Sunday, June 3, 2012

fire in the mountains

man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. some say we had to. be that as it may, i am glad i shall never be young without wild country to be young in. of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?
--aldo leopold, a sand county almanac

the beginning of the whitewater baldy fire, taken 5/18
it is officially fire season now. after a dry winter, with a pitiful snowfall (snowpack was less than 50% the average this year), and now building heat brought in from southerly winds, the southwest stands in perfect condition to burn.

everyone kept saying it was going to be bad, but how bad we still have yet to know... if the whitewater baldy fire has any precedent, then we should go ahead and prepare for some of the worst fires this part of the country has seen in a long time.

the whitewater baldy fire started in mid-may, and is still burning... started by lightening, the fire initially spread across a few hundred acres. for three weeks it has burned now, and has grown to over 220,000 acres. a good portion of the gila wilderness has been burned, and may continue to burn, given the extreme terrain of the mogollon mountains--steep, brushy slopes, impeded by craggy, sharp rocks, juniper and pinon, and little roads by which to gain access to the wilderness. below is a map of the fire from the forest service, showing the fire's progression as of may 31. 

whitewater baldy fire progression, 5/31
as you can see, there is significant growth since its first days, the green on the map show the place of origin for the fire. red is the latest growth... its frightening to see how the fire's path weaves itself into the steepest of canyons, then rises up the slopes to peaks, before making its way down the other side of ridges.

as of today, the fire is now 17% contained. this is great news, considering the first two weeks of the fire were 0% contained. humidity has been a constant 3% here in the area, which has only made containing the fire that much worse. monsoon rains are still months away. i am afraid that the whitewater baldy fire is just the first of many, and maybe worse, fires to come.

gomez peak on fire
which brings me to my beloved gomez peak, in the gila national forest, just four miles outside of silver city. i literally ran there the day before the fire... it was a smokey, eerie day. the air was dense with the soot that drifted in from the whitewater fire, which is still about 10 miles outside of town. you could feel the fire though, and as i ran though the woods there, i thought to myself how strange of a day it was.

strange indeed, since saturday afternoon, the day after my run, fire started to burn on gomez. the cause was probably man, since the origin was found near the picnic area. 

this was pre-gomez burn, we are upgraded to "extreme" now
smokey the bear was right to warn us humans to be careful with our flames, so that we might prevent more incidents like gomez from happening... but not all fire was created equal, and while gomez is the fault of humans, and was put out by firefighters immediately, the whitewater baldy fire is an example of what the forest service has set out as an example of the middle-ground--between a prescribed burn (pb for short) and a wildfire--called a "wildland fire". the wildland fire is a fire that is considered to have positive benefits to its destruction, as fire is a natural way for the forest to relieve itself of old, overgrown brush, and allow for new life.
young aspen forest, in the springtime (colorado)
the aspen tree is an example of such new life, and without wildfires, we would probably not have aspen. the aspen grow best in the fertile ash, left in the wake of a forest fire. yet, their evolution has made their root system immune to fire itself--a beautiful curiosity. the aspen was for a long time considered earth's largest single living organism, as their roots are all connected in one complete system. one aspen forest's root system can cover several mountains!  
yellowstone, 23 years later (photo taken summer 2011)

the idea that fire should be allowed to burn is a relatively new one... up through the 1980s forest fire was seen as dangerous and destructive... the forest service quelled any fire at all costs. then there was the yellowstone fire in 1988. the fire in yellowstone was too huge and hot to control, images of flames eating america's most wonderful natural park burned on television sets nationally. finally, the forest service succumbed to seeing the brighter side of the fire, as it set out to control the undergrowth of decades of unchecked brush and debris on the forest's floor. today, the scar of the 1988 fire in yellowstone is still visible, but the new growth there is blossoming to show that after all death, there is new life. 

thanks aldo!
wilderness itself is just a confused euphemism, coined by man to place himself somewhere equal to the force of nature. nothing is wild because man calls it that, but only true wilderness can exist where man's imagination stops and his footprint has never been.

aldo leopold, the godfather of national parks and wilderness areas, designed wilderness as a place for minimal human impact, as he had seen in the turn-of-the-century redesign the landscape of the american frontier from forests to fields, filling once wild country with cattle and roads, turning free-flowing rivers to pre-stocked and irrigated waterways that offered 'maximum use' value to man.

without aldo's genuine gesture to create wilderness, there is no doubt that america's national forests would be overrun with cattle ranchers and loggers. thankfully, what little 'wilderness' we have today has been endowed to us by leopold, who wanted nothing more than a 'blank spot on the map' for which we americans might mark our freedoms.
smokey sun
living in the southwest has brought me closer to those freedoms, undoubtedly from the close contact i have with the wilderness here. america's largest wildernesses, the aldo leopold & gila wildernesses, are my backyard, and i am free to play in them whenever i like... except when they are in flames.

but i am happy there is fire in the mountains, as much as it grieves me to breathe smokey air, and think of little creatures fleeing flaming forests (images of bambi's final scenes run through my head). i realize that fire is man's doing, and undoing. it is the thing that made us the bringer of machine, but is also what stops the machine of mankind.

fire is wild, and man is reminded, in instances of wildfire such as the whitewater baldy, yellowstone in '88, and many other countless incidents, that we are not in control. our freedom, if understood as a blank spot on the map, has the potential to be burned off that map just as quickly as we imagined it there.

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