Artist Justin Rowles rendition of the Narrowsburg fire.

Fire and rain

In May, the lilacs bloom, trees are in leaf, and the lawn wants its first mowing. Eagles are busy hunting, feeding their hungry hatchlings almost constantly. A parade of brightly colored migrant birds stops at the feeders. Ducklings follow their mothers around the eddy, learning to evade the eagles.

Anyone who watches nature unfold each season can tell you the weather is changing, though. Storms are more violent these days. This last one, in May, offered up a tornado, rare here, as a kind of amuse bouche of things to come. It toppled tall pines like pick-up-sticks, split sycamores in half, downed power poles leaving tell-tale burn lines on roadsides and lawns. A billboard advertising an electrician is singed by lines still dangling from it. An eagle lost a hatchling, I’m told.

The Saturday after the storm, after four days without power, when it seemed the worst was over, an eerie glow rose against the sky as huge plumes of smoke billowed like clouds in the night. Narrowsburg, it seemed, was on fire. We had turned into town just as the lights went on and fire engines roared down the road. When we reached Main Street, firefighters told us to pull over and park, leaving us to walk the last half mile home. Neighbors found us and drove us and our little dogs home that night.

Something happens to perception in a catastrophe. Local events take on a universal scale. First wind, then fire. The anxiety of the unknown sets in. What next? I felt the world was coming undone again.

From our bedroom window we could see the fire die down as volunteers doused the building with water pumped from Little Lake Erie. Some of them looked no older than 16. I saw fear in a boy’s eyes as he hauled a heavy hose up the street. Their actions would save the town that night, or lose it. The fire did not spread beyond the funeral home and furniture store, thanks to the skill and grit of our local fire companies.

By Sunday morning the furniture store, an anchor of Main Street, was boarded up, its window frames blackened with soot. The stench of smoke filled the air. As I passed the store, owner Patrick Harrison was retrieving documents from his office next door. “So sorry, Patrick,” was all I could think of to say. His tired eyes answered for him.

In the days after 9/11, we took refuge from our smoldering city neighborhood in our home in Narrowsburg. I knew then that I could live here, but it would be many more years before that would come to pass. We are in the midst of that transition now. To see our refuge at risk unsettles, but does not deter me. We suffered no losses this time. Others lost everything but life.

The lilacs have faded now. Rhododendrons are exploding like firecrackers of color everywhere. The duckling population has dwindled. Neighbors gather in town and talk about the weather. It’s changing, they agree. What will we do about it?


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