Wildfires: The Ugly, The Bad and The Good

 

Over the past decade, wildfires have increased in numbers and intensity in the Southwest.

Over the past decade, wildfires have increased in numbers and intensity in the Southwest.

 

“In a minute and a half the fire seized upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chaparral six or eight feet high, and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific. . .” Mark Twain, Roughing It In the 1860's, a youthful Mark Twain had encamped with a friend along the forested shoreline of Lake Tahoe. Twain built a campfire, which he carelessly neglected just for a moment. Suddenly, his friend shouted in alarm. Looking up, as Twain said in his book Roughing It, "…I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises! 

"The ground was deeply carpeted with dry pine needles, and the fire touched them off as if they were gunpowder. It was wonderful to see with what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled! My coffeepot was gone, and everything with it. In a minute and a half the fire seized upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chaparral six or eight feet high, and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific. . .

 

Warning sign at the mouth of a Southwest mountain range canyon that was the scene of a recent wildfire.

Warning sign at the mouth of a Southwest mountain range canyon that was the scene of a recent wildfire.

 

"Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame! It went surging up adjacent ridges – surmounted them and disappeared in the canyons beyond – burst into view upon higher and farther ridges, presently – shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again – flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the mountain side – threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among the remote ramparts and ribs and gorges…" 

Twain and his friend escaped by boat across Lake Tahoe.

I remember, nearly half a century ago, my wife, Martha, and I skirted a wildfire that rolled southward like a tsunami of flame and smoke, driven by a fierce wind, across grasslands in the Rolling Plains of Texas. It left a blackened landscape, skeletal cedar fence posts, and incinerated livestock and wildlife in its wake.

I recall, a few years later, stopping before a wildfire that swept through a stand of Loblolly Pines in eastern Texas. A small, thin, aging black woman wearing a white apron and a flowered head kerchief stood on the porch of her small cabin, looking at the flames through the trees. "I ain't never seen nothing like this," she said, weeping softly. I hold an indelible memory of the anguish in her face and eyes, although she and her cabin had been mercifully spared. 

Two burned yuccas at the foot of a burned mountain slope.

I can still see, in my mind's eye, a wildfire that burned for days in the canyons and on the slopes of a West Texas mountain range a quarter of a century ago. At night, we could see the distant flames advancing hungrily up the peaks. By day, we could see billowing columns of white smoke that flared and drifted with the wind at the upper elevations. 

Wildfires, as Mark Twain suggested, can be spellbinding. Twain and his friend, from their refuge of the boat on Lake Tahoe, ". . . sat absorbed and motionless for four long hours," watching the wildfire advance through the forest and over the mountains. 

The Ugly

Hiking through desert basin and mountain landscapes recently charred by wildfire, I find myself drawn, not to the panorama of blackened trees, shrubs and landmasses, but to the small things. Near the edge of a burned-out canyon, I come upon a brilliant yellow sign with black letters: "Extreme Fire Danger." Walking up the canyon's burned-out streambed, I look up through blackened branches of trees – the foliage burned away – into a blue sky with patchy white clouds. I find a charred and gnarled trunk of a shrub, snarled with barbed wire; the carcass of a kangaroo rat, its front paws drawn tightly into miniature fists; the fallen stem of a yucca, lying corpselike in ashen soil and burned rocks; the leaning, sad, corpulent body of a barrel cactus, surrounded by the blackened branches of a fallen tree; bilious yellow clusters of prickly pear, which, only a few weeks previously, had borne brilliantly yellow blooms; a stub of burned bunchgrass only a few feet from a cluster of totally untouched bunchgrass; powdery patches of dark gray soil, the surface hauntingly streaked by the black shadows of the defoliated branches of shrubs; the blackened and almost otherworldly remnants of a plant I don't know but which has somehow retained a semblance of its biological organization; and the blackly denuded soil of a drainage now a wound laid open for erosion when the monsoon season comes.

I saw a small bird, which I couldn't identify, with nesting material in its beak, flying across the blackened landscape.Leaving the forlorn landscape, my boots blackened by ash, I saw several Tarantula Wasps on the hunt near a burned shrub. I saw a small bird, which I couldn't identify, with nesting material in its beak, flying across the blackened landscape. I caught a glimpse of a rodent – I think a Rock Squirrel – scurrying into a burrow near blackened stream cobbles. I wondered what the insects, the birds, the mammals knew. 

The Bad

Over the past decade – a period of continuing drought exacerbated by global warming in the Southwest – wildfires have increased in numbers and intensity. "Wildfires have consumed increasing areas of western U. S. forests in recent years," said Science magazine back in July of 1996, "and fire-fighting expenditures by federal land-management agencies now regularly exceed US$1 billion/year. Hundreds of homes are burned annually by wildfires, and damages to natural resources are sometimes extreme and irreversible." The trend continues more than a decade later.

In May of 2000, for example, a prescribed burn near the Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico, raced out of control. Spreading across more than 42,000 acres, the flames forced the residents of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory to evacuate. 

In June of 2002, a wildfire in national forest and Apache Indian reservation lands, in east central Arizona, burned nearly half a million acres and destroyed some 500 structures, forcing some 30,000 residents to evacuate, scrambling to save their livestock and family pets. 

 

Sickly yellow clusters of prickly pear, killed by wildfire.

Sickly yellow clusters of prickly pear, killed by wildfire.

 

In October of 2007, more than 20 separate wildfires broke out in the dry lands in southern California, extending from the border with Mexico to the Simi Valley near Los Angeles, said Bryan Walsh, writing for the Time in Partnership with CNN Internet site. "In many places, the heat and smoke were so intense that the 7000 firefighters recruited from around the country could do little but watch. The flames consumed more than 400,000 acres (162,000 hectares), destroyed more than 2000 houses and forced the temporary evacuation of nearly 1 million people. . ."

In the first six months of 2008, the Southwest - from southern California to western Texas - experienced some 4000 wildfires that burned nearly a half million acres.In the first six months of 2008, the Southwest – from southern California to western Texas – experienced some 4000 wildfires that burned nearly a half million acres, according to data from the National Interagency Coordination Center, Incident Management Situation Report, and the worst part of the wildfire season had barely begun. Annual fire-fighting expenditures by the federal agencies have more than tripled, according to Neil Shea, National Geographic, July 2008. 

We can blame no one but ourselves for much of the problem, not just because we sometimes start fires by a neglected campfire, a carelessly tossed cigarette, or even arson, but more because we have managed and used our Southwest lands poorly.

In Mark Twain's time, when the Southwest remained largely true to its natural state, our desert basins hosted sparsely vegetated shrub and grasslands, and our mountain ranges, open park-like forests. Wildfires, usually ignited by lightening and burning at relatively low intensity, served ecological purposes, effectively pruning the plant communities and freeing nutrients. 

Now, in the deserts, where we have permitted livestock to decimate native grasses and allowed non-native grasses and other alien plants to invade denuded landscapes, "fire incidence has been increasing. . . with negative consequences for native plants and animals," according to an article, "USGS [United States Geological Survey] Studies Wildfire Ecology In The Western United States," published in ScienceDaily. The native grasses, which grow in patches across the soil, typically limit the spread of wildfires in the desert. By contrast, the invasive species (for instance Red Brome and African Buffelgrass), which grow more carpet-like, encourage wildfire expansion and, often, the elimination of native desert shrubs. The invasive species profit. The native plants suffer. "Fire," said Dr. Steve Knick in the USGS study report, "has gone from maintaining a shrubland, to destroying a shrubland, to ultimately maintaining an exotic grassland." Referring to the Sonoran Desert, Dr. Cecil Schwalbe, in the report, said ". . . we're seeing a biome conversion, from palo verde and saguaro habitat to a mesquite-acacia savannah with a Mediterranean exotic grass understory. That's the future of the Sonoran Desert—especially near roads."

 

Blackened branches of trees with the foliage burned away.

Blackened branches of trees with the foliage burned away.

 

In the mountain forests, where we have suppressed wildfire, allowed overgrazing, and permitted dense tree and understory growth, we have helped create "conditions in which catastrophic fires may threaten the forests themselves," said the USGS report. Screened from wildfires, which originally occurred every few years to every couple of decades, Ponderosa Pine forests may increase in density from perhaps 100 trees per acre to 1500 to more than 2000 trees per acre. The dense stands, especially when stressed by drought, become susceptible to destructive insect – for instance, Pine Bark Beetle – infestations, which may leave dead trees and drying timbers – ideal fuel for wildfires – in their wake. Moreover, the trees' crowns overlap, setting the stage for wildfires to reach higher above the forest floor. 

In the 1990's, we built more than eight million homes near the perimeters of the national forests of the West.Further, we have raised the ante for risk by building communities and homes in some of the most picturesque – and most fire prone – stretches of the desert and forest landscape. For instance, in the 1990's, we built more than eight million homes near the perimeters of the national forests of the West, according to Neil Shea in his National Geographic article. In densely settled neighborhoods, Shea reports, "houses replace trees as the primary fuel" as burning embers land on wooden shingle roofs, sweep under eaves, or filter through ceiling vents, setting the structures alight."   

Every wildfire, responding to variable combinations of fuels, landforms and weather, follows a menacing and unpredictable course. For example, as the USGS said in the report Science Basis for Changing Forest Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity, "Surface fires can spread rapidly through dry grass and forest floor fuels igniting tree crowns (especially those with low crowns). Torching often progresses from individual trees and small groups of trees to large groups and stands within a few hours. . . Torching and crown fire are strongly associated with spotting because firebrands are produced and injected high into the windstream by vertical convection above the flame plume. . . Winds often carry firebrands hundreds of feet and even miles from their sources spanning barriers such as roads, ridges, rivers, and rock outcroppings."

Once a wildfire has finally been controlled, "…and both media and suppression resources have returned home, neighborhoods and communities are still left with the result," as the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership said in its Internet site, and the cost has many dimensions. In a tragic example, the local – and national – population grieved for 14 firefighters who lost their lives in the Storm King Mountain Fire in Colorado's Rocky Mountains in 1994. Local businesses, homes, community infrastructure, vehicles and transportation facilities may be damaged or destroyed. Magnificent Southwest vistas may become mournful, blackened landscapes, at least until the land can recover. Tourism and recreation suffers. Archaeological and historic sites can be lost or irreparably damaged. Environmental damage in the fire's path reflects loss of wildlife and plant habitat, sometimes including threatened or endangered species, and it can leave denuded landscapes susceptible to severe erosion. Sometimes personally important places – for instance, for my family and me, the glorious Santa Clara Canyon, on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation in northern New Mexico – suffered wildfire damages that will not be repaired within our lifetimes.

 

Leaning barrel cactus, killed by wildfire.

Leaning barrel cactus, killed by wildfire.

The Good

In some instances... in the chaparral shrublands of coastal California, wildfires did trigger germination of various plant seeds.While wildfires in our desert basins and mountain ranges leave physical and emotional scars across the land, they can also play a beneficial environmental role. Before suppression of burns, overgrazing by livestock and introduction of alien species, wildfires struck the botanically impoverished desert basins – compared with the forested mountain ranges – only infrequently, and they caused relatively little fundamental change. In some instances, however, for example, in the chaparral shrublands of coastal California, wildfires did trigger germination of various plant seeds. ". . . many species drop seeds that remain dormant in the soil 'seed bank' until fire creates favorable growth conditions," said ScienceDaily. "When the area burns, these seeds receive a number of cues that may cause them to germinate. While seed germination in some species is stimulated by heat, in many others the onset of plant growth requires chemical exposure to combustion products such as charred wood."

[In the forests] flames cleared understory, minimized crown overlaps, freed up plant nutrients and sustained meadowlands, assuring lower intensity and less destructive fires and promoting biological diversity. Occurring far more often in the forests, the wildfires had much more impact. As Dr. Nate Stephenson told ScienceDaily, ". . . fire restores stability and resiliency to the forest ecosystems." The flames cleared understory, minimized crown overlaps, freed up plant nutrients and sustained meadowlands, assuring lower intensity and less destructive fires and promoting biological diversity. The fires maintained a structure of a parkland with an open understory and open meadows. 

". . . widespread surface fires that occurred every 2-15 years favored grasses and limited pine densities. Early explorers described majestic, open stands with rich grasses and occasional shrubs beneath, as young ponderosa seedlings were often killed by the low-intensity fires while mature pines, with their thick yellowish red bark, were only scarred," according to the Land Use History of North America Internet site. 

Quoted by the Northern Arizona University Internet site, Lieutenant Edwin Beale, crossing northern Arizona in 1857, reported that "We came to a glorious forest of lofty pines . . . The country was beautifully undulating, and although we usually associate the idea of barrenness with the pine regions, it was not so in this instance; every foot being covered with the finest grass, and beautiful broad grassy vales extending in every direction. The forest was perfectly open and unencumbered with brush wood, so that the travelling was excellent . . ." 

Even as wildfires died, the rebirth of the forests began. I suspect that's what the Tarantula Wasps, the small birds and the Rock Squirrels knew.

The Southwest Fire Management Board has published "LIVING WITH FIRE: A GUIDE FOR THE HOMEOWNER," which offers the following checklist to help you protect your home and reduce wildfire threats:

  1. Stack firewood away from the house
  2. Thin and prune trees and shrubs.
  3. Maintain a circle of safety—at least 30 feet or greater on slopes.
  4. Keep grass and weeds mowed.
  5. Keep the immediate area clear of debris.
  6. Enclose openings such as porches and foundations.
  7. Remove tree limbs that hang over structures.
  8. Replace or treat wood shake roofs with fire retardant materials.
  9. Keep roofs and gutters clear of debris.
  10. Keep your fire extinguisher charged and available, and a hose near outdoor faucets.
  11. Dispose of ashes properly
  12. Provide adequate access for emergency vehicles.
  13. Install spark arrestors on chimneys.
  14. Provide an adequate outdoor water supply.
  15. Dispose of trash legally—do not burn it.

Fire's New Role

In an effort to restore the forests and the woodlands of the Southwest, environmental scientists have called on fire – this time as prescribed and controlled burns – along with mechanical thinning to help reduce the density of the trees and understory. Their work shows promise, but they are still working to understand the effects on the availability of water, carbon and nutrients. 

Living With the Risk of Fire

If you live in a Southwest home in an area with heavy brush or forest, you may face considerable risk of wildfire, especially if you are located on a densely forested, steep slope or deep canyon on the south or southwest side of a mountain. Thick stands of trees and underbrush serve as fuel for a fire. Steep slopes and deep canyons facilitate the rapid spread of the fire. A south or southwest mountainside, dried out by its greater exposure to sunshine, offers ready footholds for wildfires. 

by Jay W. Sharp

 

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