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  • Erin

What Do You DO When Your House is on Fire?

Updated: Jul 16, 2018

Fire burning on a mountainside
The #416Fire. Image by Lindsay Stonecash-Bauer

It is day 28 of the 416 Fire that is burning down some pretty magical places just north of Durango, Colorado. Outside my window it looks like what I imagine the apocalypse to be- enormous black and redish-hued plumes of smoke rocketing into the sky, the sound of planes and helicopters flying all day and into the evening, and every night the thick blanket of dense smoke invades the valley. It smells like a campfire everywhere- my closet, the grocery store, the library- all campfire-ified. In my house we are edgy and short tempered, my eyes sting and I wake up with a headache every morning. It is hot and stuffy and there is nowhere to go to escape it all.

Smokey sun behind a house with solar panels
Smoke obscuring the sun in the Animas Valley

But its not just this physical fire that is grating me, it's also the metaphorical fire that seems to be burning down the norms of what it means to be human in the United States of America. I thought we agreed that families belong together. I assumed there was consensus about the sacred relationship between parents and children and that being attached to our parents is a norm, a non-negotiable, the way that we human beings exist and grow. Being wrong about this assumption is gut wrenching beyond words and every part of me is struggling to understand how tearing children away from their parents at the U.S. border can be happening right here, right now. It feels like our metaphorical house is burning down.

So what can we DO when our home is literally and figuratively burning down? Damn I wish I had an easy answer. Or any answer at all. I wish that I knew what to tell Finn about the animals in the forest that are losing their homes or how to explain why everyone around him is so darn grouchy. As a part of my process to try and integrate these hard feelings, I've tried to categorize and capture some of the things that are alive for me right now and suggest some ideas for action. I'm also making some community art, of course, that may show up at a location near you.

A Road Map

We woke up on day 9 of the fire and all three of us in the house were in grouchy moods. Paul wanted to talk about how the fire started, I wanted to talk about the oldest Ponderosa Pine tree stand in the San Juan National Forest that had to be on fire at that very moment and Finn wanted to eat everything that we didn't make him for breakfast. UGH! It occurred to me that we were all experiencing grief at our own pace. Paul was solidly in anger, I was still in shock/denial and Finn was bargaining (for his four year old wants that is, not to get the forest back). According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It has occurred to me that these stages are serving as a type of road-map for what my community and I are collectively experiencing and maybe they can be way-finders pointing the direction to solutions and some band-aids for our hearts.

Map of the #416 Fire perimeter
Map of the 416 Fire burn perimeter (in red) 13 miles North of Durango, Colorado


Grief isn't a stop on the road map that psychologists have laid out- it's the trigger for the steps that follow. I'm finding the need to acknowledge loss because on some level it feels like the world is telling me to move on. It's not as if I've lost a loved one, the world seems to imply. Is the burning of a forest far older than me and home to hundreds of species not a legitimate loss? Or should I feel that the policies of the United States government are beyond my control, directed at someone else and therefore not for me to mourn?

No, this is real loss and I feel it. I may need to guard my heart a bit, and try to only allow the pure feelings in, not the editorializing that so often accompanies the feelings, but this is something that I can DO. It might not be my son that is being ripped away from me today, but I can feel the pain of the mom who has sacrificed everything to give her child a better future only to lose the only thing that mattered to her upon entering the United States. This is a loss I believe we should all feel deeply. Feeling and acknowledging it is DOING.

Losing a forest, the animals that lived there, the flowers, the meadows, the OLD trees- is loss. The sacred meadow where I went to mentally process planes flying into buildings on September 11th and where took my last hike with my best dog friend Jackson is threatened as I write this. Goulding Creek, a favorite butt-kicking trail where I hiked straight up with Finnegan 6 months in my belly kicking as we climbed up, up, up, will probably not be safe to hike for years to come. My happy place at the top of Elbert Creek where the big meadow meets the Pinkerton Flagstaff trail, the sky and the mountains, is in the direct line of fire. It hurts my heart. So I acknowledge that this is grief and I give myself permission to feel it.


I am noticing a lot of anger here in Durango right now (and have been noticing it around the world for sometime now) and it turns out, this natural reaction is actually something you can DO when your home is burning down. Find a culprit and get really angry at them. Talk about it, vent, blame. Yell and stomp. Rage. I don't know if these would be actions recommended by a grief counselor or anyone with a background in psychology, but being mad at someone can feel really cathartic. For a moment anyway.

A historic steam locomotive in the mountains
One of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad steam locomotives stranded in Silverton.

I don't recommend getting stuck in the anger stage though, because in my experience it is consuming and can be unproductive if you stay too long. Embracing this anger might be part of integrating the feelings between our heads and our hearts so that we do not get stuck in this inhospitable podunk angry-town along the way. The food sucks there and the view stinks. So my question is, what can we make out of the anger???

I am talking to my son (and myself) about useful ways to express this anger. "Yes, you can throw the pillow and all your lovies at the bed." "No, do not throw them at me." We are talking about blame and responsibility. Did the train start the fire? What can they do to take responsibility? These aren't easy concepts for a four year old or a 40 year old. But the conversations are helping us integrate and move toward the next stop on the journey.

Historic narrow gauge steam locomotive engine 480
On June 1, 2018, in extreme drought conditions, the D&SNGR trains went North to Silverton but haven't returned to Durango due to the 416 fire and county fire restrictions. The train's locomotive emits hot ashes that frequently start fires along the tracks.

Communication to Acceptance

Again, I'm no psychologist, but it seems to me that talking through the grief and using anger to move us down the road leads us to a place where we can look for solutions. Maybe this is how we collectively get to the acceptance phase.

So getting back to the literal fire burning in my backyard, I think that having conversations about the fire and its impacts is the next,and maybe most important, thing that we can DO. We can have a community conversation about what the future of our town, our region and, dammit, the whole dang planet, is going to look like if we keep doing things the way we always do. We can talk about diversifying our economy, hopefully to include more arts, culture and local-making, and what a recreational community is going to look like with little snow, way less water and a charred forest.

In looking for something to DO, I found the need to MAKE, so we've created the Box of Rain community art project. This simple box asks people to show their gratitude and love by thanking the firefighters, to communicate by considering the potential positives of the fire and how we can diversify our economy, and to feel their grief and anger by naming and mourning the places lost that are special to them. And it also gives people the opportunity to invoke the rain god/ess of their choice- let it rain, please!!!

I always find inspiration from the good old Grateful Dead, in this case from the song Box of Rain-

"Maybe you're tired and broken

Your tongue is twisted

With words half spoken

And thoughts unclear

What do you want me to do

To do for you to see you through

A box of rain will ease the pain

And love will see you through

Just a box of rain,

Wind and water,

Believe it if you need it,

If you don't just pass it on.."

The fire has also brought our community together in so many ways. People are experiencing collective gratitude, taking turns standing and waving at locations around town where the firefighters pass at shift changes. People are helping each other, spending money at local restaurants and shops to try to make up for the diminished tourist dollars and taking day trips up to the tiny town of Silverton to support their economy while there's no train traffic. People offered up their homes and their pick-up trucks and have donated food for evacuees. There is so much good that is shining through in our community, I hope we can harness it to turn this catastrophe into a catalyst.

As for the cruelty toward and dehumanization of people seeking asylum in our country, I'm taking solace and gathering strength from the words of Jack Kornfield,

"This is not about red or blue. It is about standing up for the most basic of human principles, for moral action and the prevention of harm...You are not alone. You have generations of ancestors at your back. You have the blessing of interdependence and community. You have the great trees of the forest as steadfast allies. You have the turning of the seasons and the renewal of life as your music. You have the vast sky of emptiness to hold all things graciously.

You have been training for this for a long time. With practice you have learned to quiet the mind and open the heart. You have learned emptiness and interdependence. Now it is time to step forward, bringing your equanimity and courage, wisdom and compassion to the world."

Together we can and must stand up for what is right, in fact there is an opportunity this weekend to participate in mass marches around the country. Click the link to find a location near you. Maybe someone is listening.

Group of people holding signs to keep families together and protest immigrant cruelty
Our small but passionate gathering in Durango to #keepfamiliestogether

Gratitude and Love- Closing Thoughts

If I feel red-eyed and irritated miles away from the fires, what does it feel like to be right up next to these raging behemoths? I do not know. I can donate food, offer my house, make art, go to protests and sign petitions but I'm not on the front lines and I am deeply grateful for those that are.

You firefighters, social justice crusaders, my mom and my dad and my family, and all of the people who have stood up under the harshest of conditions to support causes that are right, you are my heroes.

I am basking in, and echoing the united feeling of gratitude that has filled the Animas Valley for these incredible women and men firefighters who are just plain badasses. They are doing a hazardous and grueling job to help a bunch of people they don't know and I am awe-fully grateful for their badassery. Renee I'm talking about you chica.

Thank you with all of my heart firefighters and all who are standing up!!!

One last thing that I can DO is to try and remind myself moment by moment that LOVE is what makes this great world go around. Spreading LOVE is something we can all do everyday with little to no effort, it is the core of what makes us human and it is always there waiting for us.

Firefigher woman with young boy smiling
Our very own firefighter super hero Auntie NeNe (aka Renee Jack) taking a 10 minute break from running Division H on the 416 Fire.

Congratulations if you've made it this far in the post! Here are a couple more resources to DO something about these physical and metaphorical fires:

To help immigrant families you can donate to legal defense funds, attend protests, volunteer, VOTE and contact your elected representatives-

To prevent wildfires you can do what Smokey Bear says (duh!), support prescribed burns, support resiliency efforts by your local government, and create defensible space around your home-

#416fire #416firedurango #familiesbelongtogther #visitdurango #wildlandfire #usforestservice #keepfamiliestogether #endfamiliyseperation #marchforfamilies #durango416 #firefightersrock #wildfire

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