The fire this time

A wall of flame burns through Arizona, and with it, a storm of accusations.

Topics:

The fire this time

A couple of weeks ago, in the small New Mexico town of Carrizozo, I happened on a crew of young Mescalero Apache firemen resting under the shade of a cottonwood tree. I approached to thank them for their work in putting out a huge fire that had just burned out more than 30,000 acres in the mountains above my home in Tucson, Ariz. “That fire got hairy,” one of them shyly said. “But fire’s not so bad.”

“Yeah,” said another. “At least it gives us something to do.”

So it does. Just a week later, the Apache firemen were back in Arizona, along with hundreds of other firefighters from all over the West, battling what has turned out to be the largest blaze in the state’s history by an order of magnitude. Eleven days old at this writing, the combined Chediski-Rodeo fire (which began life as two separate conflagrations some 40 miles apart) has burned more than 400,000 acres, or 640 square miles, of the heavily forested country along east-central Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, a massive escarpment that rises from the desert floor in a geological tumult that is among the roughest landscapes on earth. That fire accounts for nearly a quarter of the land area that has burned thus far in what may well become the worst fire year in the history of the American West.

The sheer scale of the fire has been astonishing even to longtime observers of such phenomena, with 50-foot-tall flames dancing over an area in which most of metropolitan Cleveland or Baltimore would fit, searing the ground to sterility, consuming hundreds of homes, displacing thousands of people.

Less astonishing has been the quickness of Arizona civic boosters and Republican politicians, Gov. Jane Hull and U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl foremost among them, to blame the fire on “radical environmentalists” who have opposed efforts to make the state’s forests more fireproof — all too often, it seems, by paving them over. Arizona environmentalists have indeed long agitated against forest-management practices that scrape away combustible undergrowth and thereby convert natural woodlands into something resembling tree farms, destroying critical habitat for a broad range of species in the bargain. Those environmentalists have responded to the latest charges in kind by condemning the long-standing reluctance of state and federal foresters to allow forests to burn when fire does strike. The result of this policy of fire suppression, they charge, has been to allow forests to accumulate such a tangle of undergrowth that when fires do break out, they do so in catastrophic dimension, as they did, memorably, in Yellowstone National Park in 1988.



In the flurry of accusation and counteraccusation, both sides are correct. And both are wrong. Leaving a forest alone, especially a dry forest of the kind in which the mountain West abounds, increases its flammability. But so, too, does logging that forest, which is the real business of those state and federal foresters. The government’s long practice of “multiple use”means, to all extents and purposes, the extraction of multiple commodities such as timber, minerals and other resources from land held in the public domain.

Fire likes nothing better than the “slash,” or debris, left after a clear-cutting operation, a field of shavings that burns with bright ferocity at the mere hint of a spark. Great swaths of this slash dot the Mogollon Rim.

Forest-management policies have served the timber industry well, keeping fire out of productive groves and permitting the wholesale clearance of great tracts of land. These practices have been standard since the days of founding U.S. Forest Service director Gifford Pinchot, the author of the multiple-use doctrine, who took office a century ago. They presumably enjoy the support of President George W. Bush, who said, on touring the Chediski-Rodeo fire line a week into the burn, “Listen, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure the Forest Service has got wise forest policy — to make sure to maintain the forests so that they’re healthy and viable, and not become kindling boxes.” This “wise policy” is likely to be more of the same: scraping scrub and snags from the forest floor so that only harvestable trees remain, creating clearings with bulldozers and drag chains, suppressing fires wherever they threaten profitable stands.

This industrial approach to tree management, which only raises the risk of major fires, has not served the forests well. But fire is the least of a tree’s worries, and the dry forests of the West are doomed to burn under any circumstances. As they should, for fire is a reality of the natural world, an integral part of the natural order. Heartless though it may seem to a homeowner whose mountaintop getaway has just burned to the ground, the young Apache firefighter was right: Fire is not a bad thing. It is essential to the health of a forest, something akin to a snake’s shedding its skin. It is in recognition of this fact that progressive foresters advocate a program of controlled burning, so that when a forest becomes too choked with brushy undergrowth, portions are cleared through fire, that most natural and ultimately least intrusive of agents. Where the Forest Service has put this approach into practice — notably, again, in Yellowstone National Park — it has proved to be highly effective.

The truly surprising thing about the fire now burning in the Arizona highlands is that it did not come much sooner. For, if there is a single underlying cause for that fire, it is this: Fire follows humans, goes wherever we go. When the Rodeo and Chediski fires first sparked, separately and distantly, there was not a cloud, not a flash of lightning, in the sky. This strongly suggests that the origin of those conflagrations lies in the usual cause for the natural world’s woes: human stupidity, or, more generously, human carelessness, or even the mere presence of humans. A thoughtlessly discarded cigarette, a dragging muffler shooting sparks off asphalt, a campfire gone out of control: any one of those things might have touched off the fires. All that presumes accident, of course, and sets aside a more likely if unsettling possibility: that the fires were deliberately set, as was apparently the case in the concurrent Hayman fire southwest of Denver.

More and more humans are coming to the fast-developing Mogollon Rim, building log condominiums, shopping centers and luxury homes atop strata of bone-dry ponderosa pine needles, among arid forests that see only a couple dozen inches of rain in a year. Some of those humans smoke. Some of them drive. Some of them build campfires. Some of them are easily distracted.

And as more humans come, more fires will come, a consequence of the awful Promethean power we wield. Those fires are inevitable. For even if many find it surprising, this law of nature obtains: Should you build your home in a forest, it will someday burn.

Fire is to forest as hurricane is to beach, as tornado is to prairie, as drought is to desert. This is a reality of the natural world. But modern Americans, it seems, do not like to hear the word “no,” do not like to contemplate worst-case scenarios at the expense of cherished dreams, do not like to admit the possibility that nature cannot be controlled. It is much easier to blame what is an inescapable consequence of progress on supposed enemies of progress than it is to do the hard work of being attentive, of taking preventive measures, of building out of harm’s way rather than wherever the weather is nice and the prospect pleasing. It is much easier to throw blame than it is to develop forest-management policies that take the ways of the forest into account — and to admit the possibility, on the other side, that forests can be logged sustainably without throwing off the fabled balance of nature.

All that work is necessary if we are to continue to make our home in the woods. At least it gives us something to do.

Gregory McNamee is the author of Blue Mountains Far Away (Lyons Press, 2000), Gila: The Life and Death of an American River (Random House, 1994), and other books. He lives in Tucson.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>