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

Fire Season

Air Date: Week of

The western US got badly burned this summer. It was the worst fire season in 50 years. From his corner of New Mexico, Richard Schiffman reports on how human decisions over the years — not to cut trees or allow fires to burn — fueled these catastrophic blazes.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in for Steve Curwood. This summer has been the most destructive wildfire season in nearly half a century in the western United States. From Alaska to New Mexico more than 5 million acres of national forest have burned so far this year. Fire of course is an integral part of the natural ecological cycle, but the number of catastrophic fires has been increasing at a rate that's being called unnatural by people who live in the affected areas. Among them is Richard Schiffman. He's a radio producer who spends his summers in the mountains of northern New Mexico, and he sent us this report on how his neighbors are dealing with the current spate of forest fires.

(Flames in the background; a man on radio, with static: "It's burning on this conifer. It's in a south facing slope, about a quarter of an acre in size. This [came up?] from the fire and we'll be able to handle it." Woman: "I copy, that's going to be the ... ")

SCHIFFMAN: It started with a call like this one, crackling over the local fire channel. On the fifth of May, hot, dry winds were gusting out of the southwest. A trash fire in the village of San Cristobal blew out of control. Within minutes flames were ripping up the hillside into the pinion juniper woodlands.

(Man continues talking on radio)

RIEFSCHNEIDER: It was bad. It was clear, it was obvious that when I went down in the pickup truck to take a look at the front end of it, I didn't waste any time turning around and getting the heck out. I mean it was clearly going to be a major fire.

SCHIFFMAN: And my neighbor Bill Riefschneider should know. He used to fight fires himself, and he taught fire behavior at Yale University before moving into an adobe house just 100 yards from the path of this year's blaze. By the time this one was through, it had burned 8,000 acres of virgin forest and half of the small community of La Lama. Bill Riefschneider says that conditions were ripe for just such a disaster.

RIEFSCHNEIDER: We have had no rainfall for 2 months. That on top of a winter in which there was well under average snowfall. And so it was just clear that the woods and the fields were ready to burn.

SCHIFFMAN: But it wasn't only drought that set our mountain up for a catastrophic fire. It's also what we humans have done to the forest.

(Flowing water, birdsong)

SCHIFFMAN: These woods in northern New Mexico certainly look natural and untouched. That's why I built my house up here.

(Birdsong continues)

SCHIFFMAN: Like so many of my neighbors, I wanted to live close to nature. Which meant, for me at least, surrounded by trees. Lots of them. Grandfather Ponderosa pines 300 years old. Crowded stands of shrub oak. Gnarled pinons and junipers. And all of them so close together their crowns are intertwined. That's natural, isn't it? Well, not according to Mark Trujillo, the chief firefighter for the Carson National Forest.

TRUJILLO: A lot of people who live in areas like this think well this is the way the forest should look. But wherever you have dog-haired thickets and you have trees that are crowding each other out, it's an unhealthy situation. Nationwide, all of our forests are overstocked.

(Footfalls on gravel)

LONG: Look at all the fuel that you've got in here and it's just packed in right next to each other. And it just becomes a big pathway like you laid a fuse.

SCHIFFMAN: George Long is a wildlife expert with the Carson National Forest. I walked with him through a woodland crowded with squat pinons and fragrant junipers. He told me how decades of fire suppression had transformed these woods.

(Footfalls continue)

LONG: If we had a normal fire cycle in here where we hadn't gone through a period of suppression, then you might have a tree here, a tree there, a tree here, a tree there, and a lightning strike could actually hit one of these trees and just that tree would burn.

(Bird calls)

RIEFSCHNEIDER: Clearly what's happened is that the Forest Service and other government agencies were entirely too successful in their Smokey Bear campaign.

SCHIFFMAN: Fire expert Bill Riefschneider says that at the turn of the century the US Forest Service instituted a policy of total fire suppression throughout its vast land holdings. They hoped to protect valuable timberlands and to safeguard the property and lives of those who lived nearby, and they did their job well. Fire was banished from much of its former range, or so it seemed. But when Yellowstone burned in 1988, forest managers began to rethink their policy. They realized that by interfering with the normal fire cycle, they'd inadvertently set the stage for virtually unstoppable mega-fires, like the one that burned my mountain this spring. Even a veteran firefighter like Mark Trujillo was stumped by this one.

TRUJILLO: I've been on a lot of fires where I've arrived, sized it up, and I know what my plan of attack is going to be. On this one it was very hard to come up with a plan of attack that I thought was workable.

SCHIFFMAN: What started as a brush fire became in short order a raging firestorm with a cloud of smoke 30,000 feet high. The small community of La Lama 4 miles upwind from where the blaze started was evacuated in less than an hour. Residents like Collin Washburn had scant time to gather their valuables.

WASHBURN: We all just sat down on the highway helplessly watching this thing, and it wasn't much you could do. You could just stand back and watch this Hiroshima-like cloud and watch the flames shooting up and just praying that nobody was up there.

SCHIFFMAN: While the local residents were fleeing their homes, the first of nearly 1,000 firefighters were already assembling. It would be a week before the final embers were cool. By then, our mountain was a wasteland of blackened trees and shattered dreams. Thirty-seven homes and other structures were gone, including Colin Washburn's cabin. As you walk up his dirt road today the charcoal crunches underfoot.

(Footfalls over charcoal)

WASHBURN: The turquoise Chevy Apache truck. Now it's -- it was black 2 months ago. Now it's rusted and kind of turning a nice brown.

SCHIFFMAN: There isn't much left where his house and silversmithing studio had been. A blackened foundation. An old fashioned cast-iron bathtub. My neighbor Collin took his loss philosophically.

WASHBURN: See you don't miss this stuff; you didn't have half of a Navajo rug. It was vaporized literally, you know? So it was easy to take when nothing, it was everything had disappeared, you know? Made it a little easier to bear.

SCHIFFMAN: Recovery will come slowly to the land and to the people who lived on the land. The fire had unleashed a whole slew of new troubles. Ben Haggard lives and works at the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community which was devastated by the fire.

HAGGARD: First was the fire. Then we had severe wind storms that were virtually intolerable and that knocked down, in my case, my second home. My tent was destroyed. Then the flooding.

(Thunder storm; rain)

SCHIFFMAN: Five weeks after the fire the rains came with a vengeance. The denuded landscape had lost its ability to retain water. Flooding on a massive scale scoured the canyons of Flag Mountain, washing out roads, and threatening to bury the Lama Foundation's spring, their sole source of water.

(Turbulent water flow)

HAGGARD: And I think that's actually normal in situations like this, is that the first high visibility, you know, catastrophe is followed by a series of catastrophes that come from the breakdown of the infrastructure and the support systems for people.

SCHIFFMAN: Most of the fire victims are still in a state of shock. To date only one family has started to rebuild. But while the people here are struggling to find their direction, nature has lost no time in discovering its own. It will take a generation for the mature forest to come back. In some starting and highly visible ways, however, that process has already begun. For one thing, the crickets are back.

(Chirping crickets)

SCHIFFMAN: And even before the rains started, shoots of aspen and shrub oak were rising out of the unburned roots. Grasses, forbs, and wildflowers are now sprouting where there were only trees before, including some species which were rare and even unknown in the forest previously. In an odd way, the fire has undone years of human mismanagement of the forest. Biologist Saul Cross.

CROSS: This area had very little diversity. You would have seen pines and mostly bare ground covered with needles. Some oak interspersed. This area hopefully will come back with a lot more diversity.

SCHIFFMAN: As the land begins its slow recovery, Lama residents are facing some tough choices.

CROSS: It's one of the long-term planning issues that we need to address, is how to manage the land away from these disastrous boom-bust cycles.

SCHIFFMAN: Lama naturalist Ben Haggard says that here, as in the rest of the west, the only way to avoid future all-consuming fires is to find some way to thin out the forest. They either have to allow small fires back into the ecosystem, or they need to do what was considered a sacrilege here in the past: cut down some trees.

HAGGARD: So, I think we've all learned from this, and this generation will understand this. But how that gets passed along, you know, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now, you know, it's incumbent on us to be looking at that. How do we pass this information along?

SCHIFFMAN: That's a challenge forest managers throughout the country are exploring. They know they have to convince people how important it is to maintain an open forest, either by judicious thinning or allowing fire itself to do the job. Where the Forest Service used to suppress all fires without exception, they're now allowing some small blazes to burn themselves out. And they're even setting some of their own under carefully prescribed conditions. By reintroducing small fires back into the forest, they hope to prevent some really big ones from happening in the future. Veteran firefighter Mark Trujillo.

TRUJILLO: The main focus in fire is not going to be suppression but it's going to be managing it. And figuring out how to do that safely. Smokey's not sending out the same message any more. We're going to have to live with fire and respect it.


SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman reporting.

(Fire; a woman on radio: "... canyon, and you're headed up to the Grand Canyon. And you don't find anything there, you head back down." Man: "That's affirmative, and then on my way out I'm going to stop by and ... ")



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