Almost exactly a year ago today I sat at my kitchen table, contemplating wildfire, and needing to write. Since then, I have continued my research on the subject and have morphed my Saturday evening program at Mesa Verde into something I’m finally very proud of. A large component of the program is an emphasis on our misguided attitudes towards fire. I believe that reacting to fire in fear, rather than hope, acceptance, even awe, is exactly what has led to the mess of massive burns in the western United States today.
This afternoon I once again felt compelled to write about the topic. It was only then that I received word of some very scary news.
Without cable, internet, or cell phone service, news reaches me late at my mesa-top park service residence. So although the tragedy occurred Sunday, it was just today that I learned of the death of 19 members of a hot shot firefighting crew in Arizona. Immediately my mind flew to the wildland firefighters and red-carded rangers I have befriended since moving out west. I thought about the members of our own fire crew here at Mesa Verde. I thought about Austin. My heart broke into nineteen pieces.
Discussing the tragedy with my mom this evening, I found myself struggling to make out her words over the roar of a sudden rainstorm. I had driven my car down to Montezuma Overlook – nearly 10 miles from my house, it’s the closest place in the park that I get reliable cell phone service. I watched the storm roll in, then quickly roll out, and at the peak of it all the car shook in response to several close lightning strikes.
As soon as the rain left the trucks started to arrive. Before I knew it the overlook was filled with a dozen Park and Forest service fire trucks. Crews dressed in yellow and green jumped out and headed down the trail just off the overlook. They pointed in a direction I could not see, and hovered around maps and radios. Although my view was clear, I knew what was very likely lurking just behind that bend: fire.
I drove down to Cortez to get groceries, and on the way saw two helicopters heading towards the west escarpment of Mesa Verde. Barely a half hour had passed since I had heard the thunder. I felt proud of our crew and their efficiencies.
Then I saw the smoke. It wasn’t a large plume, but it sat at a precarious position near the top of the mesa. Here the slope is too steep to send humans to fight, but fire travels quickly uphill, and the park road – the only way into and out of Mesa Verde – swerved precariously close to that ledge.
This is not the first fire of the season. Massive burns in New Mexico and near South Fork, Colorado have been sending their smoke in our direction for more than a week. I have become accustomed to the rattle the smoke creates in my voice while I give tours, and to the once clear views turned hazy.
In fact, just a week or so ago I found myself on a flight from Durango to Denver, flying over the Colorado fire and awing at the massive plume that seemed to cover the entire southern range of the Rockies.
But as small as the smoke on the escarpment may have been in comparison, this fire was burning my home. And despite my rehearsed urges every Saturday night to stay hopeful, I couldn’t help but feel fearful. I know fire is a healthy part of these western ecosystems. I know our forest needs the flame to recycle its nutrients and regulate fuel loads. I know all of these things better than most. And yet, all I could think to myself as I sped down that highway was: please don’t burn, please don’t burn, no, no, not here.
By the time I drove back through the entrance of the park the smoke plume was smaller. But the wind was strong and I found the trucks I had left at the overlook parked now along the road boarding the fiery escarpment. As I passed, the yellow and green-clad fire fighters marched single file into the smoke – their enormous packs bouncing on their backs. Strangely, it was then that my fear started to dissipate. Their courage and commitment made me feel safe again. After all, I reasoned to myself, we average 19 fires a year here in the park. If I freak out about all of them, it’s going to be a long season. The hope returned.
Fire has been a part of this ecosystem much longer than I have. Ideally, we at the park could embrace wildfire as the natural and necessary occurrence it is. Nation-wide great strides have been made in this respect. Across the state at Rocky Mountain National Park, Austin was the first responder on a wildfire to which the higher-ups eventually decided to let burn. Most federal lands allow wildfire until it encroaches on human life and/or property. Here at Mesa Verde our challenge is compounded by the addition of our archaeological sites – the thing this park was tasked to protect. So we would love to ‘let it burn’ here, but with over 5,000 known sites, it’s difficult to let Mother Nature do as she might like.
And so we continue to fight fire here at Mesa Verde and throughout the region. But it was not fear that I saw in the eyes of the crew gathering at Montezuma overlook this afternoon. The best crews no longer fight with fear. Today we fight with understanding, with knowledge, and with hope.
It was hope that motivated the 19 firefighters who lost their lives in Arizona to face the dangers that they did. And it is with hope that we must continue to approach the fires burning across the American west. We must hope for our land, and hope for our future. In this way those brave men did not die in vain. And eventually, perhaps, once our ecosystems are returned to their healthy, natural state, no one will die in a fight like this at all anymore. And then maybe we will be able to see through the smoke to the truth of the flame: fire does not equal death. Fire is life.