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Rheta Grimsley Johnson: Fire and rain


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



COLORADO SPRINGS, Co. -- "Welcome to the other Great Smoky Mountains," a friend in town said to me. She was right.  


The afternoon I arrived, Pike's Peak had been smudged from the sky with a giant eraser. Smoke was indistinguishable from the clouds. Looking west, one of the most famous and prominent landmarks in America was, for all practical purposes, missing from the early-evening sky. 


When the mountains reappeared against blue skies the next morning, you could almost forget the faraway fires and concentrate instead on flood warnings. Yes. Floods. James Taylor might have written the soundtrack for Colorado Springs this summer: "I've seen fire, and I've seen rain ..." 


The burn scar from last year's Waldo Canyon fire here makes flooding inevitable when too much rain falls too quickly. And by "too much" rain I don't mean a lot, a gnat's tear's worth. In the right wrong location, it can take less than an inch falling in 15 minutes or so to wreak havoc.  


They say the flooding threat will hang over certain communities in the so-called inundation zone here for a decade, until mountainside vegetation has a chance to recover. I've been here two weeks and already seen it happen twice. 


On July 1, several homes in the beautiful community of nearby Manitou Springs were destroyed by water and soot sliding down the bare mountain into Fountain Creek, creating a muddy monster. All that happened because of less than a half inch of rain. 


And, again, less than two weeks later, about 20 cars traveling the busy U.S. 24 were hit by sliding mud and debris. The video on the local newscast was dramatic -- cars covered with black ooze sliding wildly and blindly along a highway of mud. 


The road was closed several hours while heavy equipment shoveled away the mud and debris to open the major east-west artery. Motorists who needed to head west formed impromptu gypsy camps on pullouts at the edge of Colorado Springs, waiting until their only route home was passable. 


Nobody was killed, but that was this time. 


If there's any fool left not subscribing to climate change, he should come here, where there's plenty of mud to stick a head into.  


This year's Black Forest fire that killed two and destroyed more than 500 homes about 30 miles away, of course, is part of everyday conversation. Fire victims who lost everything work the county office maze to get aid. Signs on businesses -- everything from marijuana "indispensaries" to fast food -- thank fire fighters for their hard work. Flags fly at half mast for the 19 Arizona firefighters who died so tragically. 


At the Highline Cafe and Saloon in Hartsel, a burg west of here, volunteer fire fighters sit over coffee and debate the best way to keep their new recruits. From a couple of tables away, it's like listening to generals prepare for battle. 


And, yet, on days when the wind sends the smoke from still-raging wildfires in somebody else's direction, you can understand why Colorado remains first choice of so many. Its majestic if somewhat inhospitable beauty has lured and kept people here for a long, long time. Fire and rain won't change that. 


Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a nationally syndicated columnist, lives near Iuka.



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