The Sopris Sun

Seeking Higher Ground: The kindness of strangers

On July 4, I stood beside Twin Lakes weeping. Mourning for our verdant Roaring Fork Valley, for friends, for the future of coming generations. The smoke signals pouring over Independence Pass were a harbinger of global warming, of the desertification of the American West.

From the Whitestar campground (40 miles away as the DC-10s fly), I could access only sketchy news. But I knew that Basalt, El Jebel and Missouri Heights were in peril. All I could do was to phone my husband and say “put out the welcome mat”.  

Back in the valley two days later, I spotted Susan Proctor at the Aspen Music Tent. I gave her an emotional hug and heard an amazing evacuation tale.

While I had worried about many friends, I knew Susan would be on the horns of dilemma: she’s a llama “mama” and 400-pound camelids aren’t easy to move or shelter.

During the crisis, CARE took in refugee dogs and cats. The Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle housed more than 70 horses, donkeys and goats. But Susan has six llamas. Because her trailer holds only three at a time, transporting them to Rifle would require two trips and six hours’ driving. Not a speedy escape, and fires don’t wait.

As it turned out, Susan was saved by the kindness of a stranger.

Around noon on July 4, a “fairly new” friend called to offer Susan a place to stay, noting that if the llamas needed to move, she’d ask her landlord to lend pasture space. Susan wasn’t worried; the winds were blowing the fire away from her place.

Anxiety set in much later, when Susan’s tenant texted her an official pre-evacuation order. At 12:23 a.m.

Susan’s worry? “Llamas aren’t so easy to catch. They’re not known for obedience… and you can’t wake someone up at midnight to ask for help.”

About then, the newish friend texted Susan: “Checking in to see if you need help.”

Yeah, big time!

“I was panicked. Everything I was seeing from the driveway was terrifying,” Susan relates. “But llamas pick up on that. So I was telling myself  ‘you have to be calm’. It’s important to convey confidence so you can actually catch them.”

“The llamas were surprisingly unconcerned about mom appearing from the dark, wearing a headlamp, to give them a midnight snack. Even though that never happens.” Because Susan had recently shorn their heavy coats, the llamas were, luckily, still wearing halters. Which never happens either. The first three were uncharacteristically cooperative.

For the second batch, Rancher Rob volunteered his help. While returning — leading a convoy carrying both humans and critters — Rancher Rob volunteered that his house had two bedrooms. Why didn’t Susan just stay there, instead of the evacuation center?

My neighbor, Skye Skinner, housed nine humans, four canines and two felines, then offered space on the floor and room for tents outside. My friend Peter Westcott, who evacuated from Missouri Heights, said he and his wife Kate Friesen had “20 offers of places to stay.” So did my pals Steve and Annie Pfeiffer.

Susan stayed with Rancher Rob. She wrote, “Starting at 1 a.m., we evacuated six llamas, two dogs, two cats, one adult grandchild plus boyfriend, myself and my tenant while watching a wildfire advance. All of us sheltered by strangers! So grateful.”

As I have watched the DC-10s streaking overhead carrying red fire retardant, listened to the thrum of helicopters tirelessly dumping water, as I have driven by fire trucks from distant states, my eyes have often misted over. I can’t see the faces of the men and women braving the scorching flames, sweating in the merciless sun or flying off into the sunset at the close of an endless day, and I will never know their names. But I’m grateful that they chose to risk their lives for my loved ones, my community, my valley.

Nearly 500 firefighters from 20 states converged here. The federal InciWeb fire website lists 40 “incident cooperators” lending a hand. Countless “guvment” agencies — those faceless bureaucrats we’re so quick to criticize — have also convened to help us.

As I write this, 1,971 people have been evacuated and nearly 6,000 acres have been charred. Three homes were lost, but more than 925 were saved.

Friends and perfect strangers have rallied online to raise money for those who lost homes: the McCauleys, soccer coach Levi Applegate, the Martinez family with their four little girls, and Cleve Williams, the Basalt firefighter who lost his home while saving ours.

It’s ironic, but “Independence Day” 2018 taught me just how interdependent we all are. In time of need, we are saved not only by the bonds of community, but also by the kindness of strangers.