Air, earth, water and fire. In the dry Southwest, the ancient fundamentals emerge clearly, and act upon each other in plain sight. When the wind moves rapidly above the earth after water has been scarce, little fires become big fires, and big lessons.
For a few days after the fire at Los Alamos the usual search for some handful of guilty persons drew attention from the big lesson -- that there is a difference between a condition and a disastrous instance. The condition, accumulated fie load, has been created by all of us over eighty years. Los Alamos and Santa Clara Pueblo suffered the consequences of that condition, whatever the proximate cause of their distress. As other fires have exploded around the dry West the condition has become undeniable. It endangers alike the high-tech and the low tech communities, rich and poor, Indians, Hispanics, and everybody else. All together, we let the peril grow, and all together we must not only rid ourselves of the immediate condition but also of the larger problem arising from our arrogant refusal to live within the rules ordained by the fundamentals of a high, dry, windy, rocky, sandy, region with very narrow tolerances.
We have created an immediate condition because we have treated the dry Southwest as if it were Indiana. And we have striven to avoid recognizing our limitations by looking for scapegoats in each of a succession of related instances. We may talk the jargon of science into our cell phones and tap elegant equations into our computers, but under stress we revert to the behavior of the Middle Ages. When the Black Death came, people hunted witches, and only when the witches are burnt and the plague remained did they clean out the stalls and sewers and decontaminate the wells. We have not yet moved to the second phase, though we know that today, in the West, "who’s responsible" is all of us.
We could begin by paying some attention to comparable experience already recognized on our eastern and western coastlines where we no longer encourage building cottages on seaside dunes. For years, while the fire load accumulated, we went ahead financing roads and mortgages to induce people to settle amid the tinder. We put defense installations where, if they must be kept apart from older settlements, there was at least an obligation to recognize that they were not set apart from a highly inflammable forest. And many people took the placement and the failure to attend to scientific data on recurring fires as assurance that for some reason somebody knew there would be no more reoccurrences.
We put towns in tinder boxes, added to the tinder, and actively encouraged sprawl into vulnerable places just as if we were encouraging cottages opposed to the wrath of the sea. We deliberately suburbanized the dry West. Now we will all pay for sprawl which is not only ugly but dangerous. Looking at the mountain West, we can see vast areas where we over grazed and clear-cut and eroded the hillsides. Lots of little sticks of trees grow where there were once mixed forests of aspen glades marking small burns and canopied groves and natural firebreaks of grasses. The risks of moving into that with ranchettes and bulldozers and clear-cutting were obvious: there were "FIRE DANGER" signs everywhere in those charred tree trunks and aspen glades.
The benign use of fire was also clearly before our eyes: prescribed burn" is not a new idea. It has been used for thousands of years to drive game and to clear plots for planting -- not only in the West, but also along the Connecticut River, where Indian fires opened fields giving names to such townships of Enfield, Hadfield, Springfield, or Northfield. In the Midwest, burns prescribed by religious observances produced expanses upon which they constructed monumental architecture at Newark and Chillicothe, Ohio, Cahokia, Illinois, and Moundville, Alabama. Without prescribed burns there would have been no cornfields along the Rio Grande and no cotton belt in medieval Arizona.
How many lessons do we need? If we cannot read the landscape, let us read the faces of the fire crews from the Rio Grande pueblos. Those from Santa Clara know that their ancestors have lived in their canyon a long time, but not where they did not find themselves welcome. They pressed the edges centuries ago, and withdrew when the wilderness answered "no trespassing." When they exceeded their limits, they learned, and moved out. There are limits, even for people with faxes and cell phones. Maybe we’ll all get a fax one of these days, reading: "the fires came from the abrasion between what we want and what the dry West will permit. When we press this natural system too far, it will blaze up in our faces."
That practical, immediate lesson should be in the wall of every schoolroom. And on the wall of every garage there ought to be some tools. While we start learning the rules, we need to face up to the cost of picking up after our mess. Beyond the charred environs of Los Alamos, beyond Santa Clara Canyon and the sources of the streams providing water to the communities on the eastern slopes of the Sandias, there’s the rest of our tinder box. It must be cleaned up on a large, systematic basis, starting now. After the disaster relief work is done the job continues into disaster-avoidance.
It will be expensive. It will require large numbers of people with large numbers of tools. Our land management agencies do not have those large numbers of people. To aid their small battalions at work in our national tinder box, we must quickly assemble an army of young people, especially in pinon and juniper forests where the problem isn’t (as it is at Yellowstone) crown fires high above, which require a specialized workforce. Costly? Continuous employment in prevention is vastly cheaper than disaster relief, and much less risky than hasty, harried, and improvised emergency action.
A clean-up corps is not "make work." The "making" has been in the creation of the problem. Unmaking it will require "brushing" without building costly roads and without "lumbering" large trees -- trees of commercial size are not the largest problem in the southern Rockies. We will have to get used to permitting natural fire to burn where it does not imperil life. That is the lesson of Yellowstone. And we must continue to make use of prescribed burn. That is the lesson of thousands of such burns that did not get way. While we get on with dealing with a problem we created, let us get on as well with educating ourselves about the limits of what the West will let us do to it. It has taught with fire. Soon enough, it teach with flood.