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Fire, Part 1: Growing Up in Flames

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020: Fire, Nature, Stories, Trouble.

In early August of this year, I lost my home to fire. But it wasn’t the first time. Fire has welcomed me into its mystery since early childhood, and I’ve lost homes and other treasures to a variety of natural as well as human catastrophes. In weekly hikes, I’ve been studying how natural habitats and wildlife adapt to wildfire, and for the past two decades I’ve been planning to summarize my experiences with natural disasters in a series of thematic essays. So in the wake of the latest loss, here’s the first Dispatch on my life with fire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.


Anthropologists who study mobile subsistence cultures – human communities that use open fires for heating and cooking – often observe that many adults have burn scars dating to their childhood, when getting burned was a routine part of living around fire and learning about its dangers.

I was born into a very different society: the suburban United States of the early 1950s. Only a few years before I was born, the U.S. had joined other imperial powers in a war that spanned the entire planet, and our victory in that war, and the industrial development that enabled it, had made us the richest and most powerful nation on earth, one of two new global superpowers.

The Good War. The Greatest Generation. Scientific discovery, technological innovation, industrialization, an orgy of violence and killing on a scale never seen before.

Almost overnight we had a worldwide military empire. And now: continuous, unending shows of force against our counterpart, in what was being called a Cold War.

Always hyper-competitive, we mobilized our scientists and engineers against the enemy in an Arms Race – stockpiling nuclear weapons – and a Space Race, rushing to conquer and dominate the skies overhead with rockets, satellites, and eventually “astronauts.”

But all our newfound wealth, power, and technological progress had a price: hanging over all of us was the threat of The Bomb, a wartime miracle product of our most advanced science – nuclear physics – that threatened to destroy all life on earth. At school, class was interrupted regularly by terrifying air raid sirens, and our teachers would hustle us out into the sterile hallways to hunch down in rows against cinderblock walls, arms crossed over our heads, eyes clamped shut, haunted by visions of a nuclear firestorm.

In contrast to our technological advances, fear made us socially conservative and conformist. My family lived outside a small college town, a center of high-tech industry, in a proto-suburb of modest, modern homes laid out in a row along one side of a road running up the narrow valley of a small creek, with forested ridges rising to each side. Each home sheltered another modern innovation, the nuclear family: our professional dads drove off to work early in the morning, then the kids got up and left for school, while the stay-at-home moms kept house, did the shopping, and cooked the meals. Smaller and more standardized consumer units, isolated from each other, resulted in needs that could be better commodified, improving efficiency and increasing profits for the shareholders.

It’s likely that I first became familiar with fire in our living room. My dad, a research scientist, wasn’t around much – he went straight to the bar after work, and came home late after I was already in bed – so he compensated each year in late autumn by conducting a little family ritual: collecting walnuts from under the trees alongside our house, building a fire in the fireplace in our small living room, and recruiting my mom and me to shell nuts in front of the fire.

Our house at the upper end of the row of houses, with the elementary school at the lower end. When I turned 7, a new family moved into the house next door, with a boy my age. We’d all been indoctrinated with the fever of space exploration, and he’d been given a working model of a multi-stage rocket ship like the ones being used to launch satellites into orbit. It looked realistic, but it stood only a couple feet tall and used water and compressed air for propulsion. It lacked much of the drama of the real thing.

All of our houses stood on terraces above the creek, with the front on the top level facing the road, and the back one story lower, with a basement opening onto a big concrete patio on the bank of the creek. Prosperity, conformity and predictability made society safe, and outside of school, kids were allowed to spend their days without adult supervision. My neighbor and I were sometimes left alone at the same time – our fathers at work, our mothers out running errands or visiting friends. On one of those days, bored with his water-powered rocket, the neighbor boy got the idea of collecting everything we could find labeled “flammable,” dumping it into an empty coffee can on his patio, and setting the mixture on fire, to simulate a real rocket launch.

We disappeared into our vacant basements and emerged a few minutes later carrying cans of gasoline, paint thinner, lighter fluid, and the like. My neighbor placed the coffee can out in the middle of the concrete slab, we poured a little of everything in, and he stirred it up with a stick. I stood back a few yards as he lit a match, tossed it in the can, and dashed back to join me. There was a subdued whoosh, a brief burst of flame, and that was it. Bad idea. Sheepishly, we returned all the ingredients to their proper places and moved on to something different.

Unfortunately for us, a lady in the next house over happened to be looking out a back window at the time. As soon as my neighbor’s mom got home, our spectator ran over to tell her. She interrogated her son, and he blamed everything on me.

My dad got the news at work, and rushed home early for a change. Our phone was ringing off the hook – all the neighbors in a state of hysteria, labeling me a pyromaniac, an arsonist, a dangerous juvenile offender.

I was undersize, and terrified of my dad’s temper. Obese, with a deep, bellowing voice, he always seemed like a giant. He interrogated me, but that only frightened me more, and I denied having anything to do with the backyard fire.

The other parents had chosen a dad from the lower end of our road as a representative, and he called my dad to announce their verdict. My dad angrily defended me, but the decision was final. Why? I’ll never know – over time, our family has lost all contact with that community.

Henceforth, I was not to be seen or heard socializing or communicating with any other kids on our road. And additionally: I was not allowed to set foot on their properties, which meant that I would have to cross the road in front of our house and walk to school on the far side, where there was no sidewalk.

Fire had made me an exile in my own neighborhood. I’d lied to my parents and felt terrible. I’m sure the neighbor kid was suffering too. I lost my playmates, and every weekday I carefully crossed the busy road and walked alone through the weeds on the other side, all the way down the valley to school, trying to avoid looking at my neighbors’ forbidden properties. It wasn’t until decades later, after our nuclear family had fragmented and dispersed across the continent, that the mother of the neighbor boy approached my paternal grandmother in a local supermarket and apologized, saying her son had finally admitted to starting that silly little fire.

Fanning the Flames

I was only an outcast for a year. In 1960, when I turned 8, my parents decided to separate, and my mom moved me and my new baby brother to her own hometown in the next state to the west.

A new decade and a different environment. The Russians hadn’t bombed us into oblivion yet, so it was possible to start ignoring the threat of those growing nuclear stockpiles. And my mom’s hometown was a small farming community in the midst of flat, sprawling cropfields, almost an hour’s drive from the nearest city. Little industry, life had a slower pace, and progress and the wider world now seemed far away. Plus, instead of the “modern, progressive” nuclear family, I was now in the bosom of my mom’s traditional extended family.

My mom’s parents – my grandparents – operated a neighborhood grocery, and initially, we moved into their house, a short walk from the center of town in a tree-shaded neighborhood of small business owners and tradespeople. It was a modest two-story, three-bedroom wood-frame house probably built between the 1930s and the 40s, but it wasn’t really designed for all of us. After a year or two of this cramped arrangement, our grandparents moved around the corner into our great-grandparents’ house, and we spread out.

Our mom slept downstairs in the small parlor-like room off the kitchen, with a tiny half bath. I took the larger upstairs bedroom and my brother the smaller, and we all shared the only full bath, which was across a tiny landing between the bedrooms at the top of the stairs.

I was still an undersize child and was being bullied regularly by my new classmates and teachers, so if anything, I was even more fearful than before. My dad’s parents, back in our previous hometown, were insurance agents, and on some birthday or holiday they gave me a big book published by an insurance company, sensationalizing famous fires from history, with garish paintings showing people jumping out of the burning windows of big-city apartment buildings, and firemen running from burning houses with babies in their arms. I had developed a habit of reading in bed at night, and this book “fired” my imagination to the point where I was afraid of going to sleep and having the house catch fire with us unconscious inside.

I had only a rudimentary notion of how house fires got started. A spark or some source of heat in contact with something flammable? The only sources I could think of were the steam-heat furnace downstairs in the back kitchen, the electrical outlets and appliances, and the radiators and steam pipes located in every room. Every night, after my mom and brother had gone to sleep, I got up and prowled the house checking for hot spots. When I was sure everything was okay, I went back to bed and eventually fell asleep.

It took me another couple of years to get over my fear of fire in the night, but I finally did. Meanwhile, real fires were a regular spectacle in our town. The fire station had a horn that was so loud it could be heard all over town, and they divided the town into sectors. Whenever a fire was called in, they blew the horn from one to four times to indicate the sector, so spectators would know where to go to watch the fire. I’ll never forget the night the big grain elevator behind the courthouse caught fire. It was almost as tall as the courthouse itself, and much of the town’s population gathered on the courthouse lawn to watch the tower of flames and sparks collapsing into the criss-crossing arcs of water from the fire engines.

Midwestern summers can get really hot and muggy, and my brother’s room only had one small window, whereas my larger room had a couple of dormer windows next to my double bed and a taller sash window in the gable at the opposite end of the room, so I had a lot more airflow. Our grandpa had installed a big window fan in the lower part of that gable window, and on really hot summer nights, my brother left his room and joined me. On one such night, we had the fan going full blast, blowing directly at the bed, and it helped us both fall asleep.

The next thing I knew, I woke up to a roaring, crackling sound, and a wall of flame facing me across the room. I grabbed my little brother and dragged him out to the landing, where I yelled that my room was on fire. He bounded down to join our mom at the bottom of the stairs, and she rushed him out the front door, then dashed to the phone and called the fire department.

I followed my brother down, but my whole life was up in that burning room. I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. I ran back to the kitchen, grabbing a big sauce pan and filling it with water, which I lugged back up the stairs, into a growing cloud of smoke. Choking and coughing in the heavy smoke, I could now barely see the fire, but I trudged forward anyway and threw the pan of water toward where I knew the window had to be.

Of course, that added a rush of steam to the smoke, and I was driven back down the stairs, where our mom was waiting for me, and we both ran outside, across the porch into the front yard where we joined my little brother under the big maple tree. Flames were climbing out my window toward the peak of the roof, and thick smoke was pouring out of the door and all the open windows, both upstairs and down. The fire station’s horn was blowing, a siren was howling up the street, and the fire engine was just turning into our alley. They stopped short of the house, ran a ladder up to the window, and a fireman began climbing it with a hose.

It only took a short blast from the high-pressure hose to put out the flames, and meanwhile, other uniformed firemen were tramping through our house, making sure the fire was truly out and all the windows and doors were open to let out the smoke.

Our grandparents accompanied us back to their house, around the corner. Our great-grandparents had both passed away by that time, so there was now a spare bedroom where the three of us could temporarily shelter. Our first order of business: to get clean. The window fan had had a plastic housing, which had apparently been flammable, generating black smoke full of molten soot and ashes that had coated everything in the house, including us, and my brother and I had been breathing it.

We were too filthy for the upstairs bathroom, which had only an old clawfoot tub, so we took turns showering in the unfinished basement, where our grandparents had their furnace and laundry room with a shower in the low ceiling. I remember coughing up long strands of black phlegm and watching them trail away to the drain in the concrete floor, seemingly endlessly, until finally the water cleared and I felt I could breath freely again. Decades later, a chest x-ray would show a scar in my lungs which may date to that fire.

The next day, we learned that the only actual fire damage was to the wall immediately around the window. But as always happens, our house was uninhabitable, because everything inside it was covered with that black soot, and the odor, the off-gassing, was toxic. Everything exposed – all our furniture, appliances, bedding, clothing, hobbies, toys, pictures – would have to be cleaned, and much of it would be unsalvageable. All the ceilings, walls, and floors would need to be cleaned, painted or refinished.

It was only a few years after the trauma of an entire neighborhood turning against me, but what a different experience this fire was! My mom’s hometown came together generously to support us, and all the cleaning and repairs were completed quickly. In my memory it was no more than three weeks before I was back in my upstairs bedroom, where the previous greenish wallpaper had been replaced with white paint, and the tongue-and-groove hardwood floor had a shiny new finish.

My clothes, bedding, books, and model cars had been cleaned, and it was great to be back in my own room, but I couldn’t get that wall of flame out of my imagination, and my nighttime fear of fire returned with a vengeance. Once again, I waited every night for the others to fall asleep, so I could prowl the house looking for hot spots. Only when I was sure everything was safe would I return to bed, but even then it was hard to sleep. So for a little more peace of mind, I arranged to spend one night a week in the spare bedroom at our grandparents’ house. Fire was redirecting my life.

Slow-Burning Cave

To people who live close to the earth, fire and flames are a mystical embodiment of spirit itself, and even in our advanced, civilized culture, we regularly use fire as a metaphor. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road, the protagonist speaks of “carrying the fire” – the seeds of civilization itself – referring to our popular stereotype of cultural evolution: “man’s discovery of fire.” That civilization went through huge changes in the decades after my bedroom fire: the civil rights and environmental movements, Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the youth culture revolution of the 1960s and the Counterculture of the 1970s. And I finally had a growth spurt and gained confidence, and a small support group of kindred spirits, through my achievements in art and academics.

Beginning in the 1960s, candles became an icon of the new hippie generation, and in my high school art class, I made a big rainbow-colored candle in the shape of a long slab, like a little stone wall, with half a dozen wicks in a row. Growing out of my early timidity, I’d begun taking on the role of an organizer and leader both in our neighborhood and at school, and at night, I’d set the big candle in the middle of my bedroom floor at night, invite friends over, and chant lines from ancient Anglo-Saxon poems – Beowolf, The Seafarer, and The Wanderer – as we sat in a circle gazing at the flames. On the eve of my departure for college, my experimental folk-rock band peformed its final concert on the open porch of a farmhouse way out in the country, surrounded by fifty flickering candles.

Our parents had split up when we moved to Indiana, but during our visits to his new home in California, our dad took my brother and me camping. His approach was incredibly stressful, planning months in advance, with multi-page checklists and tons of expensive gear that had to be kept spotless and meticulously maintained, but he always said that nature was his church, and after I eventually transcended the uptightness and inhibitions of his style of camping, the love and respect remained, along with many essential lessons, including how to safely and effectively build and manage a campfire.

When I left the small town for college in the big city, I remained dependent on my extended family in many ways – a sort of prolonged adolescence, seemingly destined for the sort of “normal” adulthood my father had hoped for, with a professional career, wife, home, and children. It wasn’t until I finally came out the other end, degrees in hand, that I began to rebel.

Attracted by the bohemian lifestyle, I became an apprentice to my best friend Mark, a fellow artist, who practiced a casual, minimalist style of camping. You always carried a sleeping bag and slept wherever you found yourself – in somebody’s living room, yard, or under a bush in a park. Anything else you needed, you scrounged or mooched from others at the last minute. We spent years making road trips together, all over the west and into Mexico, huddling around campfires, surrounded by six packs of cold beer, passing handrolled joints, dreaming up art projects, making up songs and phantasmagorical banter.

When I graduated from Mark’s teachings and created my own arts community in a loft in San Francisco, we were hit by the coldest winter on record, and I bought and installed a wood stove which became the center of our home on cold nights. We started out poor, burning castoff softwood lumber we scavenged late at night from the streets of our industrial neighborhood. But then we got better day jobs, and I found a firewood lot in a distant suburb that offered delivery, and henceforth we kept a woodpile on one side of the big front hall, fed the stove with oak and avocado, and learned how to safely and effectively heat a large, high-ceilinged urban space with wood fires, warming up unforgettable jam sessions, parties, and late-night confessions.

In the meantime, Mark had introduced me to the Mojave Desert, where he camped occasionally in a “cave” – a hollow under a granite boulder in a beautiful basin next to a remote dirt road. Through him, I eventually met Katie, who would become my partner in life and music for a while. She’d come from a family with at least as much trauma as mine – she and her siblings had been condemned by their childhood community for “setting a swamp on fire” – accidentally burning off the dried vegetation of a large wetland that provided habitat for wildlife.

But Katie was an experienced outdoorswoman who taught me how as bohemian artists, we didn’t need to stress over preparations for camping, nor did we need high technology, but with a little work and creativity, we could have all the comforts of home while deep in the wilderness.

I took Katie out to the desert, where we discovered our own, larger shelter in a pile of boulders near Mark’s cave. But it needed cleaning up. The gravel floor was covered with cholla cactus joints – the spine-covered branches that littered the ground around wide-branching buckhorn cholla and were always getting stuck to our shoes, ankles, and the occasional careless limb.

We drove the 80 miles to the nearest town and came back with a cheap garden rake, but a little raking only revealed a much bigger challenge: the ancient woodrat midden in the back. At that early stage of our desert apprenticeship we were ecologically ignorant and didn’t realize our cave had been the home of woodrats for centuries, if not millenia.

The midden was a resinous mass at the back of our cave – where our heads would lie at night – stinking of woodrat urine, thoroughly embedded with cactus spines. We tried to break it up with a shovel, but it was too dense and hard. So we came up with the bright idea of setting it on fire and burning it out. I guess my coal-mining uncle had never told me about coal seam fires, which can burn underground for thousands of years, because that’s what we ended up with.

The woodrat midden generated a massive stream of dense white smoke that poured out of the cave and spread across the basin. We used all our limited supply of bottled water on it with no effect, and there we were in the desert, a half mile from our car and 80 miles from civilization, so we had to leave it burning, deep in the cave, while we hiked to the car and drove back to Twentynine Palms. There, we bought a fire extinguisher and more jugs of drinking water, and took showers in the public park. Then we drove the 80 miles back to our cave.

After all those hours of driving and hiking back and forth from the road, the little fire extinguisher was exhausted in about 30 seconds and likewise had no effect. We were driven out of our cave by yet another cloud of smoke, coughing and weeping, heartsick and desolate, feeling like history’s biggest fools. All Katie could think of was that burning swamp from her childhood. What had we started, and what would happen next? We couldn’t just drive away and leave it to burn – this was a beautiful wilderness, on public land.

For whatever reason, the one thing we hadn’t tried yet was to bury the fire, smother it with the sand and gravel that we still had an unlimited supply of in and around our cave. We still had my little folding shovel, so working in shifts to recover from breathing smoke, we began slowly burying the midden fire, and it eventually went out, and we cleaned up our cave, which, under Katie’s direction, we finally turned into a comfortable home in the wilderness. We built a little dry-stone wall around the charred midden, and there at the back of the cave, right next to where we slept, it became a permanent reminder of that early disaster.

Tossing the Coal

Our San Francisco loft was crumbling, decrepit, and illegal – not zoned for residential, developed in violation of building codes – and we were all sure it wouldn’t survive a major earthquake. But as artists and musicians, we found beauty in ruins, and in capitalist society, we had no other options.

The building next to us on the south was a tenement whose upper floor sheltered a long series of troubled tenants, desperate people whose problems couldn’t always be confined to their apartment. Their back door opened onto a lower roof below the window of my bedroom and art studio. I was working there one afternoon when I heard kids outside. A Vietnamese family were our newest neighbors, and when I opened the window, the kids were setting fire to an old mattress on the tarred roof just below my window. I screamed at them and ran to the phone in the hall. Fortunately a fire station was just around the corner.

My roommates were together enough to talk me into getting a fire extinguisher for our kitchen, and John, whose room had a path to a side alley via another low roof outside his window, set up a rope ladder we could access from the roof, via our many skylights and roof hatches, to escape in an emergency. But our place was still a fire trap, like the Ghost Ship artist community in Oakland that became a terrible tragedy and a prolonged scandal in the 2010s. We were lucky; they weren’t.

It wasn’t fire, but an earthquake that brought my San Francisco loft community to an end in October 1989, leaving me homeless yet again. As described elsewhere, the quake caught me at work across the Bay in Berkeley, and it was hours before I could return to my damaged home. At a friend’s house in Oakland, “We watched Mike’s TV in silence as they showed the same helicopter footage over and over, of a blacked-out city lit only by raging fires in my South of Market neighborhood and in the Marina District to the north.”

Later, returning to the crippled loft, “It was about 2am when I rolled down darkened Folsom Street, driving slow and swerving to avoid trash can fires and homeless people staggering like zombies through the rubble.” It was literally post-apocalyptic, beyond any movie, and I’ll never forget those fires and the human shadows crossing in front of them.

Despite all those decades of experience and that long, diverse series of teachers, my knowledge of fire didn’t truly mature until I joined an aboriginal skills field course at Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School in 1990. There, I learned to make fire the ancient way, by assembling and crafting a fire-starting kit from local, natural materials. It takes a lot of practice, but once you master it, it’s no more difficult than any of our routine domestic chores.

That course gave me something priceless I’d only dreamed about: the firsthand understanding of how indigenous people – the ancestors of all of us – thrived in harmony with nature. There in the high desert wilderness of Utah’s Colorado Plateau, I assembled a fire drill and a stash of firemaking materials, all of which were destroyed in this year’s house fire. Those things were sacred to me, and their loss adds to so many others I will always grieve.

But I didn’t just learn how to make fire from scratch. I also learned to make an effective cooking fire with sticks no thicker than my thumb, so the coals would burn down to ash that could be mixed into the soil, obliterating any record of the fire when we left the site. Leave no trace.

And at night, sitting around the campfire, after eating our dinner of hand-caught trout from a nearby stream, we learned the game of tossing the coal – something so counter-intuitive to our civilized, risk-averse lifestyle that it seems impossible. Tom, our instructor, reached into the embers, grabbed a red-hot coal, and began tossing it from hand to hand while he grinned at each of us novices in turn.

“Never tried tossing the coal?” He glanced at Cody, the apprentice at his side, and passed the coal to him. “One of the oldest games known to man. You’d never think it, but all you need is to keep it moving, bouncing around in your palm, tossing it back and forth between your hands.”

Tom looked at me. “Go ahead, grab yourself a coal!”

The universal attraction of fire is far older than our species. Early humans didn’t “discover” fire, kick-starting our cultural progress toward the conquest of outer space, any more than Columbus “discovered” the New World. Once we stop trying to “conquer” nature, it has much to teach us. Fire taught me that mice are omnivorous: alone on my desert land one cold night, I watched moths drawn to the campfire, and a deer mouse leaping into the air to catch them.

It’s ironic – white do-gooders are always trying to wean brown-skinned villagers in the Global South from their traditional wood fires – but my civilized friends and I are all happiest living in the wilderness around a primitive campfire.

Next: Discovering Wildfire


Fire, Part 2: Discovering Wildfire

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Stories, Trouble, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Growing Up in Flames

Blinded by Smoke 

To our amazement, shortly after Katie and I put out the woodrat midden fire and settled into our cave in the desert, we began finding prehistoric artifacts in our front yard – the sandy gullies and gravel banks between cacti, shrubs, gnarled juniper trees and boulder outcrops that surrounded us in all directions. Colorful, translucent stone flakes produced during the making of everyday tools, red and gray pottery shards, even a nearly perfect, impressively artful little arrowhead.

Even more astoundingly, when we met the new directors of a nearby ecological preserve, they showed us hidden “rock art” – petroglyphs and pictographs, pecked or painted inside boulder piles like ours.

As artists, we were already in love with the desert, but here was proof that other creative people had actually lived here long before us. Who were they, and what had happened to them? And above all, how did they live without cars, without the Von’s supermarket in Barstow? Everything around us took on new dimensions and raised new questions, now that we knew people had lived and created in this wild, arid place, getting everything they needed straight from nature.

These discoveries transformed our lives and work. Together, Katie and I began a passionate amateur study of prehistory, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to experience the prehistoric way of life firsthand. That’s what ultimately led me to the aboriginal skills school in Utah.

But meanwhile, I was learning, seeing with my own eyes, how our precious desert was under continual threat from people who saw it only as a playground, or as a wasteland ripe for development. I became determined to find a piece of land in the wilderness that I could own and take responsibility for. On a scouting trip in summer 1989, I rented a high-clearance, 4wd Jeep Cherokee to follow a maze of sandy, rocky, and deeply eroded old mining roads, abandoned for decades, deep into the heart of a remote, barely accessible mountain range.

Completely alone, years before the advent of cell phones, I drove the Cherokee miles up a narrow, boulder-choked canyon between steep ridges that towered 2,000′ above me. It was by far the wildest place I’d ever entered with a vehicle. Eventually I reached a place where the canyon was blocked by boulders, but there, the trace of another old mining road branched off to climb the bank of the dry wash. It was steep and so rocky and deeply eroded that I had to switch to low gear and drive at walking pace, but I followed it carefully up an outlying ridge to a level clearing, with the gaping hole of a mine visible far in the distance, at the base of steep cliffs that rose to the high ridge above. When I got out and turned around, I saw I had climbed hundreds of feet above the canyon bottom and had a spectacular view out over the center of the range to jagged ridges and peaks many miles away.

Dark clouds had been massing overhead, and the sun was going down. I built a campfire, made dinner, started a beer and smoked a couple hits of my drummer’s mild, high-energy pot. In the past year, I’d gone through the trauma of a breakup with Katie and the major effort of rebuilding my band and finding a new audience. We’d achieved success together, but it wasn’t the ensemble or the sound I wanted and I was creatively frustrated to the point of desperation. And my San Francisco loft, once a teeming community, was now down to only two from the original five roommates – just a big, echoing workspace and a lonely place to sleep. My heart was looking for a new home in the desert.

I’d never been so alone in such a spectacularly beautiful place, and I felt staggeringly liberated, humbled, one with nature, impossibly far from the city and the oppressive, conflicted culture we imported and imposed on this continent from Europe. I was even distancing myself in my wardrobe – I was wearing a pair of primitive-looking designer sweat pants from the Castro district, dyed in earth tones, and a pair of suede moccasins I’d picked up at an Indian trading post on a road trip with Katie. The low cloud cover was holding in the warmth of the day, and I pulled off my shirt and went for a walk down the road, to get away from the vehicle and other reminders of civilization. As darkness fell, I returned and went to bed on the ground, falling asleep with a head full of beautiful visions, way up there at the end of the old mining road, high on the exposed mountainside.

The next thing I knew I was coughing, waking in a blinding cloud of smoke. I couldn’t see flames, but using a flashlight I was able to quickly gather up my stuff and throw it in the Jeep. Not knowing where the fire was, all I could do was try to get away, and the only way out was back down the old road.

The survival instinct kicked in, big time, and although my heart was clenched in fear, my head was clear as I bumped and bucked the unfamiliar, unwieldy vehicle as quickly down the road as I felt was safe. Visibility in the dense smoke was only a couple of yards, but when I reached the canyon bottom my headlights lit up half a dozen terrified cattle, clumped silently together, their eyes glowing like coals in my headlights. They backed away from me as I turned and headed down the canyon.

I never encountered the actual fire. Miles later, as I drove out the broad, sandy wash toward the canyon’s mouth and the open desert, I finally emerged from the cloud of smoke. It takes the better part of an hour to reach the paved highway from there, and back then, there was a phone booth with a pay phone in the tiny settlement another 20 minutes up the road. It was about 4 in the morning when I got through to the county sheriff’s office to report the fire. Of course, it was burning deep in desert wilderness, 20 miles from the nearest ranch or house, and posed no real danger to anyone, so despite my breathless excitement, the desk officer who answered merely thanked me and said not to worry about it.

It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered the burn area while hiking the ridgeline more than 1,000′ above that night’s campsite. Dry lightning had apparently struck the slope on the other side of the ridge while I was asleep, and since there are no trees on that ridge, the dense smoke had been caused by the burning of widely scattered yucca trunks. Dense, fibrous yucca burns slowly, producing far more smoke than heat – I found that out the hard way.

Swimming in Wildfire

By a decade later, in 1999, I’d been hammered by more crises and traumas, more losses, poverty and homelessness. I’d been forced to set aside my dreams, my art, and my music to focus on finding a new day job. I’d eventually reinvented myself as a creative guru in the DotCom Boom, and although I was single, I was dating and wasn’t lonely anymore.

Big, high-intensity wildfires were becoming a more familiar news item in the West. One fall weekend my drummer’s girlfriend talked us into an overnight camping trip on the dry inland side of the coast range north of the San Francisco Bay. We may or may not have known about the wildfire in advance, but we surely saw the smoke and encountered emergency vehicles as we drove up the valley of Cache Creek and its tributary, Bear Creek.

But in those days firefighting agencies had a much more casual attitude toward public safety. Despite the fire being only a ridge away, the road was wide open. We drove farther north to a gravel road that climbed over a high ridge toward a remote reservoir, and chose a campsite at the top of the ridge, where we could look down on the fire a few miles south of us. Seems insane now, but I guess we felt if the fire moved closer, we could keep driving ahead of it to the backcountry reservoir, where we’d surely be safe.

After watching the sunset, we made dinner and went to bed, there beside the road. As usual, dinner had been accompanied by a few of northern California’s best microbrewed IPAs, and a few hours later, Mike and I got up to pee. No moon, and countless stars teeming and twinkling above us. We walked down the road to where we had a view south. As the mountain’s silhouette fell away before us, the fire’s spectacle was revealed. Like hell mirroring heaven, a hoard of flickering rubies, cast carelessly across the vast, crumpled black landscape we’d crossed to get here.

There was no wind, and although only a few miles away, the fire didn’t seem to be spreading. So we went back to bed.

The next morning, we drove back down the canyon of Bear Creek. During the night, the fire had burned downslope toward the creek, charred tree trunks were still smoking, and flames were still running along the west edge of the highway. But the road was open and we could see no firefighters anywhere. We stopped at our favorite swimming hole and hung out for hours opposite the steep, ash-covered hillside, lined with the blackened skeletons of ghost pines, smoking and smoldering less than a hundred yards away.

The next day, back home, I had my first episode of severe lower back pain. Completely unexpected, it wasn’t triggered by injury or exertion – it just appeared out of the blue. I’ll always associate that wildfire camping trip with the onset of a condition that has gradually gotten worse over the years, nagging me almost continuously, regularly interrupting my life and occasionally sending me to the emergency room with unmanageable pain.

The Year We Lost the Deserts

A few years after acquiring my land in the desert – in that same canyon I’d been driven out of by smoke – I became friends with an older couple, a writer and an artist, who lived about 60 miles north of my place. Neighbors, in the far-flung society of the Mojave. Their compound was in a high-desert basin, lush with sagebrush and juniper, surrounded by colorful mesas and low basalt bluffs. It became one of the jewels of the new Mojave National Preserve, and I’m still smudging my home with pungent sage I gathered there 20 years ago.

Then, in June 2005, it was struck by lightning. After decades of grazing by cattle, their trampling of fragile soils, and the spread of invasive Old World grasses, fire raced across the desert. Ranches, trailer homes, and Park Service infrastructure were at risk, and as usual, government agencies mounted a military-style response.

Ultimately the Hackberry Fire spread to 70,000 acres – the biggest wildfire on record in the desert. It burnt sagebrush and juniper all the way to the roots and sterilized the soil so that this precious habitat may never return.

My best friend from the Bay Area happened to be there at the time, on a camping trip, and literally stumbled upon the fast-moving fire while heading up a dirt road looking for a campsite. He had to give up and turn back, but at least he was able to send me a photo.

That wildfire was a wake-up call for us desert lovers. Another friend, the desert’s leading botanist, pointed out that despite cattle and other modern impacts, fire has always been part of desert ecology and evolution. But before, many of us had only seen invasive plants as a nuisance – now we knew they were capable of completely destroying irreplacable native habitat. That fire felt like a terrible loss, and a prominent conservationist called 2005 “The Year We Lost the Deserts.” Little did any of us know how much more was coming, and how much worse it would get.

Nothing But Forest

I was born and raised in the upper Ohio River Valley, a rumpled, mostly forested landscape of rounded ridges and deep hollows. The forest was the remnant of a mature, temperate hardwood forest that, when Europeans first invaded, covered virtually all of the continent east of the Mississippi River. We know about it from countless written reports of explorers, hunters, trappers, and pioneer settlers, as well as early natural historians. In their accounts, that forest, dominated by giant oaks, chestnuts, elms, and other deciduous trees, was staggeringly, almost unbelievably productive and diverse in resources for humans.

Of course, it was already inhabited, by the people we Europeans conquered, brutally slaughtered, and drove off their lands. Whereas Native Americans had thrived in those forests, relying solely on native plants and animals, we cleared the ancient forests for European-style farms and replaced diverse native habitat with a much smaller number of domesticated plants and animals we imported from back home in the Old World.

Now we take the patchwork of farms, factories, and cities in the eastern U.S. for granted, forgetting the forest ever existed, proud of our preservation of a tiny fraction in parks and preserves.

The American West has much higher, much more rugged mountains, which still feature completely different, predominantly evergreen and coniferous, forest habitats. My dad moved west before me, and even before following him out there, I spent decades’ worth of vacations exploring, camping, and backpacking in densely forested western ranges – the Sierras, the Cascades, and the high ranges of the Great Basin.

But it wasn’t until I discovered the eastern Mojave Desert in February 1982 that I felt truly at home in wild nature. Why? Why don’t I like forests?

The year after that historic fire in the desert, I followed my desert friends to southwest New Mexico, at 6,000′ elevation, with vast national forests and wilderness areas in the backyard. The southeastern end of a 16,000 square mile swath of mountains, rising to nearly 11,000′ only an hour’s drive away.

The Southwest is arid, but most of it is not technically desert. And unlike the angular, stony mountains of my beloved Mojave, these had a rounded silhouette, covered by a continuous blanket of dark green forest.

Our European legacy conditions us to expect and admire forest-blanketed mountains, and during the past century, we’ve come to accept the continuous forest as the natural, primeval state of western mountains. But I love rocks – growing up in the Appalachian foothills, I was always most attracted to the occasional rock ledge, cave, cliff, or outcrop that stood out from the forest.

Hiking desert mountains, I always had distinct landmarks in view, I could always tell where I was. I could walk along a ridge and watch the landscape shift around me in three dimensions, with farther ridges lined up into haze at the horizon. I could point to where I wanted to go, then get there and look back at where I came from. In dense forests, your horizon is only a few yards away – a wall of vegetation – and as soon as you enter it, you’re basically lost.

I retain an abstract respect for forests as an equally important sort of habitat. Sure, data shows impressive biodiversity in the prehistoric eastern deciduous forest and the Amazonian rain forest. But to me, forests in general feel monotonous, confined, sometimes a little oppressive. Unlike the Easterners or Texans who typically relocate here, it wasn’t natural beauty that drew me. In general, I found this landscape pretty boring.

However, it was my new home, and I had to come to grips with it. One of the earliest things I noticed was the relatively “pristine” state of nature. Most everywhere I hiked in California, native habitat had been invaded, degraded, and largely replaced by invasive plants. From the coastal eucalyptus forests in the Bay Area to the star-thistle-blanketed hills farther inland, from the tamarisk-infested desert canyons to the red brome-covered slopes above, the European conquest had turned California into an alien mess.

Sure, our New Mexico landscape included basins and floodplains that had been overgrazed in the 19th century, and still hosted herds of cattle. I even found feral cattle following hiking trails deep into the wilderness – here they call them “trespass cattle.” But in the mountains where I was hiking, the only invasive plants seemed to be the occasional dandelion sprouting on trails heavily used by equestrians, from seeds impacted and carried in the animals’ hooves. The forests themselves seemed almost completely natural, native, and primeval.

Southwestern habitat changes dramatically with elevation, as can be seen from far away. Blindingly white salt-covered playas may line the bottom of basins, surrounded by low desert scrub, gently rising to rolling grasslands. Mountain slopes begin with a narrow band dominated by low, spreading trees: pinyon pine, alligator juniper, and Emory oak. As elevation increases, Gambel oak, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir enter the mix – our “mixed-conifer forest” – and the low, spreading trees gradually drop out. At the highest elevations, quaking aspen and Engelmann spruce join the pines and firs. And all these high-elevation trees can be found thousands of feet lower in well-watered canyon bottoms where cool air settles.

The more I hiked, the more I noticed variations. In many places near town, the mixed-conifer forests were jungles, densely packed with small-diameter trees, choked with undergrowth and fallen logs. But one of my favorite hikes climbed to a rolling, parklike plateau, with tall, widely separated trees and nothing but grass in between. Those are the places we Europeans are deeply, emotionally attracted to – not just because that’s where we supposedly evolved, in Africa – but also because it’s an easy landscape for us to navigate.

In 2016, I backpacked into a remote range in southern Nevada where I found a forest out of nightmares: pinyon and juniper trees with branches that interlaced from the ground up – an almost impenetrable maze. I found plenty of droppings from deer and elk, and when I eventually reached an open plateau on top I discovered it hosted a herd of feral horses. So animals had found paths through the maze, but this range had clearly been abandoned by humans long ago.

I gradually realized that some forests – particularly the parklike ones – had burned not long ago. Charred trunks and logs still remained here and there, seemingly taking forever to decompose. From my reading, I had a sense that wildfire as well as historical logging and other human impacts played a part in these forest variations, but how, exactly?

It now seems obvious that conifer forests in an arid landscape would be ripe for wildfire, but after I moved to New Mexico, we had a deceptive hiatus of five years without any significant local fires. Like everyone else, I came to take the continuous, dark-green forests for granted, assuming the conifer blanket was the essential, primeval state of this landscape.

Fire Seasons

Then, in 2011, the big fires began. The Miller Fire, caused by lightning, threatened the home of my artist and writer friends, burning 89,000 forested acres in the heart of our local wilderness areas. But it mostly spread at low intensity, and experts cited it as a success of the Forest Service’s new policy of prescribed burns to reduce fuels, replacing the old policy of full suppression.

Then the Horseshoe 2, allegedly started by illegal immigrants, destroyed an inconceivable 223,000 acres in the heart of the Chiricahua sky island, a treasured, world-famous range just across the Arizona border southwest of us. When the wind shifted around to the southwest, our sky filled with haze, we choked on its smoke, and our sunsets were red.

My favorite route between my new home and the California desert ran through the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. I came to love that high, gently rolling plateau at almost 9,000′ elevation, its lush, grassy meadows dotted with sapphire lakes, its distinctive volcanic peaks streaked with black talus slopes. Most of those peaks were blanketed with dense conifer forest, featuring giant moss-covered firs and spruce, and again, I accepted that as the natural order.

Then I heard about the Wallow Fire, started by careless campers abandoning a still-smoldering campfire. Over a period of weeks, it spread across almost the entire plateau, becoming the biggest wildfire in the history of the Southwest at 538,000 acres. The wind came out of the northwest much of that summer, so we were often breathing that smoke. Toward the end, when the fire was spreading into New Mexico, I couldn’t wait any longer, I drove up to where the road was blocked, and I could see active burning. I was heartsick to think of the loss of that habitat, and the suffering of wildlife.

So much had burned in one year, we hoped to get a break. But 2012 brought massive destruction to the high forests of our own local wilderness – the Whitewater Baldy Complex, sparked by multiple lightning strikes that grew together to span 298,000 acres, leaving our highest peaks and ridges gray “moonscapes” where all vegetation was destroyed.

I was hiking a small peak just outside of town on a weekly basis at that point, and only a month after the start of the Wallow fire, someone deliberately set a fire that destroyed most of the vegetation on that peak. The arsonist was never identified, and I was sad to lose trees that had become my favorites, even featuring on one of my holiday cards. My local hiking buddy was so upset she refused to ever hike that peak again.

But I was still studying ecology, and I’d gradually moved beyond mourning burned habitat. Yeah, I hated to lose trees that were my friends, but stronger still was curiosity about what would come next, how nature would adapt. Don’t mourn – learn.

It wasn’t just the Southwest that was burning: huge wildfires were spreading all over the West, and I could see a pattern emerging in society. Thanks to the massive scale of our impacts, general ignorance of ecological history, and inevitable over-simplification by the media, urban dwellers were developing a habitual response to wildfire: shock, sorrow, and anger.

In 2013, the lightning-caused Silver Fire destroyed 139,000 acres of high-elevation forest in the smaller wilderness area just east of us. I’d started doing weekend hikes to a 9,000′ peak just north of town, and in 2014, human carelessness turned its back side into a moonscape. “Only” about 9 square miles were incinerated, but wildfire was getting close to home.

Then came the break we’d been hoping for – after 2013, the big Southwestern wildfires went on hiatus.

At the same time, I was losing my mobility to chronic conditions becoming acute in one body part after another. First my right hip, leading to surgery in 2015, with two years of slow recovery. Then a long-standing foot condition crippled me in 2017, followed by another two years fighting back. In between, severe lower back pain took me out of service twice a year, for weeks at a time. And beginning in 2018, rotator cuff tears in both shoulders limited my ability to navigate rough terrain and jungly habitat. I kept working to bounce back, but for years I was mostly limited to short walks, many of them on city streets near my home.

I would never take my mobility for granted again. If I ever recovered, I would return to the mountains with deep gratitude, more motivated than ever before.

Next: Questioning Wildfire


Fire, Part 3: Questioning Wildfire

Saturday, January 30th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Discovering Wildfire

Wildfire in the Desert

Climate Questions

More than a hundred years ago, in 1918, the European “War to End All Wars” was ending and the worst pandemic in history – the Spanish flu – was being spread across the globe by modern innovations like steamships and railroads. Far from the hysterical news cycle of their day, a group of young men from the U.S. General Land Office, laden with surveying equipment, drove a sort of primitive SUV up a broad arroyo into the heart of one of the most remote mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert.

They were conducting a “cadastral” survey to map the surface of the earth onto a standard grid of latitude and longitude, defining the boundaries of public and private land. In addition to producing a map for public distribution, they recorded their work on the ground by placing engraved metal discs – benchmark monuments – at the intersection of “township and range” lines which would appear on the maps, providing fixed reference points between the map and the territory.

Like every European explorer who ever stuck a flag on foreign soil and claimed it for his country, these young men were furthering the European conquest of native land. Prior to the European invasion, science has shown that indigenous tribes maintained a sustainable way of life in the desert for thousands of years, adapting their lifestyle or migrating as needed, from time to time, in response to variations in climate and resource availability. In the 16th century, their arid homeland was claimed, but not settled, as part of the empire of Spain, but the only effects desert natives suffered were the secondhand stress of disease and upheaval spread from the distant Europeans through neighboring tribes on the desert’s border.

Then in the mid-19th century, the U.S., a “precious democracy” of British invaders who had conquered, slaughtered, and displaced indigenous tribes in the eastern half of the continent, attacked Mexico, a nation of Spanish invaders who had conquered, slaughtered, and displaced indigenous tribes to the south. The English-speaking white invaders won their war and claimed this desert as part of their new territory “from sea to shining sea.”

Their first objective was to “open” the new territory for white settlement and economic exploitation. The U.S. Army slaughtered and otherwise terrorized and displaced indigenous inhabitants so that white entrepreneurs could seek silver and gold, and so that wagon trails, followed by railroads, could be laid across the desert to transport white settlers to the West Coast.

The Army, the miners, and the transport workers all needed to eat, but unlike the uncivilized natives, they weren’t willing or able to harvest the desert’s bounty of wild foods. So other white entrepreneurs released cattle – a generic Old World food species uniformly imported by Europeans to all their colonies – onto this former indigenous land, establishing the first desert ranches.

How could cattle survive in a desert? What would they eat, and where would they find water? The word we use to describe this place originally meant not just an empty wasteland, but a once-productive land destroyed and ruined. Our precious democracy modeled itself on the Roman Republic, and during the Roman conquest of Britain, an indigenous chieftain was quoted as saying “they make a desert and call it peace,” the connotation being that a desert is a very bad thing. Words matter – that’s how we white Europeans first saw it, and from the safe distance of our cities and our cars passing on the Interstate, that’s how we continue to treat it – as a bad thing, an emptied wasteland we exploit by right of conquest.

By chance, from the start of the U.S. invasion until the 1890s, the Southwestern climate was fairly wet, from the lingering effects of the global “Little Ice Age.” In the desert’s eastern half – the “high desert” whose intermountain basins average 3,000′ in elevation, the first white settlers found extensive grasslands for their hungry cattle, and with the government’s encouragement, they began to “improve” natural water sources by drilling wells and installing windmills, pipes, storage tanks, and watering troughs.

The entire Southwest was suddenly stricken by severe drought in the 1890s, but by then, white settlers and their ranches were long established, and they would not give up. Nor would the miners, who cared only about the fluctuating value of underground minerals on distant urban stock markets. By a generation later, when the young surveyors of the General Land Office drove up the broad arroyo into the big interior basin of this remote, rugged mountain range, brief waves of mining activity had preceded them here. Each time, dozens of laborers temporarily settled in, hauling tons of equipment using mule trains and wagons, and dynamiting holes high in the rocky slopes. Miners built steam-powered ore mills, temporary cabins for themselves, and corrals for their mule trains. And in a year or two, when the stock market price fell, they left, abandoning most of what they brought. The mountains were now empty and quiet, but the surveyors followed the miners’ wagon trail and saw their ruins and junk scattered across distant slopes.

The surveyors began their measurements, locating the global grid lines of their imperial culture on this stolen and scarred land, placing their metal discs at the intersections. Meanwhile, in their field notes, they wrote that the floodplain of the arroyo, and the big interior valley, were covered with lush, verdant grasslands, prime country for raising cattle. Easy to call it a ruined wasteland from a distant city, hard to ignore the commercial potential when you’re walking through waist-high vegetation.

Consistent with our precious democracy’s promotion of commercial development, the report was made available to potential entrepreneurs through government offices, but only a few years after the survey, another severe drought hit the desert. It wasn’t until the 1930s, after wetter weather and more abundant grasses had returned, that the son of one of the old prospectors decided to establish a ranch in these mountains and set cattle loose in the big, quiet valley below the mines his dad had worked.

And to answer the question of how cattle can survive in a desert, it wasn’t just because grass appeared in wet years – it had to do with the cattle, too. For hundreds of years, the Spanish had carried the drought-adapted Criollo breed, from the dry province of Andalusia, across the ocean on their wooden ships and set them loose in the arid lands of the New World. They thrived, and that was the breed first introduced in these mountains.

As mentioned in Part 2 of these Dispatches, I encountered cattle here on my first visit, more than a half century later – the night we were all blinded by the smoke of an invisible wildfire. The desert was in the midst of another drought, but cattle had stayed, assisted by both natural and artificial water sources “improved” by ranchers. And after I bought this stolen and damaged land, I dug up the old survey report – still the only survey ever performed on the ground here – on microfilm at the nearest government office and brought a copy out to the desert with me. There, I tried to match visible landmarks to lines and contours on the topographic map, hiking up and down rocky slopes, looking for metal discs left 70 years earlier. As far as I could tell, there were valuable things on or near the boundaries of my land – a water well and its windmill prominent among them – and I needed to know whether they were on or off my property.

I found some of the discs – others, anchored in sand, had probably been washed away in flash floods. But I’d read the surveyors’ field notes, as I was hiking up those rocky slopes and gazing out over the desert, I kept recalling their mention of lush grasslands. I sure couldn’t see any of that now. How the hell could things change so much? Or were people from different generations and eras of our culture simply conditioned to see things differently?

Unstoppable Invasions

Two years later, I was living in Oakland, in a relationship with the love of my life. As spring approached, I heard that heavy winter rains had broken the drought in the desert. I needed to see it for myself, so I drove out in early April, to find a stream running through my land. Years of longing overcame love, and I left the girl to move to my land, live outdoors, drink the stream water, and hopefully harvest some of the desert’s new bounty. Maybe this would be my opportunity to fulfill a long-gestating dream to live like the old ones, the prehistoric Indians whose relics had inspired me, changing my life and work years earlier.

Among my first challenges were the cattle – they were literally shitting in the stream – and a Middle Eastern plant called tamarisk which had been accidentally introduced in the Southwest in the 19th century. Back then, railroads imported a non-invasive species of tamarisk, growing as trees, for windbreak, to keep sand from blowing over the tracks. But the seeds of the invasive species were inadvertently mixed in with the tree species, and immediately began spreading.

Since then, their tiny seeds had blown into every canyon in the desert. Sprouting after a brief rain, their fast-growing seedlings send roots down deep to follow the receding water table. The plants sweat out salts that poison the soil, killing off native plants and reducing biodiversity. My friends and I worked hard to eradicate them from our canyon – as did large, well-organized and funded volunteer groups around the desert. But we all quickly learned that no feasible amount or duration of effort would succeed. The seeds were everywhere, mixed into the sand by seasonal floods. Crews would need to hike into thousands of remote canyons every year, year in and year out, working for up to a week in each, just to keep up with new seedlings. That level of effort was impractical and unsustainable in any society, let alone one with as many urgent problems as ours. Cattle could easily be removed from the desert, but tamarisk never.

So no sooner had I become aware of invasive species and the problems they could cause, than I was brought up short by their irreversibility. The society that could send a man to the moon, couldn’t reverse the damage it was causing to natural habitat. Full stop.

From the beginning, I’d been hiking solo all over the nearby ridges, where my socks continuously collected the prickly seeds of foxtails, otherwise known as red brome, a Mediterranean grass accidentally introduced to the American West by Europeans in the late 19th century, like tamarisk. The thin spikes of the seed case burrow into clothing and the fur of animals like horses and cattle, where they’re dispersed across the desert, from low bajadas to the highest ridges. They were incredibly annoying and hard to remove, but it wasn’t until the Hackberry Fire of 2005 that I realized their impact on wildfire and their potential for totally destroying native habitat. How were other invasive species involved with wildfire?

Despite my decades of experience living, camping, and hiking in the desert, it wasn’t until 2019 that I became aware of an even greater invasive threat: Sahara mustard. This shrub-like annual from North Africa and the Middle East was first identified south of our desert in 1927. It began to spread during wet winters in the 1970s and 1980s, but was considered rare until 2005. The wide-branching plant dies after setting seed, providing ready fuel for the fast spread of high-intensity wildfires. During one of our group campouts, a botanist friend pointed out that our big dry wash was full of this plant I’d probably seen for years but never identified as invasive. Later when I left, I saw it all over the vast alluvial fan surrounding our mountain range. It could never be eradicated now – it was here to stay, like tamarisk and red brome a permanent part of the new habitat regime.

Deserts are defined scientifically by their average rainfall. But it was now clear to me that the average existed only in someone’s mind. What you encountered was usually going to be the exception – either extreme drought or “unusual” precipitation. Scientists say the global climate is changing, and local climates will change correspondingly. But the desert climate has always been in flux. Invasive plants spread in wet years and fuel high-intensity wildfires in dry seasons. How will that change in the future, and how will those high-intensity fires promote even more dramatic changes in habitat?

We’re told that climate change is our overriding environmental crisis. But climate change doesn’t cause the spread of invasive species. Invasive species spread due to industrially-enhanced human mobility and imperialist expansion – our “manifest destiny.” Cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes spread invasive species just as effectively regardless of whether they’re powered by fossil fuels, electricity, hydrogen, or any other technology. When we fly from region to region, from continent to continent, for family, business, or pleasure, each of us carries invisible seeds, representing up to hundreds of plant species, in our clothing. We can send a man to the moon, but we can’t stop plants from hitching a ride on us. Despite all our imagined power, we are no more in control of our world than are those plants.

Soil Crusts and the Fire Regime

We desert lovers learned long ago that the term for our favorite habitat is misleading. We know deserts as some of the most diverse living habitats on earth – the opposite of ruined wastelands. I know from personal experience that you can spend decades walking the same desert, eyes glued to the ground, and still discover new miracles.

I’d seen biological soil crusts in the desert for decades, but until 2016, I’d never really seen them, never really identified them for what they were: complex symbiotic communities of microscopic organisms, working together to stabilize the soil, mediate solar heating, regulate moisture, process and transport carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients, helping to create habitat for so-called “higher” organisms that were much more visible to us.

Once I knew what they were, I saw them everywhere and became obsessed with them. Intricate and opaque, still, silent and mysterious, they sat there like rocks, but they were constantly, invisibly at work, and when it rained, they swelled and glistened like black jewels.

What happened to them in a high-intensity wildfire, fueled by red brome or Sahara mustard? On the same trip when I discovered soil crusts, I stumbled upon the burn scar of a wildfire perhaps a decade old. Lacking both forest and deep organic soils, desert wildfires are always surface fires, burning through grass and other undergrowth. In this burn scar, I found both cattle and red brome thriving, but soil crusts had been virtually eliminated. Yucca, cholla cactus, and native shrubs had been mostly killed off. Scientists report that after a high-intensity desert wildfire, complex soil crusts are replaced by a much simpler and less productive community of bacteria.

In the scientific literature, I’d sporadically encountered the term fire regime, connoting a stable long-term pattern of wildfire specific to a local region or habitat. The pattern could be defined by frequency, intensity, size, season, or severity. As far as I could tell, there was no stable pattern, no fire regime, in my desert. Long before I’d discovered it, my desert had been brutally disturbed by Europeans, their livestock, and their accidental plant introductions. The lightning fire I’d escaped on the first visit to my land had probably spread due to invasive red brome, like the catastrophic Hackberry Fire in Round Valley.

Our native deserts, “wastelands” teeming with diverse, mysterious life, much of it still unknown to science, are in the midst of an ever-evolving new fire regime driven by the invasive species thoughtlessly introduced by our technological innovation and imperialist expansion. No one can predict how it will unfold. But in the meantime, more and more desert habitat is destroyed each year to host giant solar plants and wind farms, driven by the concern of distant city dwellers who fear the “global environmental dangers” of climate change but are ignorant of ecology and unaware that energy production on an industrial scale is ultimately nonrenewable and unsustainable, regardless of the specific technology used.

Wildfire in the Southwest

Fire Cycles, Succession, and Decomposition

In October 2011, five years after moving to New Mexico, I revisited a remote mountain range in Utah that had intrigued me for decades. The approach to its southernmost high peak is via a rough dirt road that plunges into the small canyon of an ice-cold mountain stream, then rises onto the lower slope of the distant peak’s eastern flank, with the peak looming miles ahead. Soon after emerging from the canyon onto the upper slope, I entered an old burn scar that stretched to the horizon, a spooky expanse of dead grass dotted with the blackened skeletons of juniper, pinyon pine, and mountain mahogany – the former mid-elevation forest, now populated only by ghosts.

The peak itself was blanketed with snow, revealing that its own cover of mixed-conifer forest had mostly been killed off by the fire. I hadn’t heard of this fire – the range is so remote that few even know about it, and local news doesn’t reach the wider world. When I finally reached the foot of the peak, at an elevation of 7,500′, I parked and hiked back into its foothills on an abandoned ranch trail. Rising sparsely from the slopes of the peak ahead were the pale snags of fire-killed ponderosa pine, but the trail itself was hemmed in by a dense thicket of quaking aspen seedlings ten or twelve feet tall. And when I pushed through them, hoping to climb the slope for a view out over the landscape, I was turned back again and again by impassable thickets of Gambel oak.

So this is what followed a wildfire in the mixed-conifer forests of the Southwest: thickets of oak and aspen, replacing the tall pines and firs. It was my first foray into what biologists call ecological succession – the response of a natural habitat and ecosystem to a major disturbance like wildfire. Dominant plants – the mixed-conifer forest – are eliminated, and other species – oak and aspen – “invade,” temporarily replacing the conifers in what is called stand replacement, initiating a period of “competition” in which many species jockey for position and resources until finally a new equilibrium is reached. Perhaps the end result is the same as the beginning – a “mature” mixed-conifer forest. Or maybe there will be a forest conversion – a more or less permanent loss of forest cover to shrubland and grassland.

Behind all these orderly scientific concepts is the notion of a fire cycle – as opposed to a fire regime. Whereas the regime is the pattern, the cycle implies that wildfires are not only natural, they’re repeating, in cycles, and the cycle is the time period between fires, during which ecological succession occurs.

That’s a neat, mechanistic explanation, but it was of only limited use as I fought my way up the flank of that snow-covered peak. Did those thickets actually invade – move in from outside – or were their seeds or roots already there? And if so, why didn’t the pines and firs also regenerate after the fire? If everything above ground is killed, what remains below? How exactly is the cycle renewed?

The following summer, when an arsonist killed off most of the pinyon-juniper-oak forest on the little peak I hike regularly near home, I had the opportunity to examine the beginnings of the fire cycle up close. Instead of mourning and avoiding the charred slopes like my traumatized hiking buddy, I returned to learn, to see how succulents like cactus, yucca, and agave, that store large amounts of water in their leaves and stems, can resist fire and endure charring of their extremities, to survive and thrive while trees and shrubs around them are killed off. As I kept hiking that devastated trail in the years that followed the fire, I saw how in that middle elevation between 6,000′ and 8,000′, annual wildflowers immediately filled in and blanketed the previously forested slope. A small, shaded forest had been transformed into an exposed riot of color in summertime.

Immediately after the fire, those slopes had been been stripped of all plant life and blanketed with ash. Even the exposed rocks had been scorched. Where had that blanket of wildflowers come from? Had there been seeds buried in the soil – a seed bank stored, safe from the heat directly above it, waiting under the ash for rain to germinate and renew?

I’d read that mature organic soil contains a dense, intricate network of fungi that act as intermediaries between inorganic matter – rock – and higher plants, working with other soil organisms to break down and transport nutrients for the rest of the natural community. How much of this hidden underground community is killed off by wildfire, and how much remains to begin the restoration of habitat above the surface?

On weekends, I was hiking higher peaks, where I noticed evidence of much older fires, and clues to how that habitat had responded to their disturbance. On the ascent of a ridge, at a transitional elevation where pinyon-juniper-oak forest normally gives way to mixed-conifer, an old burn scar had been colonized by a large stand of ferns. Sporadically, amid the ferns, rose a few old charred snags, all that was left of the transitional forest, and right next to the fern blanket was a thicket of aspens. But the ferns were here to stay – they turned brown and shrank to the ground in late fall, only to burst out in vivid green again in summer. Why ferns, and not oaks or aspens?

On the 8,000′ peak south of town where I’d found a pleasant open, parklike mixed-conifer forest, I noticed more and more evidence of an old fire: occasional charred stumps and snags remaining among the mature, healthy trees, which themselves had patches of charred bark around their bases. I began to realize that a low-intensity wildfire must’ve spread through this forest, killing off undergrowth and a few trees, while sparing most of the mature forest, and leaving only grass on the ground between. I realized that wildfire had actually created this pleasant, easy to navigate parklike forest.

“…during a span of two to four centuries before 1900…Intervals between fires in these forests mostly ranged from an average of only about two years in parts of northern Arizona…This pattern of frequent fires was instrumental in producing and maintaining parklike ponderosa forests with big trees and open, grassy understories…Flammulated owls in particular favor open ponderosa pine forests, and black bears sometimes hibernate in fire-carved hollows at the base of big pines…Open-growth ponderosa pines commonly features vigorous bunchgrass undergrowth, which is more accessible and nutritious than vegetation beneath other forests.” Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno, Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree

And as an artist, I was drawn to the colors and patterns evoked by fire from the canvas of burned trees. I became a connoisseur of charred bark and the patterns exposed on the sapwood of a fallen tree trunk as the dead bark falls off or is torn off by bears looking for insect larvae. I marveled at the fungi that colonized dead tree trunks and fallen logs, and the beautiful “pleasing fungus beetles” that ate the fungi. Together, the fungi and insects were processing nutrients from the once-living plant matter and releasing them for the rest of the surviving community.

Some parts of a tree, like leaves, needles, and bark, were fairly quick to decompose, but where the crown of a conifer had been burnt off, the remaining trunk often stood for decades, resisting rot like the structural lumber in your house. Like I would discover after my house fire, for a flammable material, wood can be surprisingly resistant and resilient to fire. And those standing snags, even the ones that fall within years after a fire, provide a bounty of new habitat for woodpeckers and other birds.

Forest Health

In summer 2015, during our regional hiatus between major wildfires, I suddenly began to notice isolated ponderosa pines with dying foliage amid the otherwise uniformly green mixed-conifer forests of two peaks near home. It seemed we were always in a state of drought, so I initially wondered if that was the cause. But over the next few years, the crowns of more surrounding pines turned brown until patches of forest became exposed. It had to be bark beetles.

For decades I’d read about the loss of entire forests to bark beetles, farther north in the Rockies. I was already concerned about the loss of Southwestern forests to wildfire – especially in the unique Sky Island habitats – and I assumed that trees killed by bark beetles would provide a lot more ready fuel for high-intensity wildfires. But when I mentioned the spreading die-offs to a friend, she pointed me to an article claiming that bark beetles are actually an integral part of natural ecosystems and can help cleanse the forest of weak, already unhealthy trees.

These uniform forests, dominated by only a few species, that I’d always considered monotonous and boring, were turning out to be much more complex than I’d ever guessed. They appeared simple on the surface, in a momentary snapshot, but their complexity emerged over time, as layers were exposed and communities transformed themselves in the wake of wildfire.

Next: Recovering in Burn Scars


Fire, Part 4: Recovering in Burn Scars

Saturday, February 6th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Wildfire.

Previous: Questioning Wildfire

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Recovering Together

Before I began to lose mobility in 2014, hiking was just the cardio part of my weekly fitness regimen. I was still commuting to the West Coast for work, and with no time to explore our vast local wilderness areas, I hiked the same four or five trails close to town, week in and week out, year in and year out, just to stay in shape for hiking my beloved desert on sporadic vacations.

Back then, I was just maintaining capacity. But now, in recovery, I was trying to rebuild it, so I needed ways to measure progress. I needed to more accurately determine and record the distances and elevations I was hiking from week to week. It turned out that I really hadn’t lost much conditioning after all, and I quickly outgrew those short trails near town. Years of frustration made me want to achieve more.

The more challenging trails – longer and with more elevation gain – tended to be much farther away, in high mountains and wilderness areas – areas I might’ve explored from the start if I hadn’t been put off by that green blanket of forest. But now, wildfire had opened it up. While most people grieved the loss of trees, I was excited because now it would be more like the desert – I could see where I was, and I’d have long views over the landscape. And sure enough, all the challenging trails within a day’s drive of home turned out to traverse recent burn scars. My disabled body would be struggling to regain capacity in natural habitats that were struggling to recover from wildfire. Nature would be my teacher, my inspiration – what could be more appropriate?

During the past three years, I’ve hiked roughly 2,500 miles in burn scars, many of those miles bushwhacking or wayfinding on trails that have been abandoned, blocked, and overgrown. I’ve climbed over 600,000 vertical feet, my eyes peeled for differences in wildfire response between low-elevation grass-and-shrublands, mid-elevation pinyon-juniper-oak forest, and high-elevation mixed-conifer forest, as well as for large-scale patterns in landforms and landscapes visible from miles away. Wildfire has literally made me stronger and increased my endurance. But it’s also challenged my perceptions, helping me become a better observer, tracker, and pathfinder.

I’ve hiked burn areas in the Henry Mountains of Utah, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In the White Mountains of Arizona, administered by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. In the Pinaleno and Chiricahua mountain ranges of Arizona’s Coronado National Forest. And in the Mogollon, Pinos Altos, Burro, and Black Range mountains of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.

These hikes have taken me, on multiple visits to each, through the burn scars of the Bulldog Fire (2003), the Horseshoe II Fire (2011), the Wallow Fire (2011), the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire (2012), the Gomez Peak Fire (2012), the Silver Fire (2013), the Signal Fire (2014), the Frye Fire (2017), and the Tadpole Fire (2020), and the scars of older burns not on record. The majority of these hikes have occurred within federally-designated wilderness areas.

That said, I’m still just an amateur, and my study has only really begun, so what I have to share is in no way scientifically rigorous or complete. It’s just my experience as a beginning student of wildfire.

Landscape and Resilience

My first immersion in a mixed-conifer burn scar occurred unintentionally, during the summer solstice of 2018 in Arizona’s White Mountains. As mentioned in Part 2, this is a special, distinct landscape: a high plateau of vast grassy meadows separated by low meandering ridges and isolated peaks of dark volcanic rock. Much of the mixed-conifer forest blanketing those peaks and ridges had been burned in 2011’s Wallow Fire, and this was my first hike into its heart.

Making my way upstream along a narrow creek, in the shadow of a mature, parklike forest of old-growth pine and fir, I suddenly emerged into stark sunlight. A few living pines and many charred snags remained standing on the low slopes at my left and right, but most of the forest and any previous undergrowth had been killed off the slopes. Now, 7 years after the fire, only low bunchgrasses had been able to re-colonize those slopes, which were strewn with blackened logs.

The stream and its banks, on the other hand, cut a lush, bright green corridor through the ruins. I stopped and tried to visualize this little valley during the fire, with roiling, raging flames pouring down from above. Did the water boil? Did the stream provide a refuge – not only for underwater plants and animals, but as a wet, cooler corridor for riparian life to survive the fire?

Then I was yanked back to real time, noticing movement a hundred feet ahead. Three cow elk had crossed the creek and were moving from my left to right, east to west, wasting no time. I’d seen elk in these mountains several times over the years, sometimes in small groups grazing in roadside forest, sometimes in large herds spread across open meadows. I guessed these animals were moving from one distant location to another – to join a herd, or to reach an “island” of forage that had been left, or created, by the fire.

Suddenly, out of the ruins, I recognized a landscape consisting of habitats for both plants and animals, created by wildfire over time, as part of the fire cycle. The stream had provided a refuge. Landforms like mountains, ridges, meadows, and valleys had shaped the fire, and the fire had preserved or opened islands and corridors of habitat, redirecting the movements of wildlife. It wasn’t just a catastrophic event, a momentary disturbance that began with abundant life and ended with traumatic death. It was a passage in an ongoing story.

But when I applied these lessons to a completely different environment – the Sky Island of Arizona’s Pinaleno Mountains – they told a different story. In contrast with the little stream in the Whites, Sky Islands provide refuges on a macro scale – what ecologists call refugia, isolated remnants of habitat that were once widespread. Hiking in the higher elevations of the Pinalenos, I saw how the Frye Fire in 2017 had wiped out entire slopes of habitat for the critically endangered red squirrel, shrinking its already tiny refugium. These squirrels were uniquely adapted to and totally dependent on this small patch of high-elevation forest, which was truly an island separated by dozens of miles of arid, unforested hills and basins from its nearest neighbors in distant mountain ranges.

Unlike the elk, the squirrels were stuck here. They couldn’t escape and run long distances across open ground to another mountain range. The more of their forest was destroyed by fire, the fewer squirrels would survive. Rather than resilient survivors adapting to new conditions, they appeared as helpless victims, relics stuck in the past. There are no guarantees that all of us – or any of us – will survive what’s coming. The smaller and more limited your habitat, the more likely it is you’ll eventually go extinct.

But what about the squirrels’ habitat – the mixed-conifer forest on top of that specific mountain range? Just as the squirrels were “adapted” to and dependent on their forest, the forest depended on the squirrels. Regularly, year in and year out, the squirrels bury conifer seeds, which then become a seed bank ready to regenerate the habitat after a major disturbance, like wildfire. The loss of a single species, and the ecological work it performs, reduces the resilience of the ecosystem, and might ultimately result in the loss – the conversion – of its habitat, which might not be able to bounce back after a catastrophic disturbance.

Wildfire Behavior: A Dance With the Land

Already familiar with the distinctive landscape of Arizona’s White Mountains plateau, I could imagine how the Wallow Fire had to follow the meandering forested ridgelines, or be carried by wind as sparks to cause “spot fires,” rather than just racing across those intervening grassy meadows. We all know that heat rises, and when I saw entire slopes turned to ash in the Pinalenos, I assumed fire had begun at the lower end and burned uphill. But it wasn’t until I started hiking the Gila Wilderness in early 2019 that I got a clearer sense of how landscape shapes wildfire.

In contrast to the high plateau of the Whites, or the Sky Island of the Pinalenos, the Mogollon Mountains are just the high western edge of a vast, tilted platform of ancient volcanic sediment that has been eroded over time into a maze of sharp ridges and deep, shaded canyons. The steep slopes between ridgetops and canyon bottoms are irregularly punctuated by talus, rock pinnacles, and cliffs, and these topographic and surface features break up the forest, redirect winds and airflow, and shaped the path and impacts of our “devastating” 2012 Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire.

Already, in 2014, I’d hiked to the sharp top of a ridge where I had one foot in the exposed ash of a moonscape and the other in the shadow of intact forest. I didn’t know if that sharp boundary was caused by the natural sharpness of the ridge or by the way the fire was stopped by the Forest Service. But in the Mogollons I could see how entire drainages between outlying ridges had been protected, either because the fire had burned uphill rather than sideways around a sharp corner, or because prevailing winds and hot air currents had been channeled by the landforms, driving the fire in corresponding paths.

At the time of the fire, these isolated drainages must have provided refuge for animals as well as plants, and the many exposed rock outcrops would’ve also provided refuge as the fire was forced to bypass them in its spread.

At the beginning of June 2020, while I was stuck at home recovering from an episode of severe back pain, dry lightning sparked wildfire in a remote drainage below a ridge near town that I’d been hiking regularly for many years. The trail followed the six-mile-long ridgeline, so I knew the forest up there well, and I knew that its steep north slope was choked with excess fuel – dense underbrush and deadfall.

The road through that area was closed, and my condition, and the surrounding hills, made it hard to see what was going on, but I followed updates on Inciweb, the government wildfire information website. I assumed the fire would burn uphill to the ridgeline, and I was saddened to think that I’d lose yet another forest hike. But as the online fire maps were updated from day to day, I saw fire behavior that was completely unexpected. The fire climbed straight north up to the ridge, then dropped straight north down the back side without running laterally. Then from there, it turned right and ran laterally to the east, while windblown sparks raced above it and landed at the east end of the ridge, where spot fires merged and became a new center.

After that, fire behavior seemed random, running and spotting in all directions until the fire boundary encompassed the whole ridge and all its outlying spurs and foothills. But whenever I zoomed my camera or used binoculars from a distant peak, I could see a lot of intact forest still standing, everywhere.

Two months later, the fire had finally burned out and the road had been reopened, and I hiked the entire ridgeline, discovering that the fire had made narrow runs both up and down the north and south slopes, completely consuming narrow swaths of vegetation while leaving the surrounding, seemingly identical slopes intact. It had burned laterally along some slopes, leaving the upper forest intact, with a sharp line between moonscape and lush forest. In some spots, it had burned individual trees down to the roots while leaving no trace of charring on surrounding vegetation.

Although I wasn’t sure why wildfires behaved so erratically, I now had a better understanding of what the authorities meant when they reported “patchy” fire damage. Media coverage, and occasional views of fires from a distant highway, had led me to believe vast areas of forest had been completely destroyed, but what I was now finding, in the heart of the burn area, was a complex mosaic of both new and old habitat – much more complex than the pre-existing forest. Rather than the simplicity of life vs. death, the fire had created a new diversity of habitats.

And it was not just the familiar cliche of “biodiversity” – many different species packed into a single habitat or region – this was a whole new paradigm. Many more distinct habitats, each with its own ecosystem, its own community of organisms, packed into the same area. And all the patches of the mosaic were small enough, and close enough together – typically connected to others of the same type in a network – that most animals, and the seeds of plants, could move back and forth between them, from shaded gully to gentle slope to steep ridge and mountain top, from exposed rock to grassland to shrubland to forest, sharing the best of all worlds.

The Wildfire Cycle: Aftermath and Repercussions

In 2019, as I recovered from my disabilities, gained capacity, and sought more challenging hikes, I tried to plan hikes that were farther away. There was little information online about trail conditions in the Pinalenos – it appeared that since the big wildfires there, neither the Forest Service nor crowd-sourced websites were updating trail conditions. There were no recent trip logs, and I got the sense that hikers were mostly avoiding that area – either because they knew the trails were bad, or they were just guessing.

I was interested in the biggest canyon on the south side of the range, because it was remote and had a perennial stream. The trail ran up the canyon for a few miles then switchbacked to the crest. It was long enough for a serious day hike, and offered a challenging climb. But what I found in that canyon blew my mind. It was something I’d only read about in John McPhee’s book The Control of Nature – a massive debris flow, resulting from the erosion that followed the 2017 Frye Fire.

This wasn’t ostensibly as dramatic as McPhee’s example – boulders the size of freight cars rolling out of canyons into upscale suburbs – but it was deep in the wilderness, and I wasn’t just reading about it, it was blocking my path. I’d lost the trail miles below, because post-fire floods had carved and completely re-shaped the stream bed. Then suddenly I emerged into a nightmare landscape where, quite recently, a huge pile of white boulders had rolled down from above, submerging the canyon bottom and its green riparian habitat. The skeletons of big pine and fir trees rose like zombies from the boulder pile, killed from the roots up, still bearing a dead weight of brown needles.

Forest was intact on both sides of this canyon – you couldn’t even see the wildfire burn scar from here. There was only one place these boulders could’ve come from – the burned slopes thousands of feet above. I laboriously climbed over the debris flow, which stretched a half mile upstream, and found that it ended in a cliff with a tall waterfall pouring out of a narrow gap high above, where these thousands of tons of boulders had to have rolled through, plunging nearly a hundred feet and crashing into the canyon bottom where they quickly spread out and piled up to create a completely new swath of habitat, a maze of fresh new niches to be filled with sediment, soil, plants and animals.

A year later, hiking through moonscape burn scars high in the Black Range and Mogollon Mountains near home, I saw how these erosional events start. I crossed deep vertical gullies created on upper slopes by headward erosion. After a catastrophic wildfire, when a stand of trees on a steep slope is killed, the soil and underlying rocks are no longer held in place by tree roots. Rain and melting snow literally drag loose sediment out from under the slope, and the resulting gully eats its way up the slope, broadening into a new canyon over time. Chunks of the mountain top are literally broken up and moved downhill.

Wildfire is not only shaped by existing landforms – it creates new landforms, through erosion and deposition. That’s an integral part of the fire cycle, as anyone knows who lives in a wildfire zone. One of the first things the authorities warn you about is flooding and erosion, which follow quickly in the aftermath of wildfire.

From my earliest forays into burn scars, I’d been blocked or hemmed in by thickets of oak and aspen and scratched by thorns. I was used to the tiny, non-threatening thorns of wild roses and raspberries, but it wasn’t until I began hiking the burn scars of the Silver Fire, high in the Black Range east of my home, that I became aware of, and focused in on, New Mexico locust.

Back east, I’d grown up with the thorny honey locust tree. A thicket of locust seedlings had provided my secret childhood hideout, sheltering me from neighborhood bullies. These New Mexico locusts in the Black Range burn scar had vicious thorns up to an inch long. Once I knew what they were, I found they were widespread in high-elevation burn scars. But whereas here in the Black Range, they formed dense thickets, in other locations they were sparse and far outnumbered by oak or aspen.

Plants use thorns to protect their foliage from herbivores like deer. Conversely, this would seem to imply that locust leaves are desirable forage for herbivores, and wildfire that removes the canopy of mixed-conifer forest provides a bounty of new forage for wildlife. I also learned that the flowers are edible, although after trying a few in the summertime, I wasn’t crazy about their raw flavor. But apparently their protective thorns enable them to become one of the three main invaders of burn scars.

Still seeking more variety and more challenges in my hikes, in early 2020 I ventured over into the Chiricahua sky island of extreme southeast Arizona. I was attracted to these mountains because they had more exposed rock to break up the monotony of the forest, but I knew the forest they did have was devastated in the 2011 Horseshoe II Fire.

There was also more up-to-date information on trails, in a website maintained by a single devotee. Based on his report, I headed up a trail that offered short access to the crest of the range. He said it had been cleared of deadfall the previous year, but after I summited a switchback slope and reached the halfway point, I entered a canyon where the trail was completely blocked by hundreds of living trees that had fallen down from above, seemingly all at the same time.

This was new to me, and when I contacted the website guy, I learned it was known as a blowdown.

When a tree topples and is uprooted, in one piece, it leaves a hole, and the underside of the root mass is exposed. I’d encountered that throughout my life of hiking in forests, but I’d never really considered all the ramifications. Sure, we all know that trees can blow down sometimes in a high wind. But why did this section of trees, on this particular slope, blow down all at once, when the forest around them was spared?

Maybe there was a problem with the soil – maybe as a result of the wildfire, or maybe developing over a longer time – and/or a problem with the health of these trees, that weakened their roots or their anchorage in the ground. A continuous stand provides wind protection for individual trees – a windbreak – and the opposing stand, across the narrow canyon, had mostly been killed off by the wildfire. Maybe that loss of windbreak had increased wind’s impact on these survivors. Maybe it was just a freak of wind, channelled by the landforms – this was a “hanging” canyon that ended abruptly at a downstream gap. Maybe even the strongest, best-rooted trees couldn’t’ve resisted that powerful gust.

Later in the year, hiking a narrow but flat-topped ridge near home, I came upon a smaller blowdown – a dozen tall, seemingly healthy ponderosa pines that had all toppled in the same direction, south to north, directly across the trail. The forest remained intact all around this new open patch.

The top of a peak or ridge funnels a prevailing wind, generally producing the highest wind speeds and forces, so here, it was easier to guess why trees had been blown down, but not why this patch had been singled out while their neighbors stood fast.

The cause would remain a mystery, but I now knew that within the fire cycle, living trees as well as dead trees could be blown down en masse, creating new openings in the forest, reducing forest cover and making way for new habitat.

Climbing Through Deadfall and Blowdown

At the beginning of my “recovery in burn scars,” I was dealing with my latest disability, a shoulder problem. It started as a sharp pain in my right bicep while stretching, but by late 2018 I had to pause my upper-body workouts, and just putting on or taking off clothes became a challenge – I couldn’t raise that arm more than 45 degrees without triggering severe pain.

Our local surgeon prescribed physical therapy, but that made it worse. Then he ordered an MRI and said I had a rotator cuff tear that could easily be fixed with surgery. But when I talked to others who’d had that surgery, I learned it had the longest and hardest recovery period of any orthopedic procedure. I live alone, but during the first 6 weeks, I’d need somebody with me 24/7, and I could expect waiting up to a year for recovery, which still might not be 100 percent.

So I decided to try to work through it – to take lessons from the failed physical therapy, and carefully, laboriously build strength in the tissue surrounding the rotator cuff, to hopefully compensate and recover more use of that shoulder.

It took months, but it worked. There were still limitations on what I could do with that arm, but I learned what they were, and was mostly able to avoid triggering the pain. And within those limits, I recovered virtually all my original strength and range of motion.

However, while working on the right shoulder, I discovered the exact same problem, just beginning in the left. And several months after recovering from the first rotator cuff tear, I was driving west across an uninhabited stretch of Utah, looking for a prehistoric pictograph site, when my whole left arm suddenly caught fire with crippling pain.

I had to drive with the right arm to the next exit, where I pulled off, took some meds, and rested. But the pain remained so severe that I had to give up on camping that night, and retreated to a distant motel, where I rested and treated the pain for a couple of days before driving home.

Fortunately, I knew what to do this time, so I started the whole upper-body recovery effort over again. And my lower body was fine, so I could still hike, as long as I used my recovered right arm for things like lifting my pack.

At the same time, I was beginning to outgrow the trails that had been cleared of deadfall in our local burn scars. I needed more distance in my Sunday all-day hikes. Those trails all continued for many miles into wilderness, but the continuations were all abandoned and blocked, either by fallen snags or char from the old wildfires, or by blowdown due to wind.

Three months into recovering from the second rotator cuff tear, I decided to try an unfamiliar trail. For half of its distance, it traversed a north slope through a forest turned into moonscape by fire. It was early February and snow on that north slope was about 8 inches deep. The trail was mostly clear of deadfall, but at one point I reached a log lying across the trail at chest height. The easiest way to get past those is to wrap both arms around the log and swing underneath, but when I tried that, it felt like I was tearing my left arm off at the shoulder. I screamed, dropped into the snow and lay there a while, breathing hard.

Fortunately the pain receded by the time I finished hiking, and it didn’t seem to have reversed my recovery. But as I began to push farther on uncleared trails, my hikes became less about walking, and more about climbing over, under, and around obstacle courses created by the trunks and branches of fallen trees. My recovering upper body was getting almost as much of a workout as the hips, knees, and feet that I’d spent years trying to restore.

This reached a climax in December 2020, when I decided to try a trail I’d been wondering about for 14 years, ever since I’d moved to southwest New Mexico. It was the crest trail that traversed the heart of the “moonscape” burn scar of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, connecting the highest peaks of the range. Trip logs from recent hikers said it’d been cleared of deadfall the previous summer. But what I found was nothing short of apocalyptic.

Used to hiking 7 or 8 miles into the wilderness before turning back, I only made 4 miles on this trail, and to get that far, I had to climb over, under, or around up to 2,000 trees that had fallen in the past couple of months. Why now, and why so many? I remembered we’d had high winds in November. And maybe the timing was just right, just enough time had passed since the fire, and the grip of all those dead but still-standing trees had weakened just enough to let them fall. Trees in a stand provide wind resistance – windbreak – for each other, and as more fall, there must be a domino effect.

My recovered shoulders got their ultimate workout. And I saw just how much a high-elevation mixed-conifer forest could be physically transformed after high-intensity wildfire.

I’d seen big herbivores like deer and elk making their way through deadfall with no problem. Jumping hurdles is as intuitive for them as walking. I’d learned how a wide variety of animals make use of human trails, which often begin as animal trails anyway. A mountain lion had preceded me on that deadfall trail, and I could see that with its lower profile, it had an easier time because it could simply slink under most of the fallen logs that spanned the trail.

I began to think all these blocked trails, in the wake of wildfire, might even be a good thing, because they’d help keep humans and their invasive species – dogs, horses, cattle, and the non-native seeds carried by all – out of recovering habitat. But that’s probably wishful thinking.

Mature forest habitat provides many services and resources – soil stabilization, shade, nesting sites, tree seeds, and leaf litter, to name a few. But after high-intensity wildfire destroys the evergreen canopy, sunlight can reach the ground, and grasses, annuals, shrubs, and deciduous trees will invade, providing a bounty of rich forage for rodents, birds, and herbivorous mammals.

Invertebrates like ants, termites, and wood borers gain masses of new habitat in rotting logs, and bears find sugars in the sapwood and a potential bounty of insects and larvae when they tear off the rotting bark. In the long run, nutrients from rotting logs, processed by fungi, insects, and bears, replenish the soil.

Each time I suffered a disability – the onset of pain, the loss of strength and mobility – I feared it would be permanent. But so far, I’d found that in my body, as in nature at large, each loss was not an end, but the beginning of a new cycle.

Next: Wildfire Revelations


Fire, Part 5: Wildfire Revelations

Saturday, February 20th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Recovering in Burn Scars

Wildfire and Habitat

Throughout these Dispatches on wildfire, I’ve been using the word habitat as if we’re all familiar with it and understand it in the same way. But is that true?

In ecology – the study of relationships between living organisms and their environment – habitat means, to quote Wikipedia: “the array of resources, physical and biotic factors, present in an area that allow the survival and reproduction of a particular species.” Your habitat is the area around your home where everything you need comes from: air, water, food, shelter, healthcare, etc.

But because many organisms range widely for the resources they need, habitat can be hard to pin down. We’re most familiar with birds – they can seemingly go anywhere. For some migrating birds, their habitat would seem to be an entire hemisphere of the earth. Whales, of course, also migrate thousands of miles. But even a colony of ants can live in a forest and harvest food from a nearby meadow – and vice versa.

As Wittgenstein observed, language is a game. The meanings of words are not prescribed in advance by dictionaries; words acquire meaning during use, and dictionaries are compiled after the fact to report on the usage of words in society.

Experiencing firsthand the changes wrought by wildfire in the Southwestern landscape, I’ve groped for words to describe and share my experience. When biologists, conservationists, and land managers get together in the field, I’ve always heard them refer to a forest, a grassy meadow, a desert, a stream corridor, or a seashore as a type of habitat – for example, “You’ve got that forest habitat next to a sagebrush steppe.” In that usage, habitat doesn’t refer to a single species and its needs, it refers to a physical area hosting and providing the needs of a distinct community of countless different species – from bacteria and fungi to trees and large mammals – whose interactions with each other and the nonliving components of that area constitute an ecosystem. That area, that type of habitat, has boundaries, beyond which it ends and other, adjacent types of habitat begin, and it’s defined in terms of the recognizable features that distinguish it from other, adjacent habitats. For example, a forest bordering on a meadow, or an ocean bordering on a coast.

Biologists are not really supposed to use the term “habitat” in that vernacular sense, as a place defined by a geographical feature, or an alliance of dominant vegetation, hosting a distinct community of species. But we need a word for such a place, and we grope for something more accurate.

Wildfire makes this need even more urgent. Within hours, a wildfire can turn a forest full of trees and the animals that depend on them into a smoking, ash-blanketed moonscape. The forest provided habitat for countless species, but what do you call the empty moonscape? And when, after monsoon rains, the ashy wasteland is gradually replaced by clumps of annual wildflowers here, stands of ferns there, isolated thickets of aspen here, scattered oak seedlings there, with birds and other animals moving back and forth between them – what do you call the new landscape? The theory of succession says that the new regime is transitory. Over time, species will grow and spread, competing for light, space, water, and nutrients. The perennials all start small, but some will end up dominating others.

That takes time – decades and human generations, in the case of this former forest – and in the meantime, what used to be distinct, homogenous habitat is an unstable, transitional mosaic of patches. Countless plants and animals begin using it immediately after the fire and increase in numbers and complexity from then on. The “new normal” is evolving, but it still provides habitat for these species.

Thus wildfire forces us to talk about habitat that’s divided into a mosaic of patches that are ever-changing and shared between countless species that overlap in some sort of dynamic network. Just as we defined the previous, larger, homogenous and stable area by its most recognizable features, we define each evolving patch by the features that are temporarily dominant. The more we strive for precision and follow the mandate of reductive science to focus on individual species, the more wildfire forces us to take a holistic view.

Desert Fires, Forest Fires

Across my four decades in the Mojave Desert, I can think of only three memorable wildfires. The small one I woke up to in 1989, described in Part 2, is the only one I know firsthand. The other two, the Hackberry Fire of 2005 and the slightly smaller Dome Fire that decimated our most famous Joshua Tree forest in 2020, consumed less than 200,000 acres. During that same period, the forested mountains of Arizona and New Mexico have experienced dozens of mega-wildfires consuming millions of acres. Whereas the prehistory of wildfire in the desert is poorly known and controversial, the forests of the Southwest are widely acknowledged to be adapted to and dependent on wildfire.

During my lifetime, the frequency and intensity of wildfire have increased in both habitats. Most “environmentally-conscious” people now assume that climate change is at fault, simply because media authorities have oversimplified climate change into the scapegoat behind all our environmental problems. But fire suppression, not climate change, is the main reason why more forests burn now than in my youth. Wildfires would’ve been common decades ago if our government hadn’t prevented and aggressively fought them.

Anyone can recognize that a warmer, drier climate will dry out both living and dead vegetation, increasing the risk of fire. But the desert and the forest pose very different risks.

Yes, reductive science tells us that the loss of forest reduces absorption of carbon by the “biosphere,” accelerating climate change on a planetary scale. But Southwestern forests are meant to burn, and the resulting habitat mosaic can be more diverse and productive than the artificial uniformity we created through fire suppression. The forest needs wildfire to restore its balance.

Not so in the desert. As I described in Part 3, unlike the Southwestern forests, desert habitats are being degraded and lost at an ever-accelerating rate due to invasive plants – and of course, due to urban and industrial development – particularly the misnamed “green” energy. Wildfire in the already extremely arid desert will explode in future decades as our rapidly increasing demand for electricity – misbelieved to be a “clean” source of energy – sparks more infrastructure fires, and as more and more invasive plants spread by our “green” electric vehicles provide more and more fuel for high-intensity wildfire, clearing more and more native habitat and replacing it with degraded, biologically impoverished land dominated by aliens.

We Europeans were wrong to call it a desert when we first saw it, because back then, it was a diverse, productive wonderland. Now, we’re making the place fit the name – a wasteland created by our expansion and innovation, a victim of civilization and progress.

Forest Reborn in Fire

Science doesn’t really answer all our questions or provide a definitive explanation for what happens in nature – science provides simplified abstractions that can mislead us into thinking nature is orderly and can be controlled by us.

In the ideal, theoretical, stable habitat, with a stable climate, stable landforms, and a stable ecosystem or community of organisms, scientists tell us that wildfire occurs in a pattern they call the fire regime. Within that theoretical regime, wildfire occurs in fire cycles, meaning that fires repeat at more or less regular time intervals. Each fire is followed by a more or less predictable sequence: flooding, erosion, deposition, plant invasions and colonizations, a period of decomposition, competition, and instability, eventually leading to a stable state in which the habitat and community are just waiting for the next fire.

In this theoretical model, climate – the yearly cycle of weather, from wind and cloud cover to precipitation, temperature averages and extremes – enables specific communities of organisms to settle into specific niches where, working together, they establish distinct habitats and ecosystems, adapting to wildfire and further shaping its regime – its pattern – and its cycle. This is ecology in the broadest sense – living and nonliving, earth and sky, ephemeral phenomena and stable pattern – working together to achieve what in my field of science – the science of motion and change – was called a dynamic equilibrium.

A particular fire regime, and its corresponding cycle, are of course determined by habitat, which is in turn determined by landscape, its geological foundations, climate, and evolutionary history. Regardless of climate, mountains create elevational zones of habitat, from the desert basins to the arid grasslands, the mid-elevation, fairly open forest of trees with spreading crowns, and the high-elevation mixed-conifer forest of tall, slender trees creating a more or less solid canopy. Mountains create corridors and niches of habitat via their rock substrate, their peaks, ridges, rock outcrops and cliffs, and canyon bottoms. Patches of fast-burning fuel – accumulations of dry or dead vegetation, especially from invasive plants – provide a ready-made path for wildfire, diverting it away from slower-burning patches. Both habitat and landforms create the potential for fire and shape its spread.

Within a distinct habitat and ecosystem, the fire adaptations of species, and the conditions of individuals – their relative age and health – determine how they react to fire, and how fire may cull weak or unhealthy individuals while protecting the population. The thick bark on the trunks of mature pines and firs acts as insulation, protecting the sapwood inside. Mature trees shade and kill their lower limbs, which fall off, denying surface fires a “ladder” of fuel to climb to the crown. This is particularly effective for ponderosa pines, which have thick branches that could offer substantial fuel.

Succulents like agave, yucca, and cactus, which we think of as natives of the open desert, thrive in the fire regime of forests because their stored water and underground mass cools and protects them from total destruction in a wildfire, so that even if their thick leaves are completely killed, the plant’s hidden heart can still bear fruit.

In southwestern New Mexico, we may reference the four seasons of our European cultural legacy for convenience, but those are not the seasons we get. Our windy season, in March and April, dries out the land, increasing fuel for wildfire. May and June, the buildup to the Southwest monsoon, bring heat and dry lightning in the mountains. Most of our wildfires start in May and June.

If we get a good monsoon, starting in July, rains will start to suppress the fires. Climate is the pattern, weather is the expression, preparing the land for burning, lighting the fires, then putting them out.

We all know how wildfire can be started by lightning strikes. But did you know that rocks falling against each other can spark wildfire?

Humans start wildfires through carelessness – like the campers in Arizona’s White Mountains who left their campfire smoldering and started the largest wildfire in the history of the Southwest. Or by malicious intent, like the arsonist(s) who destroyed the forest on the little peak I hiked near town.

Our advanced technologies are simply too complex for us to control and keep safe. A driver pulls onto the weedy shoulder of the road to take a call, her hot exhaust pipe catches the weeds on fire, then she drives away, oblivious. Small engines are used millions of times every day at the urban-wildland interface – chain saws, weed-whackers, lawnmowers – generating sparks that can cause wildfires.

Recently, some of the most destructive fires at the urban-wildland interface have been started by arcs or failures in electric power distribution systems. As we try to slow climate change by transitioning from fossil fuels to electric cars, the increased demand on electrical infrastructure will spark more wildfires.

Indigenous people have always started wildfires to increase the productivity of habitat, and Europeans have belatedly appropriated indigenous practices in North America. Fires with a non-human cause burn according to non-human constraints of landscape, habitat, and weather. Humans may schedule, locate, and direct their fires – a prescribed or controlled burn – for defined purposes like “fuel reduction.”

Once a fire has started, it develops a life and history of its own. It’s intuitive for us to think of fire as a thing – even a living thing – but in the reductive domain of European science, fire isn’t a distinct thing, it’s an ephemeral state or property of the “matter” which is burning at the moment. The flames consuming a tree, and the flames consuming its neighbor, are not considered a continuous entity or phenomenon. From the perspective of physics and chemistry, it’s all just atoms, molecules, and energy.

But in the real world, fire is most definitely a living thing. A wildfire is born, it grows, it travels. It may merge with a neighboring fire, like two cells fusing. Like living organisms, it’s always dying even as it grows and thrives – embers blackening and cooling in one place while flames blossom in another. Fires that spread from a center die from the inside out, an expanding ring of flames surrounding a blackened core.

But the movements of fire are directed by landscape, weather, and habitat. In mountains, in still air, a fire will burn uphill. But air is seldom still in mountains, and fires generate their own winds. Strong winds may carry sparks for miles to give birth to spot fires, children isolated from the parent. While moving, a fire may encounter fast-burning fuel that draws it forward. Or it may hit an obstacle – a patch of wet or slow-burning vegetation, a cliff or rock outcrop, the sharp crest of a ridge, a river, pond, or lake. The obstacle may stop the fire, force it to detour, slow it down, or simply reduce its intensity. Obstacles or patches of low intensity provide refuges for plants and fleeing animals.

Depending on cause and habitat, a fire may spread through soil – a ground fire – through surface vegetation – a surface fire – or from treetop to treetop – a crown fire. But these are just convenient abstractions – the reality is much more subtle and complex.

A fire is said to make a run – burning a path uphill, downhill, or across country – directed by landforms, temperature gradients, wind currents, and the availability of fuel. In a complex landscape, it moves like an amoeba, an amorphous being, drawn to patches of available fuel.

Burning vegetation generates smoke, clouds of particulates and gases that warn animals, trigger reactions in plants, release nutrients, and rise into the atmosphere, affecting weather.

Fire doesn’t just consume trees and other plants. Fire interacts with other living things, like any other partner in the ecosystem. Plants come prepared with their adaptations, like the thick bark and limbless trunks of the mature pines, and the water-filled leaves of the succulents. Heat rising from a surface fire in a fuel-rich forest may kill all or most of the leaves and needles above without burning the tree. A tree whose vegetation is killed may die from the top down, its roots rotting until the skeleton is eventually toppled by wind.

A hot crown fire burns downward. If the burning ends at the lowest branches, a standing char – a blackened trunk – is left and may stand for decades. If the trunk keeps burning to the ground, the fire will follow the roots underground, until all the wood is consumed, leaving tunnels in the soil.

Like plants in the forest, animals are said to be adapted to wildfire, meaning they respond to warnings – smoke, the sounds of burning, the sight of flames – by fleeing or taking cover, taking advantage of natural refuges created by variations in landforms, water features, and vegetation. Birds fly away, reptiles hide underground. Some individuals may perish, but the population generally survives.

In the immediate aftermath of wildfire, we see loss, destruction, blackened skeletons, ground covered with ash. What we don’t see is potential new habitat prepared by the fire’s release of massive amounts of raw nutrients. An unhealthy excess of fuel buildup, purged. Unhealthy individuals and populations, cleansed. Fire-adapted roots and seeds, stimulated by fire and waiting, below the ash, for the next rain to sprout.

Many plants of our Southwestern forests are so well-adapted to wildfire that when their aboveground parts are completely consumed, they immediately and aggressively expand underground and re-sprout. Quaking aspen, gambel oak, and New Mexico locust respond this way, filling in burn scars with impenetrable thickets.

Burned agaves, including our narrow-leafed beargrass, immediately re-sprout from unburned root stock, along with ferns and mosses.

Nutrients released into the soil directly by wildfire, and later by the decomposition of fire-killed vegetation, encourage the growth of sprouts from the underground seed bank which is always present, waiting to take advantage of disturbances like fire.

When a stand of trees and other vegetation is killed and largely consumed by high-intensity wildfire, the ground that was held in place by roots is now vulnerable to erosion. When it rains after a fire, floods full of ash and sediment rush downstream. Like terrestrial plants and animals, fish and other aquatic organisms are fire-adapted and sense coming changes. Some are killed, but others take refuge or are washed downstream, to return later when conditions are right.

We think of erosion as merely loss of ground, but in nature, erosion opens new habitat, and floods and landslides move old rocks, soil, and dead vegetation downhill, where they’re eventually deposited to form more new habitat. Erosion can expose buried seeds. In general, erosion and deposition are a form of natural tilling – agitating, turning, and mixing the soil, releasing buried seeds and nutrients. Major erosional and depositional events, like I found in the Pinalenos, create new landforms, which themselves shape new habitats and microclimates of the living earth.

Wildfire releases new chemical nutrients directly, through the burning of soil, vegetation, and dead organic matter, but the process continues for decades after as organisms killed by the fire are consumed by decomposers like fungi, insects, and gut bacteria. The snags and char of fire-killed trees hold precious resources, the product of decades of hard work by the plant. Decomposers process these resources and make them available to the broader ecosystem.

The old notion of ecological succession says that, if environmental conditions – the fire regime – persist, the post-fire undergrowth and thickets will eventually be succeeded by some form of mixed-conifer forest, completing the fire cycle. Pine and fir seedlings will sprout from an existing seed bank, or from seeds carried by birds and buried by squirrels, and eventually grow to shade the shorter trees, which will die out, and you’ll end up with a replacement forest.

But now, with global climate change and massive, high-intensity wildfires, many forests are in danger of stand replacement and forest conversion. We’re told this is a bad thing, because forests help absorb the carbon emitted by our machines, protecting the earth from further climate change. But fire’s removal of the forest canopy opens light and space and liberates nutrients for lush forage – grasses and annuals, the foliage of deciduous shrubs and trees – attracting both herbivores and the predators that depend on them.

Patchy Burns, Biodiversity, and Mosaics

A decade ago when our big local wildfires started, and I anxiously followed the news, I was shocked and saddened by the scale of destruction that expanded daily, reaching hundreds of thousands of acres. Then, after a fire finally died down and damage surveys were reported, I was encouraged when authorities claimed only “patchy” damage.

It was only recently, during my weekly hikes in burn scars, that I began to understand. As described above, living fires tend to grow and move like amoebas, shaped by landforms, weather, and habitat. Even the most intense wildfire leaves patches of lower intensity and unburned habitat, so that the reported acreage of a large wildfire, measured by the outer boundary, is typically meaningless.

The giant Wallow Fire in Arizona’s White Mountains started at the southern edge of the range in the Bear Wallow Wilderness, where the high plateau is deeply dissected into ridges and canyons. So at its origin, the fire was diverted by terrain and missed large patches of forest. But when it reached Escudilla Mountain at the opposite, northeast end of the plateau – an ancient volcano with broad, rounded slopes of volcanic sediment that were not dissected by deep ravines – the fire found no barriers and engulfed the entire massif. Escudilla is older than the rest of the range. The modern fire’s growth and movement were determined by processes that formed the earth’s surface 20 to 40 million years ago.

There, and in similar terrain of New Mexico’s Mogollon Mountains and Black Range, wildfire completely eliminated mixed-conifer forest from entire slopes. Those mega-patches may recover slowly via natural succession, or they may be replaced by very different habitat.

What’s important – the potential for recovery – may be largely invisible, hidden underground. A moonscape may be replaced in only a few seasons by a stand of ferns and Gambel oaks. A formerly continuous stand of mixed-conifer forest will be replaced by a mosaic of forest, shrubland, and grassland.

The scientific study of patch dynamics theorizes that the smaller the patch, the less diverse. This would suggest that a continuous forest stand covering many square miles is much more diverse than the small patches of forest remaining after a patchy burn. But how can that be?

The original uniform mixed-conifer forest has been replaced by a mosaic of dramatically different patches: new grasslands, new shrublands, new eciduous forest, and remaining conifer forest. Each new patch can support a community that’s dramatically different from the original. And the proximity of different patches provides more opportunities for organisms that cross boundaries, like birds, herbivorous mammals, and their predators. Patch dynamics only studies plants, but plants are only one of the five kingdoms of life.

Southwestern forests may sometimes appear pristine because they lack the invasive plants which have taken over other Western habitat like deserts and overgrazed grasslands. But the forests we’ve known in our lifetimes are not natural. Before Europeans came and began suppressing wildfire, it’s likely that Southwestern forests were much more complex.

Adaptation and Resilience

Like habitat, adaptation is another word we understand poorly and use ambiguously, if at all. Biologists say plants and animals are adapted to particular environmental conditions, as a result of evolution. But that implies a passive, static, stable end state. In the traditional model of evolution, random genetic mutations make some individuals more successful than others, and those individuals thrive and produce successful offspring, while the less well-adapted die out.

European anthropocentrism has motivated an ongoing cultural effort to prove that humans are exceptional and qualitatively different from other animals. In the beginning, God gave us dominion over nature, but now, in a more secular society, we look for scientific evidence of our superiority to justify staying in charge. Some scientists say that our big brains represent a quantum leap in animal intelligence. While other animals are slaves to instinct, we alone possess consciousness and self-awareness, we alone are aware of our own mortality, we alone laugh, we alone think and reason, accumulate knowledge and wisdom, and pass it on to our offspring. We alone use tools, developed language and art, and so forth.

But in parallel, other scientists continue to debunk these Eurocentric misconceptions. Among humans, as among other animals, the vast majority of behavior is involuntary, driven by habit, not by reasoning or even by conscious intent. Our addiction to the groupthink of social media, in which peer groups reinforce unexamined beliefs, is a troubling reminder of this. We are typically no more aware of, or in control of, our behavior than a cow heading out to pasture.

But like us, other animals are capable of breaking their habits. Animals can observe, think, make decisions on the fly, learn, remember, and teach their offspring. Both animals and plants are often capable of migrating to new habitat when they lose theirs. This is not static adaptation, this is actively adapting in real time to disturbances, to changes in environmental conditions. And in line with conventional evolutionary theory, natural populations are provided with ongoing mutations that promote continuing, involuntary, unconscious adaptation of the species. Species in nature are not just adapted, they’re adaptable – or to use another newly fashionable term, they’re resilient.

A few years ago, after decades of fearing a takeover of desert riparian habitat by tamarisk, I stumbled upon a remote canyon where tamarisk had become established in some kind of surprising equilibrium with native plants. Very old tamarisk plants with trunks a foot in diameter stood isolated throughout the canyon, at respectful distances from traditional natives like seep willow and honey mesquite. All seemed stable and thriving, and I could see no new seedlings or spreading thickets of tamarisk. Maybe it was a freak of climate – maybe momentary conditions in the distant past had allowed the old invaders to get established, but subsequent conditions hadn’t enabled new seedlings. Or maybe it was a glimpse of the future.

We all seek stability. But in nature, catastrophic disturbances occur in cycles, and stability and sustainability always go hand in hand with change and adaptability. Plants and animals don’t expect to maintain the same conditions for their offspring in the future. They expect their offspring to be able to adapt to changing conditions.

Rising Temperatures and Drought

From year to year and season to season, higher temperatures and reduced precipitation cause whatever moisture is stored in living vegetation, dead organic matter, and soil to evaporate, resulting in drier and better fuel for wildfires. Prolonged heat and drought stress living plants, lowering their defenses against wildfire or killing them and adding to the fuel. We can all tell that climate changes during our lifetimes, from cool and wet years to hot and dry, back and forth, seemingly erratically. How do we sense when the effect of climate on our habitat puts it, and us, at risk?

People in traditional societies stayed in one place from generation to generation, accumulating and passing on long-term knowledge and wisdom about the local habitat they depended on for their livelihood, including long-term climate trends. But our hyper-mobile society pressures us to relocate over and over again, so we’ve lost that local, community-based perspective on climate. We’ve become dependent on news media and distant experts.

Weather forecasts can prepare us for local conditions during the next week, but to compete in the consumer economy, news media distract us with sensational events on a national or global scale, like a “polar vortex” producing mega-storms thousands of miles away, resulting in catastrophic urban damage and human suffering. Excepting those temporary system failures, our universal industrial infrastructure ensures that we’re largely independent of climate. No matter how hot and dry it gets, we can live in Phoenix or Las Vegas, keep ourselves cool with air conditioning, and turn on the tap to get water delivered from an invisible reservoir hundreds of miles away.

When I moved to California’s Bay Area in 1976, to attend grad school, I was told the region was in a drought. That was my first experience with drought, but since I didn’t know the region without drought, it didn’t really mean anything to me. The foothills behind the school greened up a little in winter, but spent the rest of the year covered with dead, tan-colored vegetation. Water still came out of the tap, and since I lived in an apartment, I didn’t have to worry about watering the lawn.

Eventually I learned that the California climate came in cycles. There were multi-year droughts, and then eventually there would be a wet winter or two. But civilization’s industrial infrastructure protected us and ensured that droughts caused little hardship – they were actually kind of fun. We could compete against each other to use less water and feel more righteous.

After falling in love with the Mojave Desert, I met scientists who told me that the desert, depending on the same winter storms as the coast, had its own cycle of multi-year droughts broken by wet winters. As I immersed myself in the desert’s regional climate, habitats, and ecosystems, I developed a sense of when the land was “hurting” from drought.

I also learned that, unlike back home on the coast, weather in the desert was highly localized. Precipitation totals from both winter and summer storms tended to be so low – only a few inches per year on average – that deviations of a quarter of an inch made a big difference.

The topographic relief of a mountain range compresses wind-driven air, “squeezing” rain or snow out of clouds, so that storms often form directly over mountains, and mountains tend to get much more precipitation from passing storms than valleys. But in the desert, each isolated mountain range, separated from its neighbors by miles of low basins, can receive widely differing amounts of precipitation, both from individual storms and throughout the year. One mountain range can be suffering while its neighbor is doing okay. When I call friends in the desert to ask about weather, they give me different reports on different mountains.

We approach our desert mountain wilderness on highways through broad basins at middle elevations, where the landscape is thinly carpeted with the delicate foliage of our iconic shrub, the creosote bush. The tiny, waxy leaves glow a vibrant green when it has enough water, but shrivel and take on a more muted brownish tint in drought, and we desert lovers can tell that from a distance, at a glance.

Our first destination is usually a natural water source – a more or less perennial spring or seep. We know the amount of water present on the surface is directly dependent on annual precipitation. Living through both summer cloudbursts and winter storms from the Pacific, I learned that it’s the long soaking rains of winter that restore life. Water from summer cloudbursts quickly flushes downhill, evaporating along the way. A long, steady winter rain is absorbed by soils, plants, and fracture zones in the rock, where the water may be released slowly at natural springs and seeps for use by wildlife during coming seasons.

During the four decades I’ve been exploring the desert, more and more water sources I assumed to be perennial have dried up. Drought is deepening, and wildfires will be more destructive.

Scientists collect data with their instruments – thermometers, hygrometers, rain gauges, etc. – store the data in databases over time, and analyze it to measure climate change in specific regions. But weather stations are rare in the desert. There’s none in the entire mountain range where my land is located, so there’s no data – either current or historical – on temperature or precipitation there.

Field biologists try to detect the local impacts of climate change via surveys of plant and animal populations, sampling and analyzing, for example, seed germination rates, nutrient value of forage at peak times, survival rates of offspring, and mortality rates per population. Climate stress may also be inferred from secondary impacts like disease, parasitism, and of course wildfire.

My new home in southwest New Mexico has a distinct regional climate regime, depending equally on winter storms and summer monsoons, whose moisture comes from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. Old-timers spoke of the monsoon starting like clockwork after the 4th of July, but in my first year, it didn’t start until the end of the month, and it’s never been dependable since. Sometimes it barely comes at all. We don’t talk about drought as much as about a “good” or a “poor” monsoon, and a wet or dry winter. After 15 years, I seem to remember only two or three good monsoons, but those remain my definition of our climate.

A neighbor who grew up here told me they used to regularly get 16″ of snow in a winter storm, but since I moved here fifteen years ago, we’ve never had more than 8″ in town. I haven’t measured or kept records on temperature, rainfall, or snow accumulation, but the past few winters have seemed unusually warm and dry, and monsoons have been poor.

Whereas the monsoon is our iconic season, it’s the winter snows that restore our mountain forests. In the cooler climate of our region’s past, snow accumulated at high elevation throughout the winter, then melted slowly in March and April. This allowed soil, dead organic matter, and living plants to soak up the moisture. Now, in a warming climate, when snow falls, it quickly melts and moisture runs off before the system can absorb and store it. In the dry and windy season that follows, wildfire is provided with more and better fuel.

Our mobility has robbed us of the local experience and wisdom that could help us judge what’s happening, while media distract us with images of distant disasters and experts warn of global processes too complex and abstract to be locally useful. We’re left with generalized anxiety about climate, and a desperate hope that the authorities will protect us.

We civilized humans may accept that climate is changing, but unlike animals, we’re not adaptable – we’re not resilient. Despite abundant evidence that our societies are conflicted and dysfunctional, we cling to the irrational hope that our leaders will fine-tune our vast industrial infrastructure, so we and our children can continue to enjoy the same standard of living, jumping on a freeway to visit family or shop at a distant store, running air conditioners in Phoenix, turning a faucet to get water from a distant reservoir. Meanwhile, out of sight and out of mind to most of us, that infrastructure destroys more natural habitat and sparks more wildfires.

Beauty of Wildfire

Everyone in the American West has overdosed on TV footage of wildfire, usually shot from the air at night, and from that, we may imagine we know and understand wildfire. But the fire cycle has a complex and often subtle beauty that’s not limited to the momentary apocalyptic vision of flames burning at night.

Next: Government and Wildfire


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