In Parched West, Worries Of Wildfires Persist

Long-time Colorado resident and commentator Craig Childs has years of experience with wildfires. But he has never gotten used to both the fear and the awe that the flames inspire.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A break in hot weather this weekend helped firefighters control wildfires in several western states. Higher humidity, calmer winds aided fire crews in Wyoming and rain made a difference in Montana. Firefighters also made progress with a fire near Redding, California. And in Colorado, the most destructive wildfire in the state's history is almost fully contained.

As it raged, the Waldo Canyon fire destroyed hundreds of homes and burned more than 18,000 acres. Property damage estimates are over $100 million, and the economy could take months to recover. Commentator Craig Childs has lived with wildfires in Colorado for decades. He has been spared from damage this season, but he knows how little it would take to bring the flames to his doorstep.

CRAIG CHILDS: In the mountains of Western Colorado, forests around my stick-frame house are as dry as kindling. Daylight is brassy from distant fires, and the air smells of wood smoke. These last few nights, lightning storms have rolled through. For every crack of light, I wonder, do you bring rain or fire?

It is a calamitous summer in the West. People who never thought they'd be affected by a wildfire are finding themselves evacuated. At my house, we cut branches from surrounding trees to keep a defensible space. It feels like sandbagging before a hurricane.

Every geography has its dangers - tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes. Everywhere, you have to make peace with the elements that can suddenly rise beyond control. As a journalist, I've gone out with fire crews and watched them beat apart flaming root balls with axes. I've seen flames swiftly climbing ladder rungs of tree limbs until the entire thing goes up like a Roman candle. It cooked the sweat right off my face.

Several years ago, a wildfire started a mile from our house. It missed us, but within a day swallowed half of the mountain standing over us. I remember tucking my toddler into his bed, the walls around him dancing with firelight. We knew prevailing winds well enough to feel safe, but my wife and I slept with one eye open, car keys ready.

My wife and I walked into freshly charred woods one night. We followed the last sputtering flames, shadowy forest lit as if from a thousand candles. Black trunks were too hot to touch, their insides glowing like kilns where sparks and flames poured from any opening.

Getting this close to it, the fire seemed like a living organism. It searched for fodder, licking the ground, jumping from twigs to needles for survival. Sometimes it found an unburned tree and in a matter of seconds turned the whole thing into a brilliant torch, wind sucking toward the conflagration, reminding us how fast this animal can rise three stories, roaring into the sky.

I know how fast my house would go. On a mountain slope in a high wind, embers would land on my roof like flaming arrows. The trees we planted, our flower beds, our photo albums and journals, I think of all these things as lightning flashes through the midnight dark of our house and I stand at an open window hoping for the scent of rain.

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WERTHEIMER: Commentator Craig Childs is author of the upcoming book, "Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Ever-Ending Earth."

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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