Monday, June 6, 2011

Fire on the Mountain

Jim Pinter, a part time resident of Alpine, AZ, packs his car ahead of the mandatory evacuation of Alpine because of the Wallow Fire. 
I spent the last four days in the Eagar / Springerville area trying to cover the Wallow Fire, for the Arizona Republic. The fire is actually burning near Alpine and Nutrioso, about 25 miles south of Eagar. It’s frustrating trying to cover a wildfire when the closest you can get to it is 25 miles. You need a really long lens to pull that off. I got into Alpine last week just before the town closed. I was waiting for a briefing from firefighters to start when I met Mr. Pinter and his wife. They told me they were going to leave immediately rather than wait for the briefing, which turned out to be little more than an announcement of the mandatory evacuation. 
I followed them home and photographed them while they packed their belongings and cars. The smoke over Alpine that afternoon was so dense that the sun turned it bright orange and red when it could cut through the smoke at all. It looks like the fire is burning just behind the Pinters’ cabin. In reality, it’s probably 10 miles away. This photo was made at about 6PM, when it’s normally still daylight.
As of Monday this fire has consumed more than 180,000 acres, making it one of the largest wildfires in Arizona history. These fires are getting bigger and meaner every year. 
Some folks blame environmentalists for blocking forest thinning operations. Some of Arizona’s forests are so clogged with growth you can’t walk through them - it’s more like a jungle than a forest. The problem is, this land isn’t made to sustain that kind of growth. There isn’t the water or ecosystem. The forests got into this condition because of decades of mismanagement on all levels. A healthy forest is a thinned forest. 
Others blame the Forest Service for allowing camping in the forest when there hasn’t been significant rain in months and the forests are tinder dry. It’s a part of the ongoing urban vs rural nature of Arizona. People in Phoenix want to get out of the Valley, where the daily high in June is well over 100, and up to the White Mountains, altitude around 7,000 feet, daily high, normally around 75. People who live in the mountains want to keep campers out when the forest is in drought. People who live in the city want to get up to the pines when it’s broiling in Phoenix. 
This year the Forest Service lifted fire and camping restrictions just before Memorial Day, even though the forest is tinder dry. This fire was apparently caused by a mismanaged or untended camp fire. Hindsight is 20/20, but maybe, just maybe, this fire could have been avoided with fire restrictions. 
Of course, some people are just stupid and would have been out there despite restrictions. What some folks in Phoenix don’t seem to realize is that we’re visitors in the forest. People live in the White Mountains, for them it’s all they have. Camping is fun and who doesn’t love a camp fire? But we’re screwing with other people’s lives when we set camp fires in the summer drought. 
What isn’t as much a part of the discussion as should be is Climate Change, what we used to call Global Warming. 
Arizona is a dry state. Phoenix gets about 8 inches of rain per year. Arizona relies on winter snows and a brief summer monsoon for it’s moisture. We’re in the midst of a record drought. Last winter (2009 - 2010) was a better than normal year for snow and rainfall. But 10 years before that were way below normal and this winter (2010 - 2011) was a little below normal, despite a couple of big storms. One good year doesn’t make up for a decade of drought. 
The forests, and much of the rest of the state, is dying a slow, parched death. There’s less water from winter runoff and less water from summer rains. What moisture we get is less predictable. Sometimes there are huge storms and sometimes we go months with nothing. When it does rain it either runs off the soil hardened to the consistency of concrete or just evaporates. It doesn’t get into the root system the way it’s supposed to. 
This is a trend that’s causing concern around the world. Rice farmers in northern Thailand are losing crops because their rain has become so unpredictable. Fishermen and delta dwellers in Bangladesh live in fear of bigger and bigger cyclones that wipe out entire cities and swamp fleets. Wheat farmers in Australia, cattle ranchers in Texas, all dependent on reliable weather are dealing with an increasingly unreliable climate. The short term is higher food prices and increased social instability. In the west, we pay more for meat and potatoes and grumble about inflation. In Africa or the Middle East, where people can’t afford to pay more they riot. In other places, people just go without.  
Some people, especially on the right, say climate change is a myth. They cite summer snow in places like Lake Tahoe, which had a freakish Memorial Day blizzard this year, as proof that Climate Change or Global Warming isn’t real. I think it’s just the opposite: Tahoe’s summer snow is a sign that the climate is changing and becoming more unpredictable. We live in precarious balance with nature. A little shift in that balance - a tiny bit less rain here or in Australia, a tiny bit more rain in the Pacific Islands or a slight increase in average temperatures wreak havoc with the systems we’ve created. These fires should serve as a wake up call. Instead it’s just another fire.