My City is on Fire

As I write this, fires ravage my city. If I do a quick search online, I can see fire lick the hills behind my church, which sits in a neighborhood where my in-laws and two sets of family friends have homes filled with valuables and memories. There are reports of buildings burning to the ground, burning to a pile of black ash. The air is filled with smoke, even in my part of the city twenty miles from the flames, and we can hardly see the mountains because of the haze. Thousands of people have fled their homes with just the essentials. They are camping in hotels and on the friends’ living room floors, waiting for things to return to normal.

The Wallow Fire in Arizona and New Mexico, Summer 2011. Photo by Kevin Benedict.

I live in Colorado Springs, a sprawling city of 500,000 people. It takes an hour from north to south or east to west to cross by car, and it sits in the valley below Pikes Peak, a bare and striking mountain in the Rockies.

The fires started because Colorado is a desert. The landscape is a combination of dirt plains and forested mountains, but this year we have only received 20 percent of the rain we expected; in other words, we are in a major drought. Naturally, only evergreens would color the landscape with life; an on-looker would see only a subtle palette of browns, yellows, and oranges across the plains and the evergreens covering the mountainsides. But now, you can see brown smoke and  bold orange flames on the ridge lines of our mountains. You would imagine that they were once dormant volcanos now awake in violent fury, but really, the fires are stripping them of their beauty.

Last Saturday, friends were told to evacuate their homes voluntarily, if they felt like it, because a fire had begun in a far-off canyon. We had a party with a family of evacuees and cooked frozen pizzas on the grill to keep the insides of our houses cool. We ate a cream pie for dessert and chatted through the evening.

But then the winds picked up to sixty-five miles per hour and the blazes grew out of control. We stepped outside our door Sunday morning and smelled a barbecue like it was a neighbor’s grill. No one could contain it. The temperature sky-rocketed to 100 degrees with no rain in sight. Church on Sunday was cancelled.

Then we heard that a nearby tourist spot, a ranch, no longer existed. The structure and its insides were gone, consumed. We received a call from my in-laws, worried about their house. Friends texted from far-away places — they’d heard about the fires on CNN. We heard that the “navy seals” of firefighters were called in to serve and that the Pentagon had released an order for the Air Force Academy to send planes to dump water over the blaze.

On Wednesday, my husband found a photo of our church online. We gasped to see the field beside it lit up. Only a parking lot separates it from the fire. Our church spent years raising money to erect this building, now only a couple of years old, and we may never set foot inside again.

My in-laws’ house is also in the path of the fire. Though they now live on the east coast, they lived in the house for over twenty years and have a title on file. My husband may never again see the house he grew up in.

Our friends may never return to their homes to eat a meal or take a mid-afternoon nap, and if they do, the rolling hills where deer used to wander will be blackened and empty. One family just moved into their house and filled it with treasures collected from a life of travels.

They say the fire could have begun by arson, but what’s the use in speculating? Whether someone lit a match out of malice or forgot to stir the embers in their campfire to grey, the fire began. It lives and breathes. One article said the fire “exploded” and compared our plight to a war. We are under attack and the enemy knows no moral bounds.

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Colorado Springs is filled with a diversity of people. We have artists, we have religious people, we have irreligious people, we have liberals, we have conservatives, we have hippies, we have the military. Often these groups have been disunified because of our differences.

Squad Leader Joshua J. Derksen, of the Shasta Lake IHC, patrolling the area of a burnout operation on northern California's Silver Fire in September of 2009. Photo by Kevin Benedict.

Yet these people have all been moved to real compassion. Our church flooded our pastor’s email inbox with messages offering homes and places to stay to evacuees in our church body. Some local graphic designers created a handful of t-shirts, a few lauding the tireless firefighters, to sell to raise money for victims of this fire and other fires in the state. A Facebook group was created to “mob” another town that had been evacuated over the weekend with business to help struggling stores make up their losses, and so far, over 4,000 people have been invited with close to 1,000 planning to stop by.

As Singer-songwriter Tyler James says, “It took the fire to save my soul / It took the fire to change me.”

When we lose the sense of control on our lives, it seems that we can be released to truly love and suffer with each other. We have seen this enacted countless other times across the world, when disasters wipe a community clean.

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I am afraid. I have never witnessed a natural disaster in progress from such close range. In fact, natural disasters feel different on TV. It all felt surreal when it began. But there is nothing like an act of God to show us humans how out of control we truly are.

To date, we do not know when the fire will stop or if it will be stopped. More than 32,000 have evacuated, leaving their homes to possible destruction. Thousands of acres (over 15,000) have burned and buildings and homes have collapsed under its heat. No one will forget these weeks or the fire that ravaged and scarred our land.

All of this has forced my husband and I to consider, what would we take with us? Perhaps some art from our walls and his studio, our hard drives and laptops, the contents of our closets and my jewelry box, my journals, but anything else? Have we forgotten anything? All of a sudden the game of “what ifs” is real and pressing. What if we had an afternoon to collect ourselves? What if it we only had an hour? Our things have such fading worth.

We could spend the whole day monitoring the progress of the 1,000 firefighters at work. We could give in to fear and call friends and family every hour to see if they are still safe. We could check photos on the internet to see if the places we care about have burned or whether they are still standing.

Or I can choose to trust. I can choose to trust that the city volunteers, giving up their nights and weekends, are truly fighting for me. I can trust that I will live through this, and even if our home burns, that what matters will come with us. And most of all, I can trust that though I am out of control, that God Himself is in control. Being out of control can actually free me to trust, and that is enough for me.

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What About the Shop Around the Corner?

The hardware store around the corner closed down sometime in the last few weeks, and it’s my fault.

On Sunday, I made a stop for some batteries and saw the sign on the door. But it was dusk, and I didn’t notice the plywood in the windows. I wondered how they could stay in business with such limited hours. Then, I went to the chain pharmacy that shared the same parking lot instead.

I don’t think it was the limited hours that caused the hardware store to close.

Elwood Adams Hardware of Worcester, Massachusetts claims to be the oldest operating hardware store in the United States, having begun business in 1782.

Though it was a franchise, the hardware store was locally owned and kept a few families working and cared for. I don’t know if they offered healthcare benefits or paid vacation time, but it was always a friendly place to be, and on the weekends, they offered free popcorn.

As a homeowner, I regularly found myself making trips to the hardware store. The large home-supply warehouses stocked more items and were located closer to my house. And I occasionally did give in to the urge for cheap mulch or a larger variety of sand paper grades. But though it took longer and cost more, I often drove to the hardware store and bought garbage bags or liquid drain cleaner simply because I wanted to live in a neighborhood that had a local hardware store.

The neighborhood obviously could not sustain the business, though. My favorite coffee shop also packed up, though the owners moved their establishment just down the street. And the pet store that used to be in the same strip mall closed up, too. An armed robbery took place at one of the convenience stores at that corner a few months ago, and last summer, while I was enjoying ice cream at the Baskin- Robbins, I witnessed a petty thievery of the tip jar. The young man working behind the counter chased after the thieves to no avail, but the policeman enjoying his ice cream saved the day.

I don’t want to see the neighborhood end up this way, but my purchases aren’t enough to carry a small business, and if inertia is pulling a neighborhood down, what can one person do?

What should one person do?

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, one in three small business owners are very or moderately worried about going out of business in 2012. With this kind of hesitancy, will small business owners like Mike, the proprietor of my neighborhood hardware store, invest in growing their businesses in a way that deserves my patronage?

When I stopped by the hardware store to look for a Christmas gift back in December, the shelves were sparsely stocked and I ended up shopping at a large retail chain instead. Was this a cause or effect of the eventual demise of the shop?

Nostalgia lends part of the mystique of the local hardware store. I remember two such shops I used to frequent with my dad when I was a young girl. In both cases, the floors were oily, the aisles cluttered, and the aroma somewhat metallic. The bins of nuts and bolts and screws and nails, with their scoops and little plastic bags just like the candy store, opened up to me the possibilities of fixing things and making things. My dad excels in both.

The “buy local” movement also has gathered me up in its swell. The idea of buying things grown and made and distributed by my neighbors feels more sustainable and allows me to maintain my identity as a person rather than just a consumer. When I walked into the hardware store, Mike always recognized me, asked about the last project he helped me with, and practically begged to help me again, even if I was just looking for a simple drain spout.

And I won’t even talk about the importance of small businesses to the health of a neighborhood, giving people options for walking or bicycling to do their errands rather than getting in their car and leaving the neighborhood, taking with them their money.

But the local hardware store also stocked the same items manufactured overseas that I could buy at any of the chain stores, and the markups were even higher. And supposing Mike wanted to buy plungers and garden fertilizer and duplicate keys from a local manufacturer, or even a US manufacturer, he probably couldn’t find one. Or if he could, he himself couldn’t afford to shop local.

I love the idea of locally owned businesses, and as often as I can, I try to shop in stores and eat in restaurants that have the same commitment. My employer is a small, local business, afterall–a fact we emphasize in marketing. The estimates range from 40-80 percent of how many of us in this country work for small employers (those who have fewer than 500 employees).

But I also have to be able to afford the clothes and the food and the household goods I consume, which means you might also find me wandering the aisles of some giant big box store, with a full cart.

I guess I shouldn’t take all the blame for the demise of the local hardware. But I’m praying for Mike and that vacant building. And I’m looking for the next store with the oily floor and metallic smell where I can lay down a little bit of my hard-earned cash from time to time.

Let’s hope they have a popcorn machine.