Families Struggle to Recover Long After Wildfires Are Out

BY Tom Bearden  June 22, 2012 at 4:13 PM EST

Patti McMillan standing outside her shop in Red Feather Lakes, Colo., where the recent fire has driven away customers. Courtesy: Tom Bearden.
Patti McMillan standing outside her shop in Red Feather Lakes, Colo., where the recent fire has driven away customers. Courtesy: Tom Bearden.

Every few years massive fires sweep through America’s western forests, turning green mountainsides black. Over the past three decades, those of us who work in the PBS NewsHour’s Denver office have watched timber burn in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.

We’ve seen several small towns and thousands of homes destroyed, uncounted families rendered homeless in a matter of hours. A common thread running through all of those stories is the hardship faced by the people who are displaced.

Imagine getting an automated phone call telling you that you have an hour to evacuate, and being able to take only what you can cram into your car. Imagine not knowing for days whether you’ll have a home to go back to. Imagine returning to the ruins of your home and raking foot-deep ashes in the hopes of finding something to salvage. That’s what it was like for the Jalbert family in Los Alamos, N.M., in May 2000, and for many others we’ve interviewed.

Fire chased Bud Yearsley out of his home in Montana in August 2000. At that time, he had no idea when he might be able to go back.

Nicole Flannery faced the same agonizing uncertainty when we interviewed her in Fort Collins, Colo., last Tuesday. Her family is one of hundreds who were forced out of their homes last week when the High Park fire roared to life.

Smoke turns red in the afternoon sun from the Rodeo-Chediski fire in Show Low, Ariz., 2002. Courtesy: Tom Bearden

In 2002, the enormous smoke plume from Rodeo-Chediski fire turned mid-day sunshine into red gloom in the town of Show Low. Not far away, hundreds of people crowded into a shelter set up in a high school football stadium. Evacuees in Colorado and elsewhere will be facing similar loss of privacy in shelters in several states tonight. Hundreds more will bunk with relatives, or stay in motel rooms that many can’t afford anymore.

For communities affected by fire, it can take years for businesses to recover. Patti McMillan’s trading post in Red Feather Lakes, Colo., is already losing business, and she’s worried that tourists won’t come back for a long time.

Despite decades of debate over the many issues and policies at play in forest management, a national consensus about how to prevent more stories of hardship, loss, and death still seems very far away.

How has wildfire affected you and your community? Share your photos and story with the NewsHour.