When it’s calm in town, reminders of the fires can catch you off guard. Last week it was a man poking his head out of an RV in the grocery store parking lot saying that he only just made it out, that he hadn’t slept in 72 hours. On Saturday it was a truck full of hotshots from Idaho driving north on I-25 out of Albuquerque. On Monday, a pair of airtankers speeding east over Glorieta.
When it’s blowing in town, the fires are all you can think about. There’s a north-facing canyon in the foothills where a trail cut like a sidewalk through the pinyons becomes something more organic as it flows out of the drainage, a place I go to feel like myself and be reliably alone. Yesterday morning I stood near its mouth as the wind rolled across the ridge and through the trees, making a sound like the one you’d make blowing over a rack of glass coke bottles. Two Grace’s warblers called insistently while I wondered if the horsetails in the pine duff would ever see running water again. I looked around for smoke, felt nervous, and went home.
Perhaps forty thousand people in New Mexico are now fire evacuees, or nearly 2% of the state’s population. Satellites show hotspots in pastures near Mora I remember best covered by a thick coat of November frost. In the urban Southwest it’s easy to believe you are living outside of regional constraints: last in line for water cuts, cocooned by air conditioning, shaded by elms from the Gobi Desert. The slow-motion disaster of declining flows in the Colorado or Rio Grande has done relatively little to break this illusion, hidden behind graphs and the pain of farmers you’ll never meet. The symbolism of a pyroculumus mushroom cloud on the horizon is harder to ignore.
A year ago in that same dry canyon a friend and I stumbled into a flock of hundreds of Steller’s jays screaming in alarm. We were all but certain they were mobbing an owl, and moved upslope with them for half an hour, fruitlessly searching for the source of their distress. At some point they began streaming out over the rim in droves until the forest again fell quiet. For three weeks they were gone, presumably to some wetter, richer place. Eventually a handful of pairs returned, though in nothing comparable to their former numbers.
The story doesn’t quite work as a parable. But we also depend on resources far outside our watersheds, and are tied together in networks of travel and commerce. This is the flip side of globalization's role in the climate crisis: stress on one part of our vast system will soon be shared with places where symptoms remain less acute. I would like to think that from this could stem empathy—that you might consider our inferno in some sense your catastrophe, too.
Ethan, thank you for the excellent writing (including HCN).
Here in the East, we hear sirens on the nearby interstate highway. The daily number has seemed to increase, unofficially. We have never seen "a truck full of hotshots" and "a pair of airtankers speeding east." Thank goodness. The anxiety created from such scenarios must be considerable.
Just finished reading the text and comments of the following.
Wildfire, residents' fury facing Biden on New Mexico visit
You are on the ground in New Mexico. Perhaps you can help me better understand the situation. Apparently federal officials allowed planned burns to spread out of control.
A commentor suggests the Forest Service's ultimate goal is "rewilding" of the west - removal of humanity. The agency has closed/decommissioned the roads needed to manage these lands properly. Is the commentor correct with regards to "rewilding" the west?
Thanks for your time, awaiting your reply.
Great piece, Ethan. I can't help think of the beauty of those forests that are burning -- many of them were healthy and moist, with great bird diversity (~70 breeding bird species). All we can do is hope for survival of as many of the larger trees as possible... though I fear the worst.