Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Fires this Time

Winter decided not to gift New Mexico with any snow this year. Which means we're destined for a pretty bad fire season this summer. It didn't take long for them to begin. The Wallow fire just over the state line in Arizona is huge and out of control, having spread to over 500, 000 acres at the time of writing. Smoke from the fire has spread as far as the Great Lakes region, 1600 miles away.

I first noticed the smoke one night coming out of work. The smell was obvious, though at first I thought it must've been more local. On the drive home, the haze in the air reminded me of the summer fogs of Santa Barbara, the street lights at the 599 highway exits glowing like the alien ships in the 'War of the Worlds.' As I approached my house, I noticed people standing in front of their houses, staring south into the desert. The air was much more acrid here, the fire close. Was there a brushfire out in the desert? I looked awhile for the telltale glow on the horizon, but not seeing any, frantically looked online for any information. I figured that if the fires came close, the sound of firetrucks would wake us from our sleep.

In the morning, my truck was covered with ash. Taylor and I drove over to the Jemez to hike Cerro Grande trail. This is the site of a May 2000 fire which destroyed hundreds of homes and threatened Los Alamos labs. Even 11 years later, the slopes of the lower forest have not fully grown back, with a large number of trees twisted and blackened. The hike is short but notoriously steep, including a final ascent that is essentially a straight line up the mountainside. I'm usually a pretty solid hiker, but today I was incredibly winded. Every burning breath was a gift in the spiritual sense, a chance to be nowhere else but in the 'now.' From the summit, few of the surrounding ranges were visible, but we found consolation in watching the great herds of elk down in the Valle.

As the days went on, it began to be like a Sci-Fi film. The air at night was less and less the soft, blanket of fog of the coast, and more like a glimpse of a post apocalyptic world. One night in particular it sat on us like a yellow lid. I thought at first that a much needed storm was rolling in, only to step outside and be hit once again by the smoky smell. The sunsets that week were incredible, a testament to the similarity of how water and smoke refract light.

A few days later I was driving past an arroyo near our home, when Miki asked me if they had done a controlled burn there. I immediately said yes, but a day later, I noticed that the trees too had been stripped by fire. That explains the thick smoke that first night. Had that fire not been extinguished quickly, it would've probably reached our house within an hour.

Arizona, meanwhile, continues to burn...

...and so does Santa Fe National Forest. I wrote the above a week ago, and few days later, a pillar of smoke began to rise over our mountains. It is spreading slower than the Arizona fire, but the winds are once again up today. I pray for rain. This being my last summer in New Mexico, I had hoped to spend much of my time in the hills. But the entire Pecos is closed as precautions, as is Bandalier, the Sandias, and the Carson forest near Taos. There will no hiking for anyone this summer, until the monsoons come.

Again, I pray for rain...

On the turntable: Elvis Hitler, "Hellbilly"
On the nighttable: Joan Mellon, "The Waves at Genji's Door"

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