Trial By Fire
Throughout the day at Los Alamos the skies darkened – as if the rain that has been forecast on a nearly continuous daily schedule would actually arrive. But there were little to no clouds in sight save for a few cumulus clouds just above and west of the Jemez peaks. Walking to my car I was overwhelmed with the sweet fragrance of burning juniper while the back of my throat started to tingle; an almost burning sensation.
There have been two raging forest fires in New Mexico for just over two weeks now. One is south of, but perilously close to Taos Pueblo (roughly 65 miles north of Santa Fe), and the second one is located due east of Los Alamos near the town of Cundiyo, nestled in the Santa Fe National Forest along NM 503 (part of the “High-road to Taos” scenic auto route). The smoke from this latter fire is currently blanketing the valley between the Sangre de Cristo mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest and the Jemez mountains in which Los Alamos rests. In fact, there is a steady breeze from the east as I finish the walk to my car and put my gear in the trunk.
My drive home takes me down into the smoke covered valley and across the Rio Grande. The green leaves of the cotton wood and elm trees which grow along the river contrast strikingly against the ashen sky. Suddenly I am reminded of the bright green saplings I observed only 3 months earlier at the beginning of spring, in part of Bandelier National Monument burned out by the Cerro Grande fire that swept through in late spring of 2000 and which destroyed a few hundred homes in Los Alamos as well. The remaining charred trunks and lack of towering pines were the only evidence of fire that remain now that the entire landscape has erupted with new life. Young saplings are as tall as me and wild grasses and flowering plants have filled in the newly opened areas.
It occured to me at that moment that fire does not merely destroy – at least not the land, not nature. It is a reset switch, a way to give renewed vitality to old growth areas (and yes, sometimes to not-so-old growth areas). Fire as a destructive force is merely a human slant on the matter. I realize this is not a new thought but it is yet one more abject lesson the southwest has laid bare to me since my arrival in the area.