There are huge fires burning in Colorado right now, the Flagstaff fire near Boulder and the Waldo Canyon fire which has already destroyed some homes in Colorado Springs. I know a lot of people in Colorado, because a lot of people from my hometown went up to Colorado for college and stayed, so this means my facebook feed is anxiety and fire updates and hoping for a minimal loss of homes and life. It's a familiar state of things, after the Las Conchas fire which meant that my hometown was under evacuation when I tried to visit my parents there last year
, the fires
that threatened San Diego a few years back causing many of my friends and in-laws there to evacuate, and of course the Cerro Grande fire
which burned down part of my hometown when I was in high school.
It feels like every summer, either there is relief that enough rain came that year, or widespread fires in the southwestern states. And more often we get the latter than the former. It's part of the ecosystem, what those trees and those plants have evolved to survive, but decades of total suppression have raised the density of trees so high, and the bark beetle infestation has left so much dead wood, that the way things stand now is much worse than it would have been if the forests had gone on doing their natural thing. (Of course, fire suppression was adopted to save lives, homes, and the forest, but unfortunately our understanding of that forest was not complete.) The forest service is starting to do more brush clearing and controlled burns, but it feels like too little, too late. I remember going with my class to help gather up brush for a controlled burn... but controlled burns are risky, if the weather turns or the winds kick up then they become uncontrolled very quickly, which is how Cerro Grande started. There can be benefits, like the resurgence of the Kirtland's warbler which was in part due to a controlled burn that became a significant fire, because it turns out the warbler prefers to live in younger trees so that fire created a huge new habitat. But, there is always a cost. And in the southwest, the recovery is so slow. The Cerro Grande fire wiped out the forests on the closest mountains visible from my house, and after 11 years the brush had recovered and small trees were growing. But Las Conchas reset that clock, and to have trees the size that they used to be would take decades.
So when I read articles about whether the burning of the southwest is inevitable
, I wonder. Is it, at this point? As we move out of an unusually wet period in the southwest, which with other factors has contributed to a population boom, is the region just a tinderbox? I hope not, for the sake of my friends and family who are still there, and for the sake of my childhood home.
Things here are so different. A month ago, I was hiking up in Howth and came across a patch where the gorse along a cliffside appeared to have burned. I was frankly surprised that anything is able to burn here, where it rains a little almost every day. But I checked online and there was a small gorse fire just before I went hiking, which was quickly caught and put out. This last weekend I went up there for a run, and found the whole burned area covered with big ferns! The gorse doesn't grow quite that fast but it's apparently highly flammable and has seed pods that are opened by fire, and recovers within months. I wish I could send some rain and speedy recovery to the southwest.