If you asked 12 people for one word to describe their memory of the Missionary Ridge Fire of 2002, you probably would come get 12 different responses. Though the question pulls up many images of fire and friends and devastation for me, the one word that always moves to the forefront is community.
In 2002, I was working for the San Juan National Forest as a fire information officer, and this was first big fire.
The first several days remain something of a blur to me, but as time went by, I settled into the pattern of answering questions about what was happening with the fire, what the firefighters needed and how people could help.
Our community rose to the occasion. Boxes of lip balm, sunscreen, toothpaste, wool socks – you name it – it all was donated. One day, a woman showed up with 20 pillows for the fire crew working behind her house after she heard they slept on the ground every night. Eventually, there were so many donations that it became necessary to use the high school gym for storage.
Residents on Florida Road banded together and served home-cooked food for the fire crews every night when they came down off the hill. What a treat that was for the firefighters.
I remember Durango Bagel coming by with a truckful of bagels and cream cheese and the rec center and movie theater offering free passes to firefighters. At a time when smoke was chasing away the tourists – the livelihood of so many – it was amazing to see how our local businesses responded with thanks to the firefighters. And all the firefighters said they had never seen such an outpouring from a community before. I was so proud of our community.
That spirit of community continued long after the fire as neighbors helped neighbors clean up and rebuild. The residents of hard-hit Vallecito rallied and rebuilt their Community Center and planted wildflowers and ponderosa pine seedlings on the then-barren hillsides. Their “Tour of Carvings,” a magnificent tribute to the men and women who risked their lives to save our local communities, helped draw visitors back to the area.
That spirit of community continues even now with our local FireWise ambassadors who work within their individual communities to make their neighbors more aware of their wildfire risk and what they can do to mitigate that risk. Their efforts – which range from removing hazardous fuels to widening roads to developing Community Wildfire Protection Plans – result in safer conditions for residents and firefighters alike. Thank you, Durango, for your spirit of community.
Pam Wilson is director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, a program of the San Juan Mountains Association. Call her at 385-8909 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.