For years, Patricia Prijatel has been spending her summers in a tiny, peaceful cabin on a picturesque mountainside in southern Colorado.
But in June of 2013, Mother Nature interrupted her midyear retreat. A fire — the East Peak Fire to be exact — burned 13,500 acres of wooded mountainside right up to, but sparing, Prijatel’s cabin home.
While she and her family escaped safely, what she found in the aftermath was not only a damaged and changed landscape, but her own personal emotional roller coaster.
Now in her memoir, “Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and its Loss,” Prijatel, a retired journalism professor at Drake University in Des Moines, paints a picture of the experience of escaping the fire, the destruction it left behind, and what the permanent impacts have been to a place she loves so dearly and her own mental health. The memoir both helps her explore her own fears and losses and helps paint a picture for others of the unexpected emotional toll that climate change will have on us as humans.
“My goal was to show people how wonderful this place is,” she said of her mountain cabin by phone from Des Moines, where she lives most of the year. “But more than that, to get them to care about what we’re losing.”
The book talks about the fire itself, but also details the efforts Prijatel and her family — namely her husband, brother and sister-in-law — go to restore their land.
“We’ve planted more than 1,000 trees,” she said. “Some parts of our forests are not going to come back unless we do things like that. We were responding in a proactive way so there is a little hope in that.”
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But her writing also reflects and details the after effects of the fire, including flash floods, erosion, high winds, toxic air and dangerous orphaned animals. An interaction with a bear trying to get into their cabin, sent Prijatel “over the edge” for example.
“I’m still a little bit afraid of nature,” she said, noting that she and her husband, Joe, continue to spend parts of their summer at their cabin in Colorado. “I love what’s left. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. But I’m always looking over my shoulder. I’m always worried about what is going to happen now.”
She is hopeful that her story is something others can relate to or better understand.
“It was exceptionally beneficial for me to acknowledge that I was grieving,” she said. “I just want people to pay attention that this is what’s happening. It’s just a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere.”
Shortly after the fire, Prijatel began writing about it to tell the story of what happened.
“I wrote probably what ended up being about the first two or three chapters, the part about the fire itself ... and that was cathartic. I put it on my Psychology Today blog and got lots of responses. A lot of the neighbors that had been involved appreciated being able to discuss it,” she said.
But as Prijatel started thinking about turning the blog posts into a book, something didn’t quite fit.
“I sent out a book proposal and it was based on this nice little happy book about this fire,” she said. “I was doing that during the first year after the fire, but as the years went by it was clear we weren’t going to come back better than ever. This was devastation that was permanent. And we were all far more traumatized then it had occurred to me at the time.”
Prijatel put the project on the back burner for probably a year and a half. But when she found herself at an event where she met a psychologist who specialized in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Prijatel shared her situation with the fire and the bear with him and her wheels started spinning.
“He looked at me and said well that seems really scary,” she recalled. “It was so validating to hear that. He said that I had PTSD and when I asked what you do about it, he said write. He tells his patients to write about it.”
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Prijatel had experience writing about trauma due in part to battling breast cancer and writing a blog and book about her journey.
“I did that because it really helps you process the diagnosis and treatment,” she said of her book, “Surviving Triple Negative Breast Cancer: Hope, Treatment, and Recovery.” “But I guess I wasn’t doing that with the fire because I didn’t want to face it.”
Prijatel tapped into her journalism background to add research to the story.
“I loved being able to describe the place I love and sharing it with others. And I liked the research I did and connecting with other client researchers and climate activists. It helped me emotionally and mentally,” she said. “But writing the last part was harder ... getting to the end, getting to the OK so now what was challenging.”
Prijatel started rewriting the book.
Her desire to share her story and get people to pay attention to climate change was fueled by well-meaning conversations with friends and acquaintances.
“People would say things like ‘I’m so glad everything’s OK’ and note that because our cabin didn’t burn and nobody died, everything therefore is OK ... I couldn’t make the point that the land is not OK, the land is not coming back right,” she said. “It’s very hard to talk about environmental loss because you lose your audience really fast.”
“Burn Scars” is her plea for people to pay attention.
“We need to make people care ... we are losing this planet,” she said. “We are at a point of crisis, and we aren’t talking about it enough. I had maybe the kind of story that could get people to care, to see what we are losing, this kind of beauty is what we’re losing. People love to go to the mountains. Well, if we don’t change our ways, this is the way the mountains are all going to look. And that’s heartbreaking to me. It should be heartbreaking to everybody.”
“Burn Scars” is available on Amazon and at independent bookstores like Prairie Lights. For more information, visit: patriciaprijatel.com.