Last week's hot show was highly theatrical,stunningly dramatic, and seems to have followed a traditional four act pattern:
ACT ONE [THE INCITING INCIDENT]
Leaving rehearsal on the UCCS Campus early Saturday afternoon,I saw this to the west, and took the picture on my iphone. It looked no bigger than a very large smoke signal, almost soft and friendly. Surely they can get that thing fast, I thought. Later I learned the fire had started only an hour or so before: some cyclists in the canyon took a picture of it when it was burning a patch of ground "no bigger than a MacDonalds"---the 21st century equivalent of a breadbox. Minutes later it had quadrupled in size. Our theatre of disaster began with a little big bang.
ACT TWO [COMPLICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT]
Over the weekend we all watched the fire spread,the smoke thicken, and the horizon get redder at night. There was general concern now, but nothing critical in the way of actual alarm, at least as far as our personal safety was concerned. At dinner with Chris and Sue Lowell in Rockrimmon we barbecued flank steak while admiring the dark clouds to the north west. We lightly offered our home as a refuge in case things heated up in their neighborhood, but that seemed a distant possibility. "No one loses anything", I boldly predicted. We had time, we had advance warning, and we had resources on our side. But the heat was unpleasant,and so was the smoky air, and no one likes knowing their mountains are burning.
Monday was more of the same. It was so hot in our house by evening, we rode out for an ice-cream in my air conditioned van, and on the way back we saw a small bright gash of flame on the mountainside. So we drove up Fillmore, and turned right on Mesa for a better look, joining an orderly bumper to bumper procession of cars with the same idea. Outside plenty of people milling around nursing their big gulps, not banned way out west. I noticed how good my coconut ice cream tasted while watching flames light up the trees they were licking. We we were looking at a little window into hell, but it was a good show with excellent production values; and yes, it was compellingly beautiful. The fire was dangerous but also a kind of outdoor summer entertainment.
Like many others, I was conscious of how strange it was to be audience at this theatre of disaster. In the old days, we like to think, a fire would be a call to community action: get in line and grab a bucket. But these days the action is rightly left to professionals, and we are mostly reduced to being mere specators, staring stupefied at our televisions, wacthing close-ups of what we can see out of our doors and windows, listening to the repeated and inevitable cliches of local newscasters. Idly, all this heightened passivity seemed analogous to our larger national moment. Over the last year most of us have felt looming destruction coming our way: climate change, paralyzed congress, the endless recession, the collapsing Euro, Africa, etc. Yet this ever encroaching disaster has left most of us (meaning myself and most of my friends) strangely untouched; our lives go on as they always have. More and more we are conscious of the dismal state of things, and more than ever we seem to have become passive witnesses rather than agents of change. Austerity and denial are what is prescribed: doing less with less. It feels almost un-American. It's one thing to tighten a belt; its quite another to tighten and do nothing but watch. But here we are.
ACT THREE [CLIMAX, CATASTROPHE]
Tuesday afternoon I left my rehearsal and walked out into a thick cloud of smothering smoke. Things had changed; the wind kicked up, and the fire had become a different kind of show--no longer an action spectacle but spilling off its designated stage into the audience. Now the fire was an interactive performance. I drove home and to find my friends in our driveway: "Here we are," they said. They've been evacuated, along with 30,000 others.
We watched dumbstruck as the fire jumped the ridge, plunged past the first and second lines of defense down into the town, and suddenly it was devouring houses like snacks. The rhetoric changed--what had been disturbing but pictorially sublime (terror at a distance, and therefore also pleasurable), was now all numbing hyperbole: "Dantesque", "Surreal", "Tragic,""Apocalyptic". It was also a theatre of the absurd: The movie we though of escaping to was Prometheus, the mythological fire-giver. Possibly not a good choice. So we decided to stay home,turn off the TV and read-- my Kindle had just arrived in the mail. In the need, the TV was not so easily turned off, churning out one astonishing panorama after another.
It was a terrible night, and in looking to literature for apt quotes I'm amazed at how most poetic references to fire are positive: the fire of inspiration, the fire of cleansing, the fire of love love, passion's fire, the fire of spiritual quest, etc. Only the Bible knows better. The ancients well understood the terror of fire unleashed: "Four things say not, "It is enough": the grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water, and the fire that sayeth not, "It is enough." (Proverbs 30: 15-16). Tonight our earth is not filled with water and this fire will not say, "It is enough."
ACT FOUR [DENOUEMENT]
On Wednesday the tide began to turn, the wind abated, and that evening at dinner on our deck, looking west at a clear sky and golden setting sun, one would hardly know Tuesday happened. After Thursday, and more of the same, we are all breathing again, though still heavily.
For an unfortunate few, it wasn't over. Driving home from rehearsal, the university parking lot was full--thousands of residents of Mountain Shadows had come to learn of their loss. For a brief moment, because I am instinctively and deeply interested in theatre of all kinds, I had an urge to slip in and observe. But no, no, this was absolutely not my show. This unhappy business was their own.
It's too early tell how this drama will play out. Traditionally, of course, a shared disaster begins to heal a divided community (see the ending of Romeo and Juliet). And certainly our divided community has come together, at least for a moment. Focus on the Family and The Gay and Lesbian Foundation will both sponsor the July 4 Philharmonic concert---and that's certainly unprecedented news for us, and at least as unlikely as Montagues and Capulets sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. My wife thinks people have more open hearts just now,and are prepared to engage each other more openly and deeply. Perhaps we have experienced, as a community, what Aristotle said was supposed to happen after experiencing a dramatic tragedy, perhaps the Waldo fire has been healing and cathartic. On the other hand, the the temperatures are still high, the residue not clear. Had this been a tidy dramatic structure,the arrival of the President would have brought some healing ceremonial closure, like the entrance of a new king after a battle in Shakespeare. But the Presidential visit seems to have rekindled sparks of communal division: Obama would have been seen as distant and uncaring if had not come; yet his visit was regarded by some as a purely politically motivated distraction. So it goes in our land, where sometimes only shared disaster can bring us together, and where orphic strains and grand claims of new unity tend to fade with the next blazing sun.