Thursday, October 25, 2007

On the Front Lines of a Fire

The big news these days is the fires in Southern California. By some it is considered just the latest in a cycle of western fires that began eleven to 12 years ago because of the combined influence of prolonged drought and overgrowth caused by the National Forest Services' policy of stopping all forest fires. The fuel for the fires this overgrowth created made the fires extremely intense. Some believe that because of the intensity of these fires it is sterilizing the earth, leaving it bear for erosion and ultimately will destroy some 50% of our National Forests.

The above photo is of Questa, New Mexico where I lived. May 5, 1996 I was in the direct path of the Hondo Fire one of the first of the "super fires" the west would come to know intimately. Within an hour after the Hondo Fire started near San Cristobal the neighboring town of Lama was burned through. Some structures remained, but many were destroyed. The fire set a ground speed record of nine miles in an hour without crowning. I stood on my front lawn and watched in horror as it topped the mountain and began its decent down into our valley.

Families up the valley in Red River and portions of the town of Questa, where I lived, were evacuated. Before this incident was over, about 2,000 individuals were displaced or evacuated from their homes for some as much as three weeks, some 10,000 acres burned, and portions of some highways were closed to all but local residents and fire traffic. The summer tourist season, a major source of income for the area was destroyed. For 22 days we stood ready to evacuate at any moment. Our route would have to be up through our fields and over the irrigation ditch because the roads out would be blocked by the fire. We stayed because of our animals and livestock. There was at the time no plans for their evacuation

The fire line was a half mile from my house. Every time the wind shifted at night I or my husband was instantly awake. For that 22 days we got little sleep. All it took was breeze to ignite the smoldering Ponderosas and set the hills on fire again. It has been almost 12 years and the forest has not recovered. All the snow covered area used to be lush forest. Even the Aspens have not reclaimed the land. If it were not for the drought the hillside would wash into the Red River which runs at it foot.

We had national news coverage until they used the word contained. My friends thought we were then safe. I moved the next year to a wider valley and the wet slope of the mountains. I was very specific with my real estate agent: No trees. Listening to the coverage of the Southern California fires I know what lies ahead for them even if their houses survive. Your sense of safety is gone and so is all the attention you got during the emergency. You are left to deal with your post traumatic stress syndrome on your own. It broke up my marriage and it scattered friends far and wide. Just when you need community the most it, like the forest, is devastated.