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Sitting squarely in town, historically mean nothing to fires

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Sitting squarely in town, historically mean nothing to fires

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On the evening of June 26, 2012, a friend from Idaho texted me with an urgent question. “Are you OK?” she asked. “The evening news has just provided glaring proof that you are all now under threat. Not far from my home, when the Flagstaff fire started, twenty-six homes were evacuated and twenty-four homes in Boulder went on pre-evacuation alert.

But there is compelling evidence that I was neither alerted nor alarmed. Here is the complacent, unshaken 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 the hell I was thinking. How could I be so confident that, since I was “downright in town,” I could dismiss my friend’s concern for my safety as well-meaning, but unwarranted?

The embers are light. An intense wind can make an ember almost lively in its migrations. My house is four blocks from the open space of prairies and forests. If the location of the Flagstaff fire had not allowed for a quick response from the firefighters, the blown embers would have had no trouble finding me.

As of 2022, millions of us in Colorado towns and suburbs still reside in the intact and unscathed homes we occupied before December 30, 2021. Since then, every moment we spend in our cozy homes reminds us: We neither can we explain our own good fortune, nor can we explain the misfortune the Marshall fire caused to hundreds of people who – like us – lived “downright in the city.”

As I reread our 2012 exchange, I am struck by my fall into historical amnesia, forgetting an almost universal pattern in Euro-American settlement of the American West.

In the second half of the 19th century, fires regularly ravaged Western cities. In April 1863, a fire swept through Denver, leaving “most of the eastern half” of the city “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 – caught fire, leaving their residents at bay. rebuild. That same year, residents of Durango saw a fire destroy their downtown area.

Across the West, Euro-American settlers harvested timber from local forests or sometimes imported ready-made wooden houses for assembly on site. They then compacted these structures next to each other, with little or no preparation for the emergency water supply. Frequent and devastating fires have become a feature of western city life. When people understood the model, they made more use of building materials like brick and stone, created permanent fire departments, and implemented better water supply systems for firefighters.

Here is the lesson repeated woes taught Western settlers over a century ago.

Living in the city is no exception to the disaster of uncontrolled fires. With this recognition, Westerners were able to adopt practices that reduced the power of fire to inflict grief and loss.

Affliction and hope turned out to be neighbors.

Patty Limerick is Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Center of the American West. To answer this article, please use old-fashioned technology and call 303-735-0104.

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Sitting squarely in town, historically mean nothing to fires

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