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All the familiar trappings of the Fourth of July were in place.
My neighbors sat on the curbs of their houses in lawn chairs, offering each other cold drinks. A cop car at the corner blocked off the road as non-locals looked for parking spots near the action. The news truck across the street waited patiently. Helicopters hovered overhead. It looked like the parade was about to begin.
But the street I live on in Alpine is not on any parade route. We weren’t waiting for floats, and the fireworks on display in front of us were not under anyone’s control. A huge plume of smoke made the familiar mountain I walk on every week look like a belching volcano, and the Roman candles erupting in 200-foot flames were 100-foot pine trees, their dying branches clearly visible from our viewing stand.
Neighbors just across the street from us were still under evacuation orders, but living a block west my family had been permitted back in our home an hour before. We hadn’t finish unpacking the bags in our front hall, wondering how the two helicopters dropping water on the mountain would succeed in averting the flames’ spread downward toward our neighbors’ homes, and ours. The fire’s steady progress up the mountain wasn’t even dampened. It burned through tree after tree, taking out whole groves of mature pines in minutes as we watched.
It hadn’t rained for weeks, and we were sweating while sitting on our lawn chairs. We prayed for the firefighters. We prayed for rain. We prayed in gratitude that no homes had been destroyed. We prayed that American Fork Canyon, where my grandmother camped for her honeymoon 80 years ago, would be spared. We prayed.
“None of us will ever see that mountain look the same again — not in our lifetime,” our neighbor, Bill Bryant, said soberly. As we watched the trees burn, I fought back tears unrelated to the smoke in the air. I felt thankful I have never looked at these mountains without gratitude and awe — not in the seven years I’ve lived here. I remember once asking Bill if he got used to it after awhile, living here for decades. “Nope,” he said. “Never.”
In the winter, the mountain, covered with white snow, has always made me think I was in the Alps. In the spring when green spreads across it and the clouds drift low, it feels like I’m in Scotland. Fall turns the scrub oak red, and sunsets make the granite glow pink and orange. I’ve marveled at every season the mountain displays, but recently I learned about a new season — fire season — that dressed it in sober shades of black.
Appropriate. We felt we were in mourning.
When my husband and I couldn’t watch one more tree erupt, we headed to Provo for dinner with friends, our attention still ricocheting between images of flames erupting on the hillside and the hastily filled bags still sitting in our front hall. Norm and Tricia Smallwood were wonderful hosts. We shared a meal and pictures from my iPhone that didn’t begin to convey the pictures in my mind. They invited us to stay for fireworks. I love fireworks. But that night I felt sick at the thought.
We drove home among display after display of colorful sparks that held no beauty for me. I didn’t want to be a spoil sport. If there had not been a mountain on fire three blocks from my house, I would have been as delighted and oblivious as anyone. As it was, I kept thinking each new burst to the east was a new flame on the mountains instead of being backyard entertainment. I kept remembering the trees dying one by one, the firefighters in the heat and smoke, the prayers for safety and protection.
I wanted to not know how vulnerable we all are. I wanted this story and these pictures in my head to be about people on the news I didn’t know so I could change the channel. I wanted Bill to be back to cooking pancakes for our missed neighborhood Fourth of July breakfast, all of us with nothing more worrisome on our minds than the slip-and-slide.
Yes, we’ve had all the fireworks we can stomach in Alpine this year.
Forgive us. Forgive us all.
Wendy Ulrich, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times best seller "The Why of Work."
Related: Fire Watch: The latest updates