It took my breath away to hike up behind my home on County Road 202 in Hermosa and see the devastation caused by the 416 Fire.
This is a neighborhood hike on private property that I’ve been fortunate to have hiked for 40 years. The velvety ponderosa pines, the scrub oak and cedars, the slopes and arroyos, the breezes, the birds, the rocks and massive boulders, are imprinted in my psyche and as much a part of my life as my friends and loved ones. This land I live on in Hermosa has deep family ties for me. And now it’s mostly gone.
It’s been replaced by moonscape – moonscape that will not return to anything familiar to my brain in what remains of my life. It would take your breath away, too.
We will survive this tragedy. My neighbors are all home now puttering around in their yards, wandering our road, anchoring themselves back into this beautiful canyon. We are so very fortunate to have our homes and appreciative that no firefighters had to die or be injured trying to save our homes.
But we are not the same.
We freeze and look into the sky when we hear a helicopter pass overhead. We quiet and listen deeply when the wind starts to rise, scanning our surroundings, on high alert for any hint of smoke or an out-of-context visual cue that may be read by our limbic brains as a dangerous omen of fire and loss.
Our brains are beginning to process the trauma we’ve lived through and witnessed since June 1 – trauma that will likely be triggered for many years to come as spring’s warmth gives way to hotter, dryer summers.
In place of the excitement that usually accompanies early summer, buying colorful hanging baskets for our porches and the ease that comes to Coloradans when winter has safely passed, our bodies will remember the sound of helicopters, the image of the late afternoon fire plumes, the panic and threat of evacuation from our homes and daily routines. I am a psychotherapist; I know what I am describing and I know the trauma I’ve been feeling.
I ‘m at peace with the ebb and flow of life. I accept that forests burn, especially if they are not effectively managed or are desert-dry from drought and climate change. It is going to continue; that’s life in the woods, and I am willing to gamble with these odds.
But to walk in my “backyard,” seeing the devastation caused by this searing fire and to consider that it might have been inadvertently caused by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad – I am not at peace with that.
I don’t want to spend my summers waiting for the other shoe to drop as the train chugs through the valley two to three times per day, throwing sparks and possibly starting another devastating fire.
There are just too many other reasons why a fire might start in my backyard, reasons that I cannot foresee or prevent.
Mixing in the odds that the train will start a fire seems too much to ask of us. Our whole community has been impacted financially and emotionally by the 416 Fire, not just those of us living in the north Animas Valley.
My dear Mr. Harper, I do not think for a moment that this has been easy for you. I hope you have wise and thoughtful advisers to help you through this event. But, please hear our voices from the Animas Valley.
We cannot tolerate any more mistakes. We need to come up with a solution that works for all concerned.
Of course, the economic value of the train matters in our greater community – but our lives, our quality of life, our habitats matter, too.
Our mental health matters. Coal-burning engines are no longer a sustainable enterprise in this landscape. Changes must be made immediately.
I call on everyone who is concerned that the DSNGR may continue using their coal-burning engines to contact DSNGR, contact your elected officials from the city, county and state, the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, anyone whose job it is to look out for your welfare.
Your opinion matters. Don’t dumb yourself down by choosing invisibility.
Let’s come together and make our voices heard.
Blair Wiles, MA, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist who maintains a private practice in Durango. She has lived in and explored the Hermosa area for 40 years.