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Saturday, January 30th, 2021

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


Burning Fingers

Sunday, January 24th, 2021: Chiricahuas, Greenhouse, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

It’s been a while since I posted a hiking Dispatch! Fear not, I’m still hiking. I’ve just been repeating hikes I’ve done so many times already, there was nothing new to report.

I expected this Sunday to be the same story. Boy was I wrong.

Sure, it looked like some weather was coming, for a change. We’ve had a disappointing winter so far – after a freak snowstorm in late October, nothing but blue skies, day in and day out. But when I got up Sunday morning, a little snow was forecast for the afternoon, and a lot more was forecast for Monday.

Just in case, I switched my 2wd pickup truck for the 4wd Sidekick, which I’d set aside months ago because the transmission was getting marginal. I didn’t expect any snow where I was going – farther south and lower elevation – but if there was anything on the highway when I drove back in the evening, the truck wouldn’t be able to handle it.

The horizon was obscured by clouds as I drove southwest, but the rest of the sky was blue. Imagine my surprise when I crested the pass and got my first view of my destination – the entire mountain range engulfed in a snowstorm!

I actually laughed out loud, and couldn’t keep from smiling as I drove across the big basin toward the mouth of the canyon. I was so sick of clear skies, the Southwest badly needs snow, and I was visualizing hiking through a magical landscape, well-prepared for anything in my winter outfit.

The only challenge I anticipated was getting enough mileage and elevation on this hike. The Sidekick would enable me to drive the 4wd road all the way to the trailhead, which meant I would need to add mileage and elevation somehow when I reached the crest trail – chaining together some spur trails, maybe climbing an extra peak. Shouldn’t be a problem.

By the time I entered the mountains and started up the canyon road, the storm seemed to have pulled back. I hoped it wouldn’t fade away.

But when I finally reached the trailhead, parked, and shouldered my pack, sleet was bouncing down through the trees and collecting on the wet ground.

Sleet continued to fall lightly as I climbed the mile-and-a-half to the waterfall overlook, eventually turning to fine, granular snow. There was already old snow in shaded stretches of the trail, with somebody’s footprints. There’d been snow at high elevations when I last came here, in early November, but this must’ve fallen since.

The waterfall was frozen like last time, but with even more accumulation. I assume it stays frozen every winter, all winter long – it always reminds me how ignorant most people are about the Southwest. Nothing but hot sand and saguaro cactus, right?

Past the overlook, there was a lot more snow on the trail, a couple inches of fresh powder, and occasional patches of old snow underneath, still with somebody’s footprints. Mildly annoying – I always like to be first – but it’s been almost three months since I was last here.

I reached the mouth of the hanging canyon that feeds the waterfall and traversed toward the creek bottom. A lot more snow up here. As I approached the first creek crossing, I remembered how the creek had been frozen solid back in November. This narrow canyon bottom is apparently shaded all winter and stays very cold. And whereas the snow on the traverse had only been a couple inches deep, once I hit the canyon bottom, it was up to a foot deep. The frozen creek was completely buried. And I suddenly found myself in a blizzard.

Snow was blowing horizontal, straight in my face. The hood of my shell jacket has a nice overhang. I zipped it all the way up and cinched it down around my face. I walked with my head bent as far forward as I could while still watching my path. But no matter what I did, the snow still blew straight in my face.

The snow was so deep in this stretch that I started to get worried. Assuming I followed my plan, I’d be returning down this canyon four hours from now. After four hours of blizzard, there could be a couple feet of snow in this canyon.

This was not fun anymore. I wasn’t ready to give up, but I needed a break from the blizzard. After a half mile or so in the canyon bottom, the trail would climb back up the slope and traverse to the Forest Service cabin just below the crest. I seemed to recall the cabin had a little landing outside the front door, with a small roof overhang. If I could just reach the cabin, I might be able to shelter there, eat some snacks, drink some water, and regroup.

By the time I reached the cabin, I knew that was as far as I was going to get. This was ridiculous – the blizzard just kept getting worse.

And of course the cabin overhang didn’t protect me at all from snow that was driving at me horizontally. I gave up on my usual lunch and grabbed my emergency protein bar, but it was frozen! I had to break it with my fingers to get pieces small enough to chew.

Not expecting snow, I hadn’t brought my insulated Gore-Tex ski gloves. Until I left the cabin, I’d been wearing wool glove liners and keeping my hands in the pockets of my jacket. After eating the protein bar I pulled my thick wool gloves on over the glove liners, but my fingers had already gotten cold.

I’ve nearly gotten frostbite many times in my life, and I swear it’s made my fingers so vulnerable that once they get cold, it’s almost impossible to get them warm again. I never seem to learn. All the fingers and thumbs were burning inside the double layer of wool, so I speeded up. I remembered how I’d survived the coldest night in recorded history riding an open boxcar over the Cascade crest in Oregon, by walking back and forth the length of the car hundreds of times. I began flexing my fingers and thumbs inside the jacket pockets. I was not looking forward to dropping back into the canyon bottom, but the trail was treacherous and I could only go so fast.

I just kept going and flexing my burning fingers. It took about 45 minutes to reach the mouth of the hanging canyon, flexing and burning the whole time. Not fun. At least the rest of my body was warm – I was wearing long johns and wool socks, and the Gore-Tex in my boots was holding up well.

The mouth of that canyon is an overlook in itself, sitting 3,000′ above the floor of the range, with a very steep drop-off. But everything was obscured by the storm when I got there. I could see clouds just beginning to recede from the opposite slope.

From there, the trail switchbacks down toward the waterfall overlook. And something miraculous happened. Shortly after I started descending, my fingers stopped burning. They suddenly felt fine. Even the air here felt warmer. That hanging canyon – which I’ve always really liked – seems to create its own climate, isolated from the rest of the range. In winter, it’s like a deep freeze.

Now I was pissed. I’d planned a 12-14 mile hike, but this would end up being little more than 7 miles round-trip. By the time I got home, I would’ve spent more time driving than hiking. What a waste.

But as I made my way down, the clouds began to open, revealing layer after layer of landscape. Blue sky and sunlight peeked through in places, spotlighting patches of forest and rock formations miles away. It was like an epic movie unfolding as I descended.

I love the way snow transforms everything in the environment, and of course I had a front row seat here – this snow had just fallen, I was the first to experience it. At least four inches had fallen during the past hour and a half – my ascending footprints had been completely obliterated. Lots of animals had crossed the trail since morning – javalina, deer, bobcat – even a fox chasing a rabbit.

As usual, I’d seen several flocks of dark-eyed juncos along the trail. And returning, near the trailhead, I came upon sections of trail where dozens of juncos had tramped all over the place, creating dense, intricate patterns.

There was only a couple inches of snow at the trailhead, and as I drove down the incredibly rugged 4wd road, I emerged from snow into rain, which continued on and off all the way home. I hope we get more!

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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