Learning to live with fire

  • Paul Larmer

  I went to Mesa Verde National Park to see the ruins — not the cliff dwellings, which the Ancient Puebloan Indians mysteriously abandoned 700 years ago, but the ruined land itself.

Since 1996, three major fires have torched more than half of the 55,000-acre park in southwest Colorado. You can’t help but notice the miles of blackened trees. Beneath the trees, gray ash blankets the ground. In the afternoon, winds pick up the ash in roiling clouds that turn a cerulean blue sky sickly yellow.

It’s enough to send many tourists packing. But fire’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When Doug Paul, the park’s fire manager, looks at last year’s burn, he sees a beautiful victory. Just weeks before the fire, his crews finished thinning the forest surrounding the largest ruins, the museum and the employee housing. When the fire hit the thinned areas, it dropped from the forest canopy to the ground. "We still had a lot of spot fires to put out, but we had the time and space to defend the buildings and the cultural resources," Paul says. Only two small structures burned.

Paul says lots of people interested in protecting homes and managing forests in the fire-prone West are studying Mesa Verde’s success story. "We’re kind of the poster boys now," he says.

In fact, Mesa Verde is in many ways a perfect microcosm of the West. Managers there must balance protecting cultural and natural resources with accommodating buildings and crowds of people. So it makes sense to have a fire strategy that includes thinning and prescribed burns near human settlements, ancient and modern.

It also makes sense to let fires burn in the more remote parts of the park, where they replenish the soil, make room for grasses and wildflowers, and do a lot of other ecological good. Near the park’s entrance, oak brush and other shrubs are re-sprouting vigorously where the 2000 Bircher Fire scorched nearly 19,000 acres.

Fire is an elemental force in the West that our ecosystems need in order to stay healthy and diverse, as Ray Ring notes in the cover story of this issue. That elemental force will have its way, no matter how hard we fight. Cutting-edge research is now revealing that the so-called "catastrophic" fires of the last decade are more or less normal when seen through the lens of time, exacerbated by global climate change as much as the condition of our forests.

The last big round of fires in the West occurred during a prolonged hot and dry spell in the Middle Ages, between 900 to 1200 A.D. The Ancient Puebloans knew firsthand the hardships of that period. It’s when they abandoned settlements on the rich mesa tops for the cliff dwellings, shortly before they departed for good.