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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fire Zone

Air Date: Week of

Producer Guy Hand, who lives in the oak forests of central California, has a reporter’s notebook on the pleasures and perils of living in fire country.


KNOY: It's fire time in the West. New Mexico is the first casualty of the season, as blazes spread across thousands of acres, shut down the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and forced thousands of people from their homes. Despite the risk, the dream of a closer connection to nature has more and more Americans moving in and near fire country. Producer Guy Hand, who lives in the fire-prone oak forests of central California, wonders if that's a wise move.


HAND: I recognize the signs immediately. The bone-dry snap of twigs. The brittle crack of fallen leaves. That unblinking sun set against a cloudless sky. Air so dry, so damned hungry for moisture, it cracks the skin around my knuckles until they bleed. By July, I'll be well into my summer habit of scanning the horizon, sniffing the air.


HAND: I'll have cut away dead limbs, cleared brush. I'll have raked oak leaves to bare ground. After that, I'll wait. It's all I can do. Fire is rooted to this place. It's as native as sandstone, and it will come.

(Scraping; fade to bird song)

HAND: When my wife and I bought our cabin in the mountains north of Santa Barbara, I knew all that. I'd grown up in the West, embraced by aridity, but always lived in town. Yet the trees, the wildflowers, the birds, the quiet of the country were too much to resist. Freed from city life by mobile phones, fax machines, and telecommuting jobs, others are drawn, too -- drawn like the proverbial moth to flame. And those too new to understand the incendiary nature of the West often assume that fire can be banished as easily as an unsightly pig farm or trailer park, with nothing more than a swift rewording of the zoning codes. Yet it takes far more than words to banish fire. It takes technology, money, manpower, and, too often, human lives.

(Helicopter engines. Man: "More firefighters head to the front line of the stubborn Ogilvie fire...")

HAND: Last fall, a fire bloomed in the mountains some fifteen miles from our cabin. Soon the borate bombers were growling overhead, and fire engines rumbling up our remote mountain lane. When the crew erected a base camp on a terrace just across the river from us, filling it with tents and trucks and crackling radios, any illusion that in the backcountry we had slipped the bonds of civilization went up in smoke.

(Woman: "We have a lot of helicopters on there as well." Helicopter engines)

HAND: The choppers arrived like some crazy, nightmarish scene from a Vietnam War movie. They rattled overhead six or seven at a time, carrying fire crews or water to the front. As unnerving as a swarm of metallic deer flies, they hovered over us for six long days. When the wind shifted, and ash suddenly drifted down on us like snow, the sun fading behind smoke to a flat orange doppelganger moon, I suddenly felt blessed to have that army of ear-shattering technology nearby.

(Helicopter engines)

HAND: And as I watched the flames fade under a shower of retardant more aggressively orange than the fire itself, I was struck by a uniquely Western paradox. Every time we suppress a blaze, we suppress the very nature of the West. We cut short the evolutionary dance of land and flame. We starve the ground of nutrients. We inhibit the dispersal of seed. We alter, perhaps forever, that which we have come here to love.

(Bird song)

HAND: I'd taken a certain pride in living lightly on this bit of land, in learning the names of its plants and its animals, its geology, the rhythms of its weather. Yet, no matter the passion or purity of our intent, as we run from the excesses of modern life, they simply march into the woods behind us.

(Bird song)

HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.



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