"This fire is burning in a place that I hold dear to my heart."
Martha Schumann is The Nature Conservancy’s Southwest New Mexico Field Representative. She lives in Cliff, just to the east of Gila National Forest, where the historically large Baldy-Whitewater wildfire burned this year. She sent this dispatch for our Wildfire Journal:
Yesterday I dropped my daughter Frances off to spend the afternoon with 2-½-year-old Clover, her mom and sisters. Clover often doesn’t say much to me. Yesterday, from the safety of her mom’s arms, she pointed towards the north and said, “fire on the mountain.” Her mom said, “Nice weather we’re having, huh?”
Indeed. The heavy smoke stinging our eyes, itching our noses and tickling our throats was from the Baldy-Whitewater Fire burning in the Gila National Forest. Cold air the past two nights had pushed the smoke down to the deepest part of the landscape: the Gila River valley where we live.
A megafire makes the news
Not much happens of note here in the valley, so this fire offers an entertaining reprieve. The day prior to the onslaught of thick smoke, I delighted in watching the fire from afar, from my own front row seat. A lightning strike from a storm a few weeks ago started the fire. The day after the storm, I noticed a whisp of smoke, perhaps a small low-lying cloud? Over the next few days, the “cloud” became a growing plume of smoke and my husband and I talked excitedly about the fire. I began to visit www.nmfireinfo.com on a near daily business.
Yesterday a neighbor left a phone message that said, “Martha and Tom, the best view of the fire is probably from our roof.” Now people around the country are viewing the fire on national TV news. I’m receiving emails from old college friends with subject headings like, “Are you OK?”
Is fire good or bad, or somewhere in between?
The same neighbor, Kevin Keith, had gone on a scenic drive the day before to check out the fire from Highway 180, which skirts the south side of the Gila National Forest. A few summers ago, Kevin did field work for a study comparing the effectiveness of prescribed fires and “resource benefit” fires (naturally ignited fires that are managed for resource benefit). Turns out resource benefit fires, especially multiple fires, have the most significant impact on reducing fuels.
We humans like to think of things like wildfires or fuel treatments as “good” or “bad,” when in fact we know there are so many shades of gray, not unlike the changing sky outside our window. Kevin and I talked about our mixed emotions about this fire. Of course the forest needs to burn. It barely does these days, even in the Gila National Forest, which has one of the most progressive fire management programs in the nation. With low population density and large wilderness areas, fires are allowed to burn at a scale they can’t in other places.
But we don’t want fires to rip through the forest killing lots of tall trees. Witnessing massive mortality is sobering. We’d prefer the kind of fires that creep along the forest floor, occasionally blowing up to create an opening in the canopy, then returning to creep along the surface again.
Low-severity fires thin trees, bring sunlight and nutrients to grasses and wildflowers, improve the resilience of surviving trees, and lower the likelihood of subsequent high-severity fires.
High-severity fires that burn through the canopy can result in lots of erosion and gullying. Large pulses of sediment and ash can turn rivers black, killing fish, burying frog habitat and ruining water quality for months. It can take decades for tree cover to return if at all. An intensely burned area might shift to something else entirely, like a meadow. With the Baldy-Whitewater Fire still burning, I am wondering what the mosaic of fire effects will look like.
How will the fish fare?
This fire is burning in a place that I hold dear to my heart. Ten years ago, Mogollon Creek was the place I first backpacked in the Gila Wilderness. A friend and I hauled our out-of-shape selves up two steep climbs before dropping into the cleft of the West Fork of Mogollon Creek. We spent the next day sitting on granite slabs by the river, alternately swimming and drying off in the sun, watching Gila trout dart through the crystal clear water.
Since that first trip, I have returned again and again to hike along Mogollon Creek. Recently I hiked down the face of Mogollon Baldy, the fire’s namesake, getting scratched by thorny locusts. We were in an old burned area. The shrubs were so thick, we had to poke around for a while to find the trail. I wonder now: Is this a place we can even visit next fall, as we had planned? Will the water run clear? I don’t know.
As a forest ecologist, I am fascinated by the old fire scars we encounter on the landscape. I dream of carrying along an enormous fire history map in my backpack and pulling it out frequently to consult when a particular fire burned. It seems, as we’ve hiked, that areas have burned not just one once, but several times with overlapping fires.
Smoke like a big purple bruise
Which is what’s happening with the Baldy-Whitewater Fire. According to the website, we had heavy smoke one day because the fire burned into the old Cub Fire, encountering the heavy fuels of dead and downed logs. Late in the afternoon, I was looking out my office windows facing south. The light was changing even though it was too early for the sun to be setting. I went into the kitchen where the windows face north, and was sobered by a dark sky that looked like a deep bad bruise: purples, black and rose all swirled and hung together in the sky.
Then yesterday, as I consulted my new favorite website, I learned that less extreme fire behavior was expected as the fire burned into areas that had burned previously. Even so, the sheer amount of smoke being kicked into the sky is staggering. The cloud of smoke is so large it looks stagnant, though I know it’s growing as the acres beneath it burn. There are several burning fronts to the fire, and now another fire nearby.
I continue to internally cheer these fires on, reminding myself of the good work they are doing as they burn, leaving a mosaic of burn severity. Granted, I’m looking forward to resuming my morning runs in smoke-free air, but I am grateful that this fire is being managed in a way that will contribute to restoring a healthier watershed and a lower density of trees. I’m also grateful to have a seat as this captivating drama unfolds. We’re all learning so much: how to think about the complexity of fires and forest and smoke, how to talk about these things with one another in a way that reflects this complexity, and how to reconcile the good effects with the bad.