Is wildfire always a question of when?

by Susan Nunn

Even before Arizona Sen. John McCain told the media that illegal immigrants were burning down the forests of Arizona, some local ranchers had begun spreading the same rumor.

Then as the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona burned, a different kind of smoke rose from my email inbox: "It's those damn illegals, ya know."  "They found two drug camps up there.  I bet they started it on purpose." "You can't deny what is happening," another one said, and on it went.

Immigrants have been blamed for so many things through the years - like a catchall in an old Ford just gathering blame - that I shouldn't have been surprised. But no one bothered to mention that a lot of locals routinely defy warnings and build fires when they camp in the forest. How do we know who is to blame?

The Chiricahuas, where 222,954 acres of trees just burned in a fire called Horseshoe Two, are places I've learned to love after living and working in them as an innkeeper for the last decade. Everything about the Chiricahuas has become a part of my life, from the region's frogs to its cougars.  At the ranch, we joined forces with the neighbors to get a grant to build loose rock structures in the canyons in order to slow down erosion. We built water catchments to utilize the abundance of water that fell during the monsoon season. Every time we saw smoke, we called the Forest Service, and firefighters came and doused the flames. Naively, we thought fewer fires meant that we were protecting the land we loved.

In 1994, the Rattlesnake Fire - then the biggest blaze in the Chiricahuas in 77 years - moved through these mountains, and the experience seemed to be indelible. "It was a hot one," one of the locals said as he pointed at the bare mountaintop. "It scarred the earth something fierce."

Despite that destruction, when I hiked through the area I could see that re-growth was coming, though slowly.  Maybe that was why we tried so hard to protect the rest of the mountain range. Then, a few years ago, we had some guests who worked for The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club. One night at dinner, they told me: "You have the unhealthiest forest we have ever hiked in." I felt personally affronted. Where I saw beauty and wildness, they saw trees that had become unnaturally dense.

They explained about the "deep forest floor" that the Forest Service had not allowed to burn for far too long, and warned me that when - not if - a fire got started, it would burn fast, it would burn hot, and it could take a long time for the forest to come back.

Then came the massive fire this summer, the biggest in the history of the area. A blaze this fierce has a way of rocking you back on your heels. While some seem satisfied with laying blame, I feel the need to reach for the heart of the mountain and find her pulse, maybe feel her relief as she lets go of all the "stuff" that has gathered around her, clogging her arteries through the years. I also think about those five men in my dining room and their warning of what was to come.

Now I can only imagine the charred remains of cottonwood trees and sycamores, pines, oaks and cedars. I think about the panic in the eyes of a female cougar trying to move her kittens to safety, or a bear lumbering down the mountainside, jumping over downed trees, climbing up the next steep mountain.

The whitetail deer, their tails straight up and flared, mixed in with the larger mule deer. Sheer panic everywhere. The small animals crawling through the underbrush. Which way to go? Was there any escape?  Did their instincts kick in to show them a way out?

I keep reminding myself that since the beginning of time, fire has helped replenish the land. I look forward this "sky island" refurbishing itself the way the land did in Yellowstone after the big fires there in 1988. Green tender shoots popped up and tiny flowers sprinkled bright colors across their bed of ash. The land came back; it is resilient, and whether we like it or not, fire is part of the process of regeneration.

Susan Nunn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She most recently worked as an innkeeper in the Chiricahua Mountains.

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