At first, we watched the delicate ash as it fell. We caught the flakes, unique as their snowy counterparts, and rubbed them between our fingers until they dissolved into powder. We complained about the campfire smell while photographing smoke-streaked sunsets and the entire Front Range glowing red at night. Soon, none of us, from Denver to Cheyenne, could open windows, and those without air-conditioning moved to their basements if they had them. Children played hide-and-seek inside and parks were deserted. We downloaded air quality apps.
By mid-summer, grass, gardens, and trees gasped and grayed, and we worried about our dogs when they came inside sooty and coughing. The first fires ignited new ones, and none could be contained. The firefighters looked grim as they carried shovels and thought of their pensions.
Ash piled up everywhere in August and schools did not open. We wore ski goggles and gas masks as we tried to scoop the ash away. By unspoken agreement, we pushed it into the streets where it turned slimy and caustic after sprinklers ran in the mornings. Snowplows cleared lanes for cars, whose wipers made fleeting openings for drivers to peer through, squinting. Birds in flight fell dead. We disposed of their bodies before the children could see. Someone shot a mountain lion lapping water in a carwash near Denver International Airport.
Soon, the west winds gathered force, and blackened leaves, pine needles, and feathers blew in with the ash. Even the indoors smelled of burning rubber and melted carpet, singed hair and fire retardant. Flaming tumbleweeds rolled down Interstate 70 into Denver.
When the fires stopped laying down at night, the authorities ordered us to evacuate. We packed quickly, taking our children and pets, and drove east, not stopping until North Platte or Goodland. Along the way, deer carcasses littered the shoulders and bloodied great swaths of the roads.
We’d forgotten what a clear day looked like until we were out of Colorado. Relieved to breathe fresh air, we rehashed the fires incessantly in hotel hallways, laundromats, restaurants—wherever we ran into neighbors. People had food drives for us and handed out clothing and water. National news networks interviewed us alongside shots of trees like burnt skeletons teetering on smoking mountainsides. We thought of ourselves as survivors, phoenixes who would rise with stories to tell. We said we were grateful to have lost so little of what really mattered.
When the air began to clear, a video appeared of the blackened remains of a moose cow and her calf, their bodies among dead trees in a smoky field, where fire would smolder all winter. More videos followed, but we couldn’t look at them.
We told ourselves we hadn’t known, and we couldn’t have saved them.
For well over two decades, K.L. Mendt taught writing and literature in northern Colorado, but she traded in her glamorous career for a basement desk, writing aspirations, and a dog named Biscuit.