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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011


Wildfires

The ugly, the bad and the good.

by Jay Sharp

 

In the 1860s, a youthful Mark Twain had encamped with a friend along the forested shoreline of Lake Tahoe. Twain built a campfire, which he carelessly neglected just for a moment. Suddenly, his friend shouted in alarm. Looking up, as Twain recalled in his book Roughing It, "I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises!

wildfire
Leaning barrel cactus, killed by wildfire.
(All photos by Jay W. Sharp)

"The ground was deeply carpeted with dry pine needles, and the fire touched them off as if they were gunpowder. It was wonderful to see with what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled! My coffeepot was gone, and everything with it. In a minute and a half the fire seized upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chaparral six or eight feet high, and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific.…

"Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame! It went surging up adjacent ridges — surmounted them and disappeared in the canyons beyond — burst into view upon higher and farther ridges, presently — shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again — flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the mountain side — threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among the remote ramparts and ribs and gorges."

Twain and his friend escaped by boat across Lake Tahoe.

wildfire 2
Two burned yuccas at the foot of a burned mountain slope.

I remember, nearly half a century ago, my wife, Martha, and I skirted a wildfire that rolled southward like a tsunami of flame and smoke, driven by a fierce wind, across grasslands in the Rolling Plains of Texas. It left a blackened landscape, skeletal cedar fence posts, and incinerated livestock and wildlife in its wake.

I recall, a few years later, stopping before a wildfire that swept through a stand of Loblolly Pines in eastern Texas. A small, thin, aging black woman wearing a white apron and a flowered head kerchief stood on the porch of her small cabin, looking at the flames through the trees. "I ain't never seen nothing like this," she said, weeping softly. I hold an indelible memory of the anguish in her face and eyes, although she and her cabin had been mercifully spared.

I can still see, in my mind's eye, a wildfire that burned for days in the canyons and on the slopes of a West Texas mountain range a quarter-century ago. At night, we could see the distant flames advancing hungrily up the peaks. By day, we could see billowing columns of white smoke that flared and drifted with the wind at the upper elevations.

Wildfires, as Mark Twain suggested, can be spellbinding. Twain and his friend, from their refuge of the boat on Lake Tahoe, "sat absorbed and motionless for four long hours," watching the wildfire advance through the forest and over the mountains.

 

The Ugly

Hiking through desert basin and mountain landscapes charred by wildfire in southern New Mexico, I find myself drawn, not to the panorama of blackened trees, shrubs and landmasses, but to the small things. Near the edge of a burned-out canyon, I come upon a brilliant yellow sign with black letters: "Extreme Fire Danger." Walking up the canyon's burned-out streambed, I look up through blackened branches of trees — the foliage burned away — into a blue sky with patchy white clouds.

wildfire 3
Carcass of a kangaroo rat caught in wildfire.

I find a charred and gnarled trunk of a shrub, snarled with barbed wire; the carcass of a kangaroo rat, its front paws drawn tightly into miniature fists; the fallen stem of a yucca, lying corpselike in ashen soil and burned rocks; the leaning, sad, corpulent body of a barrel cactus, surrounded by the blackened branches of a fallen tree; bilious yellow clusters of prickly pear, which, only a few weeks previously, had borne brilliantly yellow blooms; a stub of burned bunchgrass only a few feet from a cluster of totally untouched bunchgrass; powdery patches of dark gray soil, the surface hauntingly streaked by the black shadows of the defoliated branches of shrubs; the blackened and almost otherworldly remnants of a plant I don't know but which has somehow retained a semblance of its biological organization; and the blackly denuded soil of a drainage now a wound laid open for erosion when the monsoonal season comes.

Leaving the forlorn landscape, my boots blackened by ash, I see several tarantula wasps on the hunt near a burned shrub. I see a small bird, which I can't identify, with nesting material in its beak, flying across the blackened landscape. I catch a glimpse of a rodent — I think a rock squirrel — scurrying into a burrow near blackened stream cobbles. I wonder what the insects, the birds, the mammals knew.

 

The Bad

In recent years — a period of continuing drought likely exacerbated by global warming in the Southwest — wildfires have increased in numbers and intensity. "Wildfires have consumed increasing areas of western US forests in recent years," reported Science magazine back in 1996, "and fire-fighting expenditures by federal land-management agencies now regularly exceed US$1 billion/year. Hundreds of homes are burned annually by wildfires, and damages to natural resources are sometimes extreme and irreversible." The trend continues more than a decade later.

wildfire 4
Blackened branches of trees with the foliage burned away.

In May 2000, for example, a prescribed burn near the Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico, raced out of control. Spreading across more than 42,000 acres, the flames forced the residents of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory to evacuate.

In June 2002, a wildfire in national forest and Apache Indian reservation lands, in east-central Arizona, burned nearly half a million acres and destroyed some 500 structures, forcing some 30,000 residents to evacuate, scrambling to save their livestock and family pets.

In October 2007, more than 20 separate wildfires broke out in the dry lands in southern California, extending from the border with Mexico to the Simi Valley near Los Angeles. According to Time/CNN reporter Bryan Walsh, "In many places, the heat and smoke were so intense that the 7,000 firefighters recruited from around the country could do little but watch. The flames consumed more than 400,000 acres (162,000 hectares), destroyed more than 2,000 houses and forced the temporary evacuation of nearly 1 million people."

 

 

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