Fire. It both frightens and fascinates. And these days I seem to be surrounded by it.
Since my first visit to Mesa Verde I have known of the history of flames in this place. Over two thirds of the park has been burnt in large-scale wildfires, and the scars they’ve left behind are unavoidable. Some visitors find them unforgivable as well. They complain we should be doing more to down the dead trees, to hurry the process of healing. But I’ve always found the skeletal forests here to be surreal in their beauty.
Until this summer that was the only effect the idea of fire had on me. I thought of dancing flames and the dramatic landscapes they left behind. I thought of a special type of beauty, one unique to the ecosystem of our park. But I didn’t think much more of it than that. It has been almost 10 years since the last major fire burnt at Mesa Verde. It was so long ago now that many of the trees once charred black have since lost their outer layers to erosion, leaving them smooth and white, a graveyard of marble sculptures. This lack of obvious evidence leads directly to the most commonly asked question in the park: ‘Why are all the trees dead?’
My constant conversations with visitors about the topic brought me to the decision to do my evening campground program this summer on fire. At first I surrounded myself with books on the topic. It was only a few weeks later that I was surrounded by the fire itself.
If you’ve been following the news at all lately you’re probably aware that the entire southwestern United States, Colorado in particular, has been battling blazes all summer long. About two weeks ago the Weber fire started outside of Mancos, CO, and got as close as 7 miles to park boundaries. We had completed our fire evacuation training just the day before, and immediately we were all put on full alert. We were told to park all vehicles facing out in case we needed to exit quickly, and it was recommended that we keep a bag packed and move valuables to storage in Cortez. The fire cut off the road between here and Durango, our closest major city, which meant lots of stranded visitors and a canceled trip with a close friend. Fear and anticipation mingled with the ash in the air, and at least three helicopters were called to the park in a three-day time span to evacuate visitors whose respiratory illnesses had been aggravated by the combination of smoke, heat, and exertion.
The Weber fire is under control and, for the moment, it appears we are safe and in the clear. But constant notes and emails from our fire crew remind us that this is just the beginning. Monsoon season is almost here, and once the lightning starts, there will almost certainly be more fire with it.
This region has always been conducive to wildfire. With a dry climate and a high concentration of lightning strikes (we have the second highest incidence of lightning in the U.S., behind only Florida), how could it not be? But a hundred years of fire suppression has created a lot of fuel, and coming out of one of the mildest winters on record, this summer is set up to be especially dangerous. Repeatedly I’ve heard locals say they haven’t seen conditions so bad since 2002 – the year of the last major fire within park boundaries. A notice was dispatched to all park residents to take the Weber fire, which sparked up to nearly 10,000 acres in just a few days, as a good example of what may happen later in the season should lightning strike within park boundaries. I’ve been having dreams about evacuations, a supervisor recommended we never turn our radios off – not as we give our tours, not even as we sleep.
Austin had been called for four fire details before July even started. Today is our two year anniversary, and we spend it apart as he battles a blaze outside of Price, Utah.
The fires are terrifying in their destruction. My heart sped up and skipped several beats as I watched the Weber fire burn through the night from a distance just a few days into it all. From three miles away the front looked like a line of burning candles – individual flames growing and shrinking and growing again. But I knew that my ability to see those flames so clearly from this distance meant that they were at least six, ten, twenty feet high. Behind the front the burnt area shimmered like a small city from the air, each flickering light an ignited tree or shrub fighting for its last heated breath. It took hours for me to sleep after I finally tore my eyes from the ethereal, deadly scene.
But there is hope entwined in all this fear. Watching the fire that evening I kept thinking back to an area within the park called Wetherill Mesa. It had been burned in one of the large fires of 2000. Just days earlier I had been riding the tram with my tour group through the burn area when the driver pointed out to me four baby juniper trees, about three feet tall each. A long-time employee of the park, he had been watching them grow since the Pony fire killed their parents, and almost twelve years later they had finally reached a recognizable, if not sweet, little height. He had spent the last twelve years tying ribbon around the saplings, so that the vegetation crew wouldn’t run them over with their weed-eaters. And now they stood, perfect miniatures amongst the crowd of skeletons, making me smile every time.
“The earth itself must periodically die to insure rebirth.” – The Hopi, descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde, in reference to Soyal, their winter solstice ceremony.