen one hang out on our deck. (We didn't invite it in, though, because it wouldn't put on a mask.)

Cooper's Hawk

We've had a very hot, very dry summer. A couple weeks ago, we had a freak weather incident, although given how often we have unusual weather events now, I guess the term "freak" really isn't accurate anymore: from one day to the next, the temps plummeted from a high in the mid 90°s F (~35° C) to a low in the mid 20°s F (~ −4° C). We had quite a bit of rain as the temperature was falling. Once it hit freezing, it started snowing, and we ended up with perhaps 10″ of very dense snow on the ground by the second morning. Then it warmed back up and all the snow quickly melted, leaving us with thoroughly soaked ground.

In many ways, nature is quite resilient, though we're definitely testing the limits of that resiliency with our carelessness in how we exploit the Earth's resources. Within the next two weeks, wildflowers bloomed from plants that had looked nearly dead, and all kinds of new or refreshed life emerged, even as the damp earth was quickly drying out in the returned heat.

Here are a few of our new or refreshed residents:


Colorado fires, Fri, Oct 16, 2020

We live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains about 30 miles southeast of the Cameron Peak Fire, now the largest fire in Colorado history. For the past two months, it has often been really smoky, but now and then, we have a couple days of fresh air, as we've had for the past two days. This evening, just at sunset, the winds kicked up and it quickly got really smoky again. I ran around the house shutting the windows and then noticed out of one of them the smoke from the fire roiling fast and furiously across the sky to the northwest. This is the first time we've seen the smoke plumes so distinctly from our place, which I guess means they must be rising quite high up into the sky before moving east.

Smoke from Cameron Peak Fire

Related video: The BBC has posted a video showing the plumes, Colorado wildfire: Huge smoke plumes from Cameron Peak Fire, largest in state history⩘ 

Colorado fires update, one week later

On the afternoon of Saturday, Oct 17, 2020, the day after I took the previous photo, a fire broke out near the Cal-Wood Education Center, which is just northeast of Jamestown, Colorado, about 6 or 7 miles southwest of our place. Because of the intense winds, high temperatures, and super dry conditions—like much of the West, we've had a severe drought this year—the fire exploded, burning towards the northeast; in other words, in our direction. I was on the phone telling a neighbor about the smoke I had seen in the sky to the north the previous evening when she asked, "Are you also seeing the smoke from the new fire to the southwest of us?" I hadn't yet heard about the new fire, so I was stunned when I looked that way and saw the smoke filling the sky in that direction, too.

Within about five hours, the new fire, now named the Calwood Fire, had consumed well over 7,000 acres, and our neighborhood was ordered to evacuate. We had planned for something like this, so had checklists organized by location, but it was much more challenging than we thought it would be, and took much longer. Then there was that stomach-clenching moment when we stood in front of our packed cars and looked at our home, knowing it was possible we might not see it again.

Some dear friends of ours in the nearby town of Lyons graciously invited us to stay with them (thank you, Dorothy & Jim!), and we arrived just before sunset. This was the view from their deck, looking south towards our neighborhood, which is located on the north side of the fire. At that time, the fire was burning north towards our neighborhood, as well as towards the east and south.

View of smoke from Calwood Fire just before sunset

This was the the view an hour later. At that point, the fire was probably about two miles from our home. This was one of the most frightening things I've ever seen.

View of Calwood Fire just after sunset

By the end of that evening, the fire had become the largest in Boulder County history and had destroyed more than two dozen homes⩘  that were located on the eastern edge of the fire, just where the foothills meet the plains. My heart goes out to the people who lost their homes.

Obviously, I couldn't sleep that night, but something good happened while I lay there awake with my stomach in knots: we had a very unusual turn of weather that had not been forecast, an inversion that brought a cold misty fog that hung over the fire for most of Sunday, stalling it.

The forecast for the next few days—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—was ominous. Each day, we were expecting the resumption of the high, gusty winds that are typical here this time of year. Surprisingly, each day passed calmly. In the meantime, our amazing Lyons Fire Protection District firefighters, joined by firefighting teams from around the state and country, were courageously tackling the fire, so it grew only very slowly. I feel such a deep sense of gratitude to those incredibly brave, hardworking women and men, many of whom are volunteers!

We returned home during the daylight hours each day to do additional fire mitigation work: watering around our home, cutting dead branches out of the Ponderosa pine trees (something we do every autumn), and removing dead pine needles from around our home and the gutters (they fall in abundance this time of year, especially after such a dry summer, so even though we had removed the needles from the gutters just a few days before, they were already full again).

Because of the continued calmness and the slow growth of the fire, the evacuation order for our neighborhood was downgraded to an evacuation warning (which basically means: be ready to leave within five minutes), so on Wednesday night, we returned home and began to feel a cautious sense of optimism. However, on Thursday, the forecast changed again to another Red Flag Warning for high winds, and we were once again ordered to evacuate. The nearby town of Lyons was put on an evacuation warning, so this time some wonderful friends in Longmont, a town further east, graciously invited us into their home (thank you, Deirdre & Michael!).

I again couldn't sleep that night due to the anxiety I was feeling, but once again, incredibly, the winds didn't materialize. In the early afternoon of Thursday, we took a walk around MacIntosh Lake with our friend and received a reminder that even in the middle of a crisis, there are moments of serenity and beauty to be found. This is one of the Great Blue Herons we saw during our walk.

Great Blue Heron at MacIntosh Lake

That photo is looking towards the west. What you don't see is that the skies just to the right (to the north) were roiling with angry smoke because on Thursday, a new fire that had erupted about a week previously on the western side of the Continental Divide, the East Troublesome Fire, absolutely blew up. In just one day, that fire grew by more than 100,000 acres to become the second largest fire in Colorado History, growing to a size that it took the current largest fire, the Cameron Peak Fire, more than two months to grow to. At one point, it apparently was burning the equivalent of 70 football fields of forest per minute! We have never before seen anything like that here in Colorado. By the end of the day, it had jumped over the Continental Divide, burning east in one of our favorite hiking areas in Rocky Mountain National Park, just north of Bear Lake and moving east towards Bierstadt Lake (see the first six photos here⩘ ).

When we returned from our walk, we learned that the evacuation order for our neighborhood had been rescinded and we could once again return home … and that we still had a home to return to! We stumbled in exhausted, feeling a strange combination of both numbness and exhilaration. What an incredible gift, to be in our own home again.

Because there was a deep freeze forecast for overnight (which actually did happen), we drove up to the home of some friends who hadn't yet returned to disconnect and drain their external hoses. They're at the southern edge of our neighborhood, about ½ mile south of us. From their deck, we could see the hillsides that are about another ½ mile to the south of their home, which were about half burned with the fire line coming down the hill and running from the east to the west, but thankfully that area is no longer burning.

One of the last things we did before we evacuated Wednesday afternoon was to sweep and then soak our deck with water. One thing we noticed upon returning Thursday afternoon was the incredible amount of black and white ash that had accumulated everywhere over the previous 24 hours, including on our previously swept deck. The black ash looked like it was from pine needles, while I guess the white ash was from other vegetation. The fire sure got close!

Here are a couple fire maps. The first one shows the extent of the Calwood Fire, which grew to just over 10,000 acres (the light red shaded area is the current mandatory evacuation area).

Calwood Fire map

The second map shows the bulge of the fire that was coming north towards our neighborhood, which is circled, and also points out the town of Lyons to the north.

Calwood Fire map closeup

It looks like we're now out of danger from the nearby Calwood Fire. However, there are crazy winds forecast for further up in the mountains today (Friday) and tonight, as well as tomorrow. It's unlikely but possible that the winds could drive the East Troublesome Fire out of Rocky Mountain National Park, through the town of Estes Park (where there already have been mandatory evacuations), and down the canyon towards us. So for now, we're leaving everything packed, piled up in our living room, and ready to go in case we have to evacuate a third time.

Colorado fires update, Sat, Oct 24, 2020

The East Troublesome Fire mandatory evacuation zone has been expanded and is massive (red shaded hexagon). It heads in a northeasterly direction through Estes Park and towards the Cameron Peak Fire to the north and Fort Collins to the east, rather than in a southeasterly direction towards us (you can see the Calwood Fire—which seems massive to us, but compared to the huge Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires is relatively small—in the lower right). Unfortunately, with the high winds that are happening, the fire is pushing through Rocky Mountain National Park and is now on the outskirts of Estes Park. Our thoughts go out to all the folks who live in the danger zone. Rocky Mountain National Park has certainly been grievously wounded by these two fires.

Regional Fire map showing the Cameron Peak, East Troublesome, and Calwood fires

There is a winter storm blowing in Saturday night that should last several days, bringing very cold temperatures and snow, so if we make it through to Saturday evening, we'll be in much better shape. We're going from a Red Flag Warning for high winds to a Winter Storm Watch within a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon, and we're expected to get up to a foot of snow on Sunday. Keeping our fingers crossed for now. I wonder if I'll be able to uncross mine when this is all over!

This is definitely an experience that is teaching us much about letting go, and also about how precious ordinary everyday life is.

We also feel a deep sense of gratitude to our friends who have supported and nourished us throughout this ordeal with your generosity and expressions of love, as well as the amazing abundance of good thoughts you have showered us with from wherever you are around the world. You certainly have helped us to get through this, and it's possible you are the reason we still have a home. So many unexpected and difficult to explain things have happened, for example, the inversion that stalled the Calwood Fire after that first horrendous day, and the way in which, day after day, we didn't get the forecast Red Flag Warning winds that easily could have caused the fire to engulf our neighborhood.

Thank you, dear friends, from the deepest pools of love in our hearts!

A farmer and her pal
(Hopefully, this is what our place will look like soon!)

Colorado fires update, Sun, Oct 25, 2020

It's snowing! And the firefighters were able to keep the East Troublesome fire from reaching Estes Park.

Two days later: A bit more than a week ago, it was very hot, everything was extremely dry, our neighborhood was threatened by a nearby and out-of-control wildfire, another fire, a huge one, exploded up in the mountains to the west of us, joining a third huge one that has been burning for a couple months in the mountains to the northwest of us. After a week of anxiety and on and off mandatory evacuations, we finally returned home a few days ago. Over the past two days, we received nearly a foot of snow and single digit temperatures. Up in the higher mountains, they received up to two feet of snow. The fires aren't fully out—the air is still full of smoke—but they have been stalled and tamped down by the snow, increasing the odds that the firefighters can get them all under control.

Snowy view to the north

A post-fire update

We've been back home a couple weeks now. I've definitely felt sort of numb from that whole experience for most of this period; I guess it traumatized me pretty good. One way I've been dealing with it is that on many days, I've been throwing myself into the annual mitigation work I had begun the day before the fire broke out, spending a few hours using a 10' pole saw to clean out dead branches as high as I can reach over my head, sometimes even standing on a ladder, and also cutting lower branches to create more of a gap between the ground and the start of branches in each tree in order to reduce the likelihood of a grass fire jumping up into the trees. Then I spend an hour or two carrying or dragging the cut branches up the hill and across the property to the a pile that will be accessible to the chipper. This photo was at the end of the day today. I'm about 90% finished, and it's already the most I've done in a single year. I have to be honest and admit that by the evenings, like now, I can barely move. Guess I'm getting older!

Pile of wood from fire mitigation work

Of course, if there's a crown jumper fire, all bets are off. I took a drive on the highway that goes south towards Boulder the other day. That's where the east side of the nearby Calwood Fire reached, and where the neighborhood burned. It was stomach churning to see. The fire must've been an absolute inferno crown jumper at that point because all that's left is black charcoal poles that were once pine trees, scorched barren black ground, and rectangles of white ash where the houses had been. I was left feeling quite shaken after seeing that.

As I've been working these past two weeks, I listened to Cold Millions by Jess Walter (great book!), and something he mentions in the story—a fire in 1910 that I had never heard about before—really gave me pause and provided me with some perspective. I thought our fire, the biggest fire in Boulder County history, was quite massive at 10,000+ acres. That's a lot of land! Of course, that nearby fire is totally dwarfed by the two fires burning to the northwest and west of us. Over the course of a couple months, the Cameron Peak Fire to the northwest of us became the biggest fire in Colorado history at 200,000+ acres; and over the course of just a couple weeks, the East Troublesome Fire to the west of us became the second biggest at just shy of 200,000 acres. (Both those fires are now mostly contained and not growing.) Here's the pause and perspective bit: the Great Fire of 1910 broke out in Idaho, and over the course of just TWO DAYS burned THREE MILLION acres in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia, including totally destroying several entire towns. Whoa! What I saw the other day looked immense to me, and that was just the eastern portion of the Calwood Fire. It's difficult for me to even begin to imagine the immensity of the Great Fire of 1910.

Life is, at last, somewhat back to normal, at least in terms of weather. We're having a cold spell and had a dusting of snow. The wildfires are out and their smoke has finally dissipated. A week before solstice, the days are short. During the short time the sun is up shining in the crystal blue sky, the light is special given the low angle of the rays. Garima pointed this tree out to me, its unique shape highlighted by the snow. As I took my my daily socially distanced walk around our place today, I wondered about its history. Did another tree fall against it at some point, causing it split this way, giving it this graceful form? Ah, the beauty of life's variations.

Split ponderosa dusted with snow

(Garima later took a closer look at the tree and now thinks it may have a genetic variation causing the split as it has multiple similar splits and twists going up further in its branches.)

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