There is a place in our village these days where the darkness of the horrible fire is lifted, a place where the light shines and the human spirit breaks free from this monumental sadness. There's a place where hope already has been making a comeback, ahead of everyone else.
It's not an imaginary place. It's very real. You can go there each morning and evening. As the heavy, sickening smoke of the Waldo Canyon Fire washes across our village and keeps our worst fears alive, there's a place where you can stand and cheer and cry out from deep inside, a place where the soul finally finds something more powerful than grief.
It's a place on the west side of town where you can watch the exhausted, soot-covered heroes coming back from the flames or summoning the courage to throw themselves once again into the godless fire. A place where you can see the faces of unfathomable bravery.
It's a place where you can watch the firefighters go by.
For days, people have begun lining the sidewalks by 7:30 each morning in the neighborhoods near 31st and Fontanero streets. They return each evening before 8 o'clock. And in the morning and evening they wait, young and old, men, women and children, some holding American flags, some holding handmade signs of thanks, and some just trying to hold back the tears.
They come then, the firefighters, in pickup trucks and giant fire trucks and school buses, too. Dirty, battered men and women head up the hill to their camp at Holmes Middle School as others come down the hill to begin another shift, another round of dragon-slaying inside the lines amid the flames and glowing embers and lung-scorching smoke.
They have put their lives on the line every day so that our village nestled hard against the Rocky Mountains — a village that lost 346 homes and two people in the blink of an eye — doesn't lose any more. They fight day and night so no more of us die.
The crowd on the sidewalks peers down each roadway, searching for the first glimpse of these warriors. The first — a pickup truck painted in the green of the U.S. Forest Service — brings everyone to the curb. Cheers grow louder. The flags and signs are held overhead. Cries of joy and the echo of applause fill the acrid air.
The shift-change parade builds, from a trickle of small trucks and SUVs to the big fire rigs and buses bursting with firefighters. The crowd roars. A man stands silent with a fist raised overhead in salute. Women put their hands over their mouths. A few older men allow a tear to run down a cheek.
And then, when you think your heart can't bear another moment, a hand slowly emerges from a bus or a fire engine window, a hand caked with dirt and blackened by the ash. It waves a tired greeting toward the adoring throng and then another hand pokes out from a window, then another, and soon the firefighters ease their faces toward the windows and the people on the street roar and car horns blare in the smoky orange light.
The faces in the pickups and buses and fire engines on a recent night seldom smiled. The exhaustion was plain, the unthinkable fatigue unmistakably etched.
But they waved and gave the thumbs-up sign and then they were gone, heading back to their schoolyard camp for a meal and a few hours of sleep before their war on this terrible fire would resume.
And as they vanished up the hill amid the smoke that now seems to be a permanent neighbor, the people turned their misty eyes back down the road. There would be more firefighters coming. And more cheers.
Because when they are done, when these remarkable men and women have killed the monster that roars above us in the hills and mountains, when they settle back into their local fire stations or head off into the sunset to battle another fire in another place, we want them to know what they have meant to us.
We want them to know that we will never forget them.