The mountains are burning

The mountains are burning.

That’s not unusual, this time of year. Wildfires are a normal part of life in the west, and in Tucson, where mountains ring the city, we can often watch them burn from our homes on the valley floor.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains]

Some fires are distant, a puff of smoke behind a distant ridge. Some are nearer, near enough to turn into orange snakes of flame after sundown. Every fire is different, and in memory, many fires get tied to the times of their burning.

Like the smoldering gray fire that made the Catalina Mountains look volcanic, watched from my back porch shortly before a trip to Iceland to see real volcanoes. After that, Iceland’s volcanoes and that fire were linked in my mind, and future fires seemed a little more volcanic, too.

Or a closer fire, also in the Catalinas, during which I watched the flames flare upwards in bright orange pillars I would later learn were the result of propane tanks exploding as the fire reached the Mount Lemmon retreat town of Summerhaven. Months later, when we were finally allowed to drive up the mountain, we found large stretches of once-familiar terrain laid open to gray ash and bare, blackened trees.

Less than a year later, a friend’s ashes were scattered on the same mountain. My friend and that fire—and my friend and that mountain too—were inextricably intertwined in memory after that. They still are.

Or this year, the pandemic year, when the Catalinas are burning again.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains at sunset]

This time the fire threatens not just Summerhaven, up in the heights, but also nearer houses in and around the mountain’s foothills. The smoke is visible deep into the city, billows of white and gray and brown smoke that move like stormclouds over the peaks. At sunset, as I walk through the neighborhood and wave to our socially distant neighbors, the smoke turns pink, just as clouds do.

One day, I watched as firefighting planes dumped streams of fire-retardant red slurry into the smoke. The next day, the mountains bore the scars, lines of red clearly visible across their gray slopes.

How can the fire not become tied to the pandemic, to the protests for justice in its wake, to this entire long, strange, summer?

The slurry will fade, given time, as scars do. As the ashes of earlier fires have faded, becoming buried beneath years of new growth.

One day this moment in history will fade, too, slipping from living memory into stories and from stories into books. Like mountains, people heal and regrow, given enough time.

But I don’t live in that future. I live here, now, and I don’t yet know which houses will be lost, and which will be saved. I don’t know which landscapes will be remade, and which will remain the same. No one does.

All we really know, as we stand outside and watch the smoke, is that today, the mountains are burning.