The Beauty in the Beast

What would I want to do if our dream house turned to ashes?

TownHallSignOn the day after we evacuated because of the Lava Mountain fire, I stopped at Town Hall to register to vote in Wyoming.

Why would I do that? Because like so many people, I want to stay here, whatever.

“Now you’ll never forget the day you registered to vote,” said the town clerk with a smile.

I had stood in the living room taking a long, possibly last, look at the magnificent view out the window. It’s funny what you grab at the last minute, when you thought you’d already moved everything to safety. (Don’t worry, Ted. I saw your wonderful painting of the black bear in the lupine, where I had hung it to be protected from the sunlight, and brought it out under my arm as I exited.)

I can save a small painting. But what would I do if our dream house turned to ashes?

“You’d rebuild,” said the town clerk. “That’s what people do here. They don’t go away. They rebuild.”

There’s a prominent example of this in the middle of town, where Jeff Sussman’s company is now starting to rebuild on the old Mercantile site that burned to the ground in a freak fire 18 months ago.

MercantileLot072615“Of course I will rebuild,” Jeff said at the time. “How could I not?”

And so they have broken ground. The plan is less elaborate than the original vision, because in the end the insurance didn’t buy as much building as the developers anticipated. But it still looks good.

Town looks like an armed camp these days, with two separate camps serving firefighters who keep arriving from places we’ve never heard of. It sounded like an episode of MASH around our house, as huge helicopters hovered to lift buckets of water from the river and then lumbered noisily away to dump them on the newest hot spots.

But it’s still Dubois. At one of the almost-nightly public meetings about the fire, a Red Cross official stood up and announced that a service center for evacuees  had been set up at the old high school to provide beds and meals. She said that she had a list of local people who were willing to offer rooms or even whole cabins to evacuees.

Rumor has it that only one lonely person is actually staying at the rescue shelter in the old high school. I haven’t had time to check that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As far as I know, people are either seeing to their own needs independently, or staying with friends.

People tried to organize collections for the firefighters, suggesting contributions of supplies like eyedrops, lip salve, and socks. I thought about combing through my drawers for all of those extra supplies I haven’t even bothered to remove. But a Forest Service official thanked the town at the meeting, adding that donations are unnecessary. All of the crew member’s needs are supplied at the incident base, he explained.

“How can we volunteer?” asked someone in the audience. The speaker referred the question to the Red Cross representative, but she had already left the meeting. I wonder whether the Red Cross actually needed the volunteers either.

Most people I know are already volunteering, by taking up the slack for people who have had to back out on their own routine volunteer efforts because they’re too busy evacuating.

I reported to the church that I might not be able to turn up to help feed the bicycle trekkers who would be staying at the church yesterday, because we were still clearing out around the house. “Don’t worry about it,” said the minister. “We’re expecting this. We have backups.”

100_0456I couldn’t resist taaking a moment to grab a few images of this smoke cloud when I saw it from our side porch at sunset, several days before we evacuated.

The fire is a fearsome experience for all involved, but there is some beauty in it nonetheless.




© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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Summer and Smoke

Adjusting to the reality of wildfire in the National Forest nearby.

It’s high season again in Dubois. There’s almost too much going on: Museum Day, the art show, the Day of the Cowboy, the square dance, the rodeo. The town is packed with strangers, there’s lots of traffic, and the joint is jumping.

But the one event on nearly everyone’s mind is …


… the Lava Mountain fire. To fire officials, it’s another “incident”, which seems far too benign a word. Nearly 600 acres have burned so far, not far from all those ranches about 30 miles west of town, on the way to the pass. And there’s no end in sight.

It began with a lightning strike 4 days ago. The first flames were too remote to reach in that forest wilderness. It’s too dense and hot for firefighters on the ground to approach the epicenter, so they’re hitting the edges from the air, while the ground-based firefighters focus on protecting structures that might be in harm’s way.

We see helicopters every afternoon, trailing buckets of water on very long lines, and fixed-wing aircraft that circle and drop orange clouds of retardant. (Why wait until afternoon? Because that’s when the wind blows up and the fire starts to move again.)

There’s no rain in the forecast.


Here’s the camp they have set up in the town park for the firefighters. The experts have descended from Montana and other places.

I saw a truck for rodent control, and wondered why it was there among the emergency vehicles. Do they try to protect the ground squirrels as well? The poor ground squirrels …

Smoke has already been a feature of our lives for part of every summer. Even fires from Idaho and Oregon send yellow clouds our way and make our noses tickle. This year, it’s closer.

In New York City, people adjust their lives to avoid crime. In California, they worry about earthquakes. Many people in other places somehow going on living with the fact of war or terrorism. Here, amid beautiful historic forests, we have to expect wildfires. This is our reality.

What effect does this have on us?

Last year, we pulled a lot of weeds and laid gravel around the house. Yesterday, we ordered 2 air purifying machines on the Internet.

DumpHike1We’ll need to adjust our schedule to account for the smoke that hangs in the valley in early morning, clears in late morning, and billows again in mid-afternoon.

Among other inconveniences, the fire has ruled out some of my go-to hiking trails west of town. I’ve always hiked in late afternoon, when the air cools. I’ll have to rethink that.

Yesterday morning, I had errands in town (miles farther east, away from the fire). Afterwards, the dog and I set off for one of my other go-to hiking haunts: Behind the town dump.

I believe the plateau beyond the landfill has the most spectacular views in the area. Turn in any direction, and the view is fabulous. You feel you’re on top of the world.


Someone told me that somewhere Dubois has been granted the distinction of having the nation’s best road to the dump. The road beyond, although rutted, is even better. It leads on and on for many miles. I’ve been briefly lost up there.

Here you see my dog in the foreground with some long-dead nonhuman remains. The landfill is in the background, at center. (It’s not really visible in this picture, but that’s where I saw it when I took the shot.)

Way out beyond the landfill you can see teepee rings, evidence of people who lived there many centuries ago. They circles are hard to identify among all the other rocks lying around. It was years before I could persuade a friend to take me up there and point them out.


I found yet another promising trail behind the dump. It led over the knife-sharp top of a ridge, and sank promisingly into the folds of the badlands. I couldn’t spare time to follow it very far yesterday. (A tempting prospect for the future.)

The badlands are always fascinating to explore. I love to follow the draws to the top, and to rest in the shade in the overhangs.

How I wish there was a way to capture depth in these images! You can’t see how  high I am, and how far we will clamber down someday to reach the bottom.

My route  home took me right toward the location of the fire (though not anywhere near it). From the highway, you’d have no idea there was a raging conflagration somewhere out there, dead ahead. Just billowy summer clouds, and that beautiful valley. This was at 1:45 PM.


© Lois Wingerson, 2016

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at


Leave Bklyn for Dubois? Never! (Till Now)

Living_Room0716Our belongings were packed and the movers had been reserved. We were sitting in our favorite Greek restaurant with our good friends Gary and Anna.

It was one of my final farewells to the places and people I have loved in New York City. And I did love New York, with a fervor, for all of my adult life..

“So what is it about that place,” asked Anna, “that made you want to reinvent your lives out there?”

Nobody else had put it that way. In fact, few people even inquired why, after 8 years of splitting our time between Brooklyn and Dubois, we’ve chosen to give up living in the city altogether.

How to respond to Anna? She grew up in Italy and moved to New York City as a young woman. Like many New Yorkers, she has seen nothing of the west except California.

Most other neighbors just wished me well and said goodbye. I understood. Until recently, I too felt that choosing to leave New York City was simply not an option.

SahadisWhat could compensate for giving up regular visits to Zabar’s or Sahadi’s for your supplies of exotic nuts and olives? Who would want to lose the option to “order in” dinner from a Chinese or Thai restaurant, or to drop by the market and pick up a gourmet take-out dinner from the deli counter?

As the song goes: You just want to”be a part of it, New York NY.” You’ve been lucky enough to land in the coolest place on earth, and the buzz of the city keeps that knowledge live. Even if you don’t become “king of the hill and top of the heap” (and especially if you do), the simple awareness that you’re there is enough to render irrelevant the traffic, the noise, the high cost of living, and the many aggravations. .

My toughest moment was saying farewell at our church, which was like leaving family. In fact (definitely atypical for New York), that congregation was my most profound non-negotiable about moving away from the city. But when all else lost its luster, a beloved church home simply wasn’t a good enough reason to keep staying away from Dubois.

OFR“I just feel I’m needed so much more there than here,” I said to my fellow parishioners at an almost-tearful last coffee hour. “And we miss Dubois so much when we’re gone. Please do come visit!”

As to Anna, we wound up not actually offering an answer to her question. It’s almost impossible to convey in a few words the way in which the joys of living in Dubois gradually overshadowed the reasons for remaining in New York City. I wasn’t going to pull our my tablet at dinner and ask her to read Living Dubois. In any case, you really have to experience Dubois to understand.

Not for the first time, we urged her and Gary to come for a visit. Although they said for sure they would come, somehow we doubt they will.

My neighbors probably never heard this song, but I kept hearing it over the past few days:

They ain’t goin’ nowhere,
and they’re losin’ their share …

They must have gone crazy out there.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at


Another Hero Epic from Dubois: The 21 Lifesavers

A life-and-death challenge faced us yet again. People stepped up quickly to conquer it.

One day last spring, I stopped into Mayor Twila Blakeman’s office to chat about some business.

“Please excuse me,” she said calmly. “I’m a bit distracted. The county has just decided to shut off our ambulance service.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “What? Can they do that?” I asked.

TwilaZimmerThey could, and they tried.

It seemed the ambulance system was getting too costly for the county budget. Compared to the other towns in Fremont County, Dubois was just too small. We didn’t use the services often enough to justify the cost of emergency care.

Thus began a long series of trips down-county for our fearless Mayor, who is 80-something, nearly always good-humored, and definitely a force to be reckoned with.

My husband and I headed back to New York for our annual spring break, much downhearted. While away, we came up with several ideas that might help the situation. Once back, I stopped by Twila’s office to propose them.

“Oh, that’s all solved,” she responded, airily. “We’ve appealed for volunteers to train as first-responders, and 21 people stepped up.”

I just had to smile, and cheer inwardly. In a village that runs on volunteerism, where most regulars are already tapped out, 21 people had agreed to go the extra mile (in the middle of the night, or interrupting dinner) to deal with God only knows what disasters.

Within  6 weeks of the appeal, 3 people had been fully certified as EMTs. By last June, 18 had completed the course and graduated as qualified first responders

DuboisRisingIs it any wonder that one float in last year’s July 4 parade bore the title “Dubois Rising”? The metaphor  was obvious–rising from the ashes of the January fire. But the ambulance crisis was more recent, and was doubtless on everyone’s mind a year ago.

Today, July 1 one year later, is the official start of an important new era for Dubois. The town will now be staffed with full EMS service, featuring two full-time emergency personnel (one first responder and one advanced EMT or paramedic) at all times, 24/7.

Guardian Air Medical Services, which also serves remote areas in Alaska and other states, will be assuming responsibility for emergency services throughout Fremont County. How well this five-year contract to privatize EMS will succeed in the long run is anybody’s guess, but the current arrangement certainly beats having no ambulance service at all.

I will spare you all of the political and administrative maneuvering that has accomplished this, except to say that the person originally brought in to solve the EMS financial crisis,  Joseph Zillmer, was summarily dismissed without explanation in May 2015.

Besides Dubois’ debt to the volunteers who have served so effectively for the past year, we owe immense gratitude to part-time residents Daniel and Cynthia Starks, who put up the funds to keep emergency services in effect in the Dubois area while the problem was being ironed out.

AmbulanceMatt Strauss, Guardian’s program director for flight and ground emergency services in Fremont County (where many calls require airlifting), said that services will be much easier and quicker when ambulance calls no longer bring volunteers away from home. Paid staff on call from a permanent base will be answering emergencies from the center of town.

Before, Strauss said, it could take 15-30 minutes for responders to collect their equipment and arrive at the scene. Now “you will have the ambulance rolling out of the garage in 2 minutes, and they will be on the scene within 5-10 minutes,” he said, at least for people who live right in town.

What’s more, this brings 3 new full-time positions to Dubois for qualified emergency personnel, Strauss told me, and some volunteers have expressed interest. The objective is to have the service “fully staffed with people living there,” Strauss said.

“Oh, yes,” Twila added when we spoke about it recently. “We need ambulance staff who know the community, and know the people.”

… if only, I might add, to assure that they treat our townspeople with the respect they so richly deserve.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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