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A look at weather extremes and the big-picture climate connections.

Watching from Afar as Fiery Turn Burns Our Beloved City

As I follow the news from Princeton, N.J., mostly via terrifying photos and video and stories that are never updated quickly enough to follow the blaze, the wildfire threatening to engulf Colorado Springs feels very personal. My family and I lived in Colorado Springs for three and a half years, in a house with an unbelievably beautiful view of the scenery I am now watching go up in flames.

When you live in a community sidled up next to the Rockies you grow used to nature’s unpredictable whims. And while Denver has the nickname as the “Mile High City,” it is actually located quite a distance from the mountains. It’s Colorado Springs that is the mountain city: more than a thousand feet higher and nestled right next to Pikes Peak on the Front Range.

With that comes all the extreme weather the mountains can muster. The wind whips the city almost constantly. Snow comes in huge dumps at the weirdest times of the year. Thunderstorms roll in and out on summer days as if on fast-forward. It hails so violently you can buy extra hail coverage in your car insurance. The air is so dry, you learn to drink water nearly every minute of every day. You can often look in four directions and see four entirely different kinds of weather.

Colorado Springs is a living example of the difference between climate and weather. Its climate is wonderful. Tons of sunshine. Low humidity. Most winter days are warm and pleasant. Even the hottest summer days do not feel so hot. Our house didn’t even have air conditioning. We did just fine with the windows open to the breezes and an attic fan. But its weather? Crazy.

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We lived briefly in a third-floor apartment on the west side of the city — near the mountains that were ablaze Tuesday and Wednesday — while our new house was being built. From there, the storms coming over Pikes Peak appeared at our doorstep alarmingly fast. The wind rattled our windows and would blow our front door open if we forgot to lock the dead-bolt.

We looked at houses in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, the one you may have heard about now because the wildfire just wiped out a huge swath of it. Mountain Shadows is a lovely area, tucked against the mountains, full of beautiful trees and deer wandering through the backyards.

We didn’t end up buying there because we never found the perfect house and because we learned that the best view of the mountains actually comes from further back. We found a plot of land on the northeast side of the city with a view that would never be blocked, with a vantage point of Pikes Peak so perfect, the builder shaved off a corner of the house so the kitchen window framed the mountain exactly.

But the wind whipped there, too. Our patio furniture was made of wrought iron because anything flimsier would be battered to pieces in no time. The hail knew no boundaries. We could get an entire snowstorm that downtown Colorado Springs would never see because our house was nearly 1,000 feet higher.

We were fortunate to never experience a wildfire in our time there. If we lived there now, we’d be using that nature-at-a-distance home to take in homeless friends, spreading sleeping bags on the floor and sharing their pain. As it is, we are a safe distance across the country and feeling mostly helpless. We wish we could do something more than watch via video as nature’s cruelest turn burns our beloved mountain town. 

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