Driving down Colorado Highway 115 to Cañon City a couple weeks ago, I saw the landscape through different eyes. A few miles south of our city limits, the piñon- and juniper-covered foothills are dotted with spacious adobe McMansions on acreage. Before Waldo Canyon, these places looked pretty good.
Who wouldn't want to live there? Out in the foothills, surrounded by wildlife, away from city lights and city problems?
As the thermometer touched 95, the pinons and junipers looked scorched and dry, thousands of acres of tinder ready to ignite. Maybe people were never meant to live in the forest; maybe we city dwellers should welcome the noisy safety of homes far from the fire zone.
But a few days ago, riding my bike up Gold Camp Road in the morning cool, it was time for another reversal.
It had rained the night before, and the forest seemed lush, damp and welcoming. A fox trotted into the underbrush; a doe and her fawn crossed the road; a 12-point buck in velvet stood motionless as I pedaled past.
The neighborhood was quiet. Was anyone awake in the lovely homes screened from the road by tall pines and dense groves of scrub oak? I couldn't tell. But maybe, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, "... the very rich are different from you and me — they sleep later."
It was time for real-estate envy. How much would one of these places cost? Could we fix up the old house at 21st and Bijou, pull out enough cash to get a geezer mortgage, and live in pine-scented splendor?
Fire? We've had our fire. If people are nervous about living in the forest, then this is a great time to buy! Think Jay Gatsby — he'd be knocking on doors, ready with a lowball offer!
Isn't it time for a return to normalcy? We've suffered through visits from President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Gov. John Hickenlooper, three Cabinet secretaries and dozens of lesser officials.
Wildfire poster city? We'd like to turn in our resignation. The world may not be paying attention, but we take care of our own. We're doing the dirty work now, cleaning up debris and starting the long, tiresome process of rebuilding. By the time the snow flies, we'll be focused on other things.
There's the election: Some will rejoice and some will mourn. Mayor and City Council will squabble again, to the delight of media. The dismal Rockies season will end ... but we'll have Peyton Manning and the Broncos!
We'll move past the fire, but what about the rest of the world?
Look at the publicity surrounding all this, in marketing terms. We dominated national and international news for 10 days. The searing images of the fire have been viewed by tens, maybe hundreds of millions worldwide. Whatever image we may once have projected was burned away, erased from the world's collective memory. We're the city that was on fire.
You can't buy that kind of publicity. And once it's out there, it's almost impossible to reverse. A positive marketing campaign of comparable reach and intensity wouldn't cost $10 million — try $1 billion.
So what can we do? Our local marketing gurus are doing their best. We're open for business! We're sharing Colorado Springs stay-cation ideas! We're the little city than can! (And did we mention that we're a great place to do business?) When Mayor Steve Bach was asked what he intended to discuss with the president, he was admirably direct.
"I'm going to ask him for money," he said.
Federal money will certainly flow into the region, but most of it will be used for forest restoration, flood and erosion prevention, and other mundane but necessary tasks. It won't rebuild our image.
We have to do it ourselves. We need legacy projects, not forest thinning. Recreating Mountain Shadows, tearing down the Martin Drake Power Plant, and rebuilding downtown would send a powerful message.
And we can learn from New Orleans. That city's recovery from the far greater disaster of Hurricane Katrina was aptly symbolized by a single event in 2010.
Super Bowl XLIV — Saints 31, Colts 17.
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