My Own Experience With WildFires and Snow Storms

Imagine if this were your town…

My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones in the California Paradise Fire last November. I hope you were able to see Frontline last night, Fire in Paradise. I think it is important that the rest of us understand what some Americans have gone through and what they lost. In less than 4 hours a small fire that started 8 miles from Paradise engulfed the entire town from all directions. Many of the 40,000 residents simply did not believe the speed of this fire. Others tried to get out, but the roads were too jammed up to escape. Eighty-five Americans, most over age 65, died in this wildfire.

I felt a strong need to watch this episode of Frontline because we had our own wildfire here last July, and if not for our wonderful and amazing local firefighters, that town could have easily been La Veta, population 8-900.

The Spring Fire on the evening of June 28th 2018

The night that fire started, I sat in my bed and watched the fire jump from mountaintop to mountaintop across a couple valleys behind us. I could also see our local firefighters out there giving their all to contain that fire. The next day the National Guard was called in along with the Hot Shots and firefighters from around our nation. We were evacuated the next day for a week, as the fire jumped Highway 160 and came towards our new home. Our fire burned a total of 108,045 acres, and was the third-largest wildfire in Colorado history.

The residents of Paradise where not so lucky. They basically had no warning. The fire came flying into their town so fast and only half were warned properly by Code Red. But even then their roads were inadequate to evacuate the entire town in less than an hour. Imagine the fear and anguish.

The weather outside may be frightful, but not like a firestorm!

Like most disasters, news reporters flash on a big story for a day or two and then we all forget, but not me. Every report from California and every single day of our latest series of three snowstorms here in southern Colorado remind me of how lucky we are to still be receiving large amounts of moisture. Yep. Fifteen inches of snow is fine with me!

Everyone talks about the weather. Here’s something you can do about it!

The scene outside my bedroom this morning!

On a day like today, with ten inches of fresh, white snow outside our door in the foothills of southern Colorado, it seems crazy to focus on future drought conditions in the American Southwest. And yet, if you are at all climate aware, you know that droughts can happen at anytime and last for decades. Ask the Anasazi who disappeared from Mesa Verde centuries ago, or those who lived through the Dust Bowl in the 1930s in the American Midwest. Do you think those Oklahoma farmers had any idea what was coming?

I admit it. I have been an avid weather watcher forever, and when I lived near Fort Collins Colorado on July 28th 1997, we experienced a flash flood through the middle of town that killed five residents and scared the hell out of the rest of us! I worked then at Morgan Library on the Colorado State University campus (CSU) when eight feet of water swept through our area from an intense rain storm over the western foothills. In just minutes we lost almost all of our journal collection in compact shelving located in the library basement. There were some kayaking across campus that night! We were not even allowed to go into the library building for over a month.

I saw a TV documentary this week that explained what we know now about future water uncertainty in the American southwest. Cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas are quite vulnerable to future drought. Water supplies are limited and not adequate if even a short drought should arrive in the next few years. The study of where we receive rain and snow is essential to understanding weather patterns and helping us plan for an uncertain future waterwise.

The rain gauges used to collect precipitation for COCORAHS

In response to the flood in Fort Collins in 1997, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) was developed by the Colorado Climate Center at CSU a year after the flood, to improve the acquisition of concise precipitation data nationwide and facilitate quick communication of rain/snow reports during disasters. Each time a rain, hail or snow storm crosses an area, volunteers take measurements of precipitation from as many locations as possible. These precipitation reports are then recorded on their Web site www.cocorahs.org. The data are then displayed and organized for end users like Weather Service meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities (water supply, water conservation, storm water), insurance adjusters, USDA, engineers, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, outdoor & recreation interests, teachers, students, and neighbors in the community to analyze and apply to daily situations ranging from water resource analysis and severe storm warnings to neighbors comparing how much rain fell in their backyards.

COCORAHS is now a nation network for volunteers! Please consider joining in this effort to record accurate data and be a part of future water planning efforts. All you need to do is purchase a standard rain gauge, learn how to read it and then send in your data everyday. I have been a volunteer for over 20 years now from a number of locations in Colorado.

I love being a part of such an important volunteer effort! Please consider joining in. We need lots more volunteers in Huerfano county & most rural areas of the USA!

After a lifetime of living in cities, how has country life changed me and my interests?

The winter view from our south-facing windows

The changes are so gradual that at first you don’t notice them. After we completed our passive solar home in 2015, it took months for us to truly relax. While it was being built it felt more like the workmen owned it instead of us! Then, after we moved in, it felt like an expensive foothills retreat. I kept waiting for the manager to arrive and kick us out. But it did finally get finished, and then we rested.

Construction in mid-winter 2014-15

I would say it took at least a year to totally accept that this was our new home. It didn’t feel like anywhere I had ever lived before. The lack of neighbors and the absolute silence took my breathe away. When we first started building I felt like we lived so far out in the country, but after a year or so, it all felt so normal to not be around others.

The Final Product!

How did this new lifestyle change me over the next few years? I slowly learned what true relaxation is all about. I noticed that I stopped feeling so fearful all the time, a feeling I hadn’t even noticed before. The calm and quiet made me realize that our bodies feel the need to be ever vigilant in cities. All of that traffic, noise, over-crowding, and just being around other people constantly, causes us to be ever attentive to who knows what might happen next. Yes, we do still watch the news, which I’m not sure is good for us, but it feels millions of miles away!

I would say retiring to the countryside is particularly pleasant because we don’t need to worry about getting to work and all the stresses of being at work. Certainly, no one is go to fire us. Then the “problem” becomes:

How will I fill my time in a way that satisfies me?

Mike has been a master at solving this problem. He has been waiting his whole life to have the time to pursue various motorcycle and art projects. I have had to learn the fine art of doing nothing, after a lifetime of forced “productiveness.” Now I’m ready to pursue a few new avocations more seriously, like gardening and photography.

My commute to town

One of the best parts of our life now? After a lifetime of moving from place to place constantly, I now know that we will never move again. This is the end of the road for us. and what a lovely end it is!

If you would like to learn more about this challenging transition from my perspective, please consider purchasing my book: A Memoir of Retirement: From Suburbia to Solar in Southern Colorado.

Autumn in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

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We are having a warm lovely fall here in southern Colorado! We had our first snow in the Sangre de Cristos south of us a couple weeks ago, and then some weather in the 60s settled in to warm our winter-fearing souls.

The 60s are my favorite temperature, just right for sitting outside and observing the  many birds and quadrupeds that happen by our home. We have seen herds of deer and a couple coyotes walking by recently…

Road Runner

and the Road Runners come right up to our glass doors!

Frosted lavender bloom October 2018

Unfortunately that first hard freeze did a number on my first crop of lavender.

We have had such a strange summer season this year. The winter and spring, which are usually super wet, were quite dry through June, when the Spring Creek Fire hit this area, destroying over 108,000 acres and over 140 homes and other structures.

first view of Spring Fire Wed. towards Mt Mestas on June 27th

This was my first view of the fire as it emerged south of Mount Mestas on June 27th.

Fortunately in July the rains finally came, saving our area from complete devastation, but still for the 2017 – 2018 water year we received less than half of average precipitation.

Laura garden October 2018 before the snow

My brand new foothills garden did not like these ever changing conditions. It died way back in June, but made a phenomenal comeback with the 3.35 inches of rain we received in July! My garden is perpetually a work in progress. We are now waiting to get a bunch of red pavers to place in the lower level around the bird bath.

It gives me great joy to wander around outside and think about how Mike and my brother John worked so hard to help me realize this lifelong dream!

Midlife: Begin To Trust Your Crazy Ideas and Then Expand Your Comfort Zone!

Now for something completely different!

Lately I have been observing how generational our belief systems can be. For example, as a middle boomer, born in 1955, most of my life I have taken a narrow view of what a good work ethic looks like. Most of us were raised to believe that being busy each day and having something to show for your efforts, especially MONEY, is a job well-done.

writing and moneyThat is exactly how I approached my new writing career back in 2005, when I began freelancing. How much I made each year was my measure of success, and I fought very hard to make some bucks. But in the long run, this way of thinking wore me out. As I learned more about the history and importance of this marvelous time called “midlife,” I wanted to teach others how life changing it can be. What I was learning was more important than money, it was life saving for some who struggle with self-respect and self-doubt as they age.

This is what I learned from changing my perspective on the ways we choose to spend our time as we age:

Midlife and especially retirement is your time to learn something just because you have always wanted to. It’s time to follow your fantasies and dreams for once in your life, while releasing expectations and, of course, guilt.

Be grateful each day that you now have the time and money to do something completely different! How many individuals in the history of mankind have had this privilege? Very few. Most previous generations didn’t live past 60!

After taking my writer fantasy for a spin for ten years, we decided it was time for my husband Mike to experiment with one of his childhood fantasies. He had always wanted to construct a passive solar home positioned just right for fantastic views of the mountains. In the process of planning this new adventure, I found a great cartoon in New Yorker Magazine that shows a man visiting a guru at the top of the Himalayas.

IMGP7536The guru’s punch line? “The meaning of life is having a  spectacular view.” 

After we created our new passive solar home, I was then able to construct another lifetime fantasy of mine, a foothills garden full of xeric plants that love this high, dry landscape as much as we do. As I wrote this, we got our first snow fall! Yippee!

Because of what I have learned about midlife and the amazing experiences we have had in the past 15 years, I can highly recommend that you ask yourself today:

What perhaps irresponsible, but joyful dream or activity have you been fantasizing about forever? Time’s a wasting! Do it TODAY!

Life is too short to wait!

What does following what may seem to some like one crazy dream feel like?

I share all of that in my latest book: A Memoir of Retirement!

Louis L’Amour and Golden Aspen, Autumn in Southern Colorado!

I’ve been enjoying a Louis L’Amour novel this fall, while also indulging myself in some amazing quaking aspens.

aspen 2018 near Blanca Peak

Up above Cuchara near Cordova Pass…

back of Blanca Peak with golden aspen 2018

and up by Blanca Peak! Now is the BEST TIME to see these beauties!

Have you ever read the novel Conagher? A friend bought me a copy and said I had to read it, so I did. She said it reminded her of her dilemma since she moved here a few years ago. She loves the silence and isolation of her new life in the mountains, but sometimes craves companionship with someone special.

Conagher book

I thought Mr. L’Amour only wrote about the men of the West, but this novel is about a lonely female settler in rural New Mexico in the late 1800s who finds an ingenious way to connect with lonely cowboys. She even finally finds love way out in the middle of nowhere and just by chance. I love Mr. L’Amour’s descriptions of the beautiful but lonely West. Here’s a few lines from the main character Evie:

“She never tired of the morning and evenings here, the soft lights, the changing colors of sunlight and cloud upon the hills, the stirring of wind in the grass. Out here there was no escaping the sky or the plains, and Evie knew that until she came west she had never really known distance.”

I find it interesting how this character somehow captures my own feelings after just a year or so of living here, giving a marvelous explanation of how one adjusts to the silence and beauty of this powerful and yet desolate landscape:

Sunrise through snowy trees January 2018

“Evie Teale suddenly became aware of something else. For the first time she was at peace here, really at peace. She had believed the land was her enemy, and she had struggled against it, but you could not make war against a land any more than you could against the sea. One had to learn to live with it, to belong to it, to fit into its seasons and its ways…”

Gratitude for everything, wildfires and all!

So of course it had to happen. One of my readers met with me this week and asked me one more time if I am still pleased with our decision to move to a rural part of southern Colorado, one that is prone to wildfire. As strange as it may seem, I am happier than ever to live where I do.

great Mike photo of snow and Spanish Peaks

The winter view of the Spanish Peaks from our solar home

First of all, the recent fire gave us a chance to live in town for a week because we were evacuated from our area between La Veta and Walsenburg. La Veta feels noisy and crowded to me now. My favorite quality of rural life is the absolute silence at night and on a cool clear country morning. Seeing the stars after I turn off the lights at night is also something I have never experienced before.

Returning to our home after evacuation was a marvelous treat, a timely reminder of how lucky we are to be able to live in nature on our own terms with neighbors far enough away to basically ignore them.

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The sunrises are as amazing as ever. What’s not to like about this every morning?