Both days began the same, wonderfully–a flawless blue sky and the kind of mildly warm weather that make you wistful at the loss of summer. One moment, it was a bittersweet and beautiful day. In the next, I saw devastation.
On that first September day, 14 years ago, I turned a corner in Manhattan and watched, dreamlike, as the huge cloud of smoke surged up into that blue sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, but I also couldn’t watch too long.
Last Monday, I was on the phone at my desk. I turned toward the window. This cloud of smoke didn’t so much surge as billow upwards. After a summer of fire catastrophes in the West, forest fire had come home to me–or nearly so.
Much as I loathe using the Nazi Holocaust as a literary gimmick to generate pathos, I resist comparing these two fires. Nothing in my life compares to 9/11. However, experiences during one inevitably bring back images and emotions from the other.
First, the smell. In both cases, our house was downwind only a few miles from the fire. The days and months after 9/11 were redolent with the inescapable odor of burning plastic and something else, unidentifiable and acrid. As Ground Zero smoldered, seemingly forever, we could not get away for a moment from that reminder of tragedy, and the knowledge that life had changed incalculably.
The smell of this week’s Crooked Creek fire was, of course, burning wood. Even as I was hosing off our shingle roof to deter sparks from the fire that could in theory destroy our log house, I was smelling memories of campfires, of sitting around the firepit on our own deck with a glass of wine.
This was threatening to be sure, and a call to urgent action by me and–far more important–a small and well-organized battalion of brave firefighters. But it was also, most of us assumed, merely the result of one human’s careless action combined with the results of misguided forest-management policy. Nature, benign and dispassionate, combined with mere human stupidity. Not colossal malevolence.
Next, the airplanes. All that night, September 11, I could not sleep for the sound of airplanes clattering over the house. I knew these were military aircraft, that all other flights over the area had been banned. Still, I found the sound deeply frightening. Even now, when I see a commercial jetliner soaring high over Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I remember how that looked to me in the months after that event.
Two days ago, my annual autumn hike up the tall ridge beside our valley was unusual for the constant sound of aircraft nearby. The noise went on all week, small planes and helicopters doing reconnaissance, dropping off fire jumpers, lobbing “bombs” of fire retardant slurry over the fire that puffed and fumed two ridges away, off to the southwest. I could easily see them, flying low and circling back, over and over. The sound of planes was reassuring, wonderful.
And above all, the nature of the fear. Fourteen years ago I lived through days and months of gradually waning terror. I’ll never forget the sight and sound of deserted Manhattan that evening, as if someone had dropped a neutron bomb and only the (rest of the) buildings survived. All of the people had gone underground, or at least home. There was almost nobody on the streets. Midtown Manhattan, the city that never sleeps, was literally silent.
We didn’t see the cleanup crews. Who would enter that area voluntarily, even if we could? In a sense, in the following weeks, we also didn’t see each other. Yes, the city pulled together as it always does in crisis. On the other hand, back then you wondered who the other person really was.
This week, the first responders were, of course, our own highly prized volunteer firefighters. We know who they are. They’re friends. And look at this: The teams that came in later put up pup tents in our town park and ate their meals in the same Headwaters Center where we have our own community events, all the time.
They didn’t camp in the ball field, so as not to interfere with practice. The cost unit leader for the incident management team actually lives in town. I see her at church. The public information officer for the team comes from Melrose, Colorado, but he has come here to fish.
The team had nearly vanquished the Crooked Creek fire when I took this picture in the park, and a few days of rain have certainly doused it for good. It’s all over, I’m sure.
That’s the real difference between those two different events on two beautiful September days. This one is certainly over, thank heaven. I wonder if that other one will ever be.
Want to read more about living in Dubois WY? You can read weekly updates via email using the link at the top of the right column.
© Lois Wingerson 2015