June 26, 2012 was a birthday I will never forget. It was in the midst of Colorado Springs residents’ encounter with a major firestorm, the Waldo Canyon fire. I had seen the bare wisp of smoke curling up from behind beautiful Pikes Peak the day before; but within two days the fire had spread to become a raging monster. Federal crack fire teams were on the scene, while we all watched the news with a mixture of awe at the massive smoke plumes shooting up into the high atmosphere and hope that the fire crews would soon gain control. But on June 26, my birthday, I went to see a movie with a friend. We had checked the radio and TV news before leaving, and the fire seemed to be held at bay. We watched the movie; I don’t even remember what it was. When we came out of the theater and turned on the radio out of vigilant curiosity, all Hell had broken loose! The dragon fire had swept up and over a ridge, right into a major residential neighborhood!
My friend and I left for our homes. The day before, I had been driving toward Pikes Peak and imagined the fire coming down into the city. On my way home on the 26th I was at the exact same location and saw, yes, the flames racing down the mountain into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. The déjà vu sort of vision brought deep foreboding. I felt the whole town was in danger. Although my house was far enough away that I was in no immediate danger, I gathered my pets and fled to Denver, where I stayed with a friend that night, and the next. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the news reports.
The crack fire crews took a new tactic after 360 homes were destroyed on the June 26 rampage. They managed controlled burns to remove fuel from the possible directions the fire might take. Within another 3-4 days they had the fire under much better control. Thousands of people who were evacuated from their homes gradually were allowed to return.
Incidents like this or similar disasters reveal the unpredictability of natural forces or human aberrations: mass shootings, drunk drivers, terminal illnesses, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods. These are among the imponderabilities of life; things we cannot directly control but somehow must deal with anyway. They bring forth our fears, our survival instinct, and our desire to help others in our community.
I was a lucky one during the Waldo Canyon fire. My home was not threatened. Many people lost their homes or were evacuated for weeks. For many of these, this event was a life changer, a chapter turner. Much of daily life—its materiality and entertainment routines, even its workaday responsibilities—pale in significance when such an event transpires. These critical events cut to the depths of our human and spiritual existence. Like people who have Near Death experiences, many who survive—or endure–a disaster of this magnitude often alter their life course to accommodate new layers of meaning, purpose, or urgency.