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 fire load, has been created by all of us over 80 years. Los Alamos and Santa Clara Pueblo suffered the consequences of that condition, when they happened to be hit by a particular fire. All together, we let the peril grow. All together, we must not only rid ourselves of the immediate condition but also of the larger problem arising from our refusal to live within the rules ordained by the fundamentals of a high, dry, windy, rocky, sandy region with very narrow tolerances.

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 approach of the Middle Ages. When the Black Death came, people hunted witches, and only when the witches were 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 with regard to fire in the West.

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 inserted into a highly inflammable forest.

We suburbanized the dry West, putting towns in tinderboxes, adding to the tinder, and actively encouraging sprawl into vulnerable places, just as if we were encouraging cottages to be built on dunes exposed to the wrath of the sea. Here, as on the capes of the East Coast, sprawl is not only ugly but dangerous. Looking at the Mountain West, we can see vast areas where we overgrazed and clear-cut and eroded the hillsides. Acres of little sticks of trees grow where there were once mixed forests. The risks of moving into terrain like that with ranchettes and bulldozers and clear-cutting were obvious: there were "FIRE DANGER" signs everywhere for those who could read 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 as Enfield, Hadfield, Springfield, or Northfield. In the Midwest, burns prescribed by religious observances produced expanses upon which were constructed monumental architecture at Newark and Chillicothe, Ohio, Cahokia, Ill., and Moundville, Ala. Without prescribed burns there would have been no cornfields along the Rio Grande and no cotton belt in medieval Arizona.

If we cannot read the landscape, let us read the faces of the fire crews from the Rio Grande pueblos. Those from Santa Clara fought to protect a canyon forest where their ancestors had lived, but from which they had retired when fire and flood and drought told them their habitation was not welcome. The limits of human occupancy were tested, and the ancient ones had the wisdom to withdraw when the wilderness answered "no trespassing." When they exceeded their limits, they moved out. There are limits, even for people with faxes and cell phones. Maybe we'll 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 on the wall of every schoolroom. While we relearn the rules, we can also begin 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 remains the rest of our national tinderbox. It must be cleaned up on a large, systematic basis, starting now. After the disaster-relief work is done, the job is not over, for disaster-avoidance comes next.

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 tinderbox, we must quickly assemble an army of young people. Costly? Continuous employment in prevention is vastly cheaper than disaster relief, and much less risky than hasty, harried and improvised emergency action.

Cleaning up 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 can't abandon prescribed burns. That lesson has been taught in the practices of the Indians and in thousands of recent instances in which such burns were successfully contained and prevented future disasters. As we proceed with remedies for a problem we created, let's get on, as well, with educating ourselves about our limits - specifically about the limits upon what the West will let us do to it. It has taught with fire. Soon enough, it will teach with flood.

Roger Kennedy, former director of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, served as director of the National Park Service from 1993 to 1997. He now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Roger Kennedy