Arizona had no big wildfires burning in early September, so in Flagstaff where I live, all eyes turned toward Boulder. The most destructive fire in Colorado history was raging out of control and we all wanted to watch. We couldn't resist. I think it's in our DNA.
The internal combustion engine, electricity, the Internet -- none of these things has cured us. We are still afraid of the dark. Our big brains and our gift for abstraction offer no defense against the night. And so we have loved fire from the moment some proto-human first captured a flame.
We loved it, even, in early June, when a camper walked away from a still-warm fire ring in the woods north of Flagstaff, at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks. And we were fascinated during the week that followed, when the Schultz Fire became national news and threatened to torch the north side of my hometown.
My favorite photo of the Schultz Fire was made on the day the fire blew up from a heap of embers to a 5,000-acre inferno. Taken by a hiker on the summit ridge of the Peaks, it shows one lonely air tanker flying across the face of a brilliant heap of smoke and swirling flame three miles tall. The aircraft is tiny, barely visible, a gnat in front of a nuclear blast.
Despite a $9 million suppression effort that engaged a thousand firefighters and more than a dozen aircraft, the fire did pretty much what it wanted to do for the next five days. It stormed across the Coconino National Forest, growing to 15,000 acres, gobbling up 23 square miles of timber and incinerating virtually every mammal, bird and insect that didn't get out of the way. It forced the evacuations of hundreds of Flagstaff residents who live on the edge of the forest.
While the news unfolded, we all watched. Flame fronts were visible from downtown Flagstaff, five miles to the south. A giant smoke plume licked across the sky above northeastern Arizona and western New Mexico. On the Internet, new batches of stunning photos appeared daily. I thought they were beautiful. But many described them as "sad," "heartbreaking" and "tragic."
Comments on Facebook and in the print media reinforced these sentiments and repeated several themes: fear that the fire would "destroy" the mountain (i.e., obliterate the things we humans like about it, like the lush Inner Basin and the mountain bike trails), concern that it would consume nearby neighborhoods, and appreciation for the firefighters' heroism. There was also plenty of anger directed at the anonymous camper whose fire sparked the blaze.
My own response was intense curiosity. I wasn't worried about "destruction" of the San Francisco Peaks: About the only thing that could destroy the mountain is the same thing that created it -- a volcanic eruption. As for the threat to Flagstaff's neighborhoods, I'm glad nobody's home got burned. But houses built on the forest edge are obviously at risk. The people who choose to live in them are presumably aware of this, and so take their chances. And, having worked on wildland fire crews, my fund of hero-worship for the firefighters was minimal. It's just a job. Most firefighters will tell you that they are in it because the money is good and because they like the "juice." Like the rest of us, firefighters are fascinated by fire.
The ratings don't lie. We are riveted by wildfire, just as we are wowed by any large-scale environmental violence. Earthquakes, floods and tornadoes make the front page because we are thrilled and vicariously frightened by them. We read the stories and look at the pictures whether or not we have loved ones living in their paths. We talk about them at work, at the dinner table, or even lying in bed.
And the Monday-morning-quarterback anger? I felt none of it. The mountain was covered with fuel, and it was going to burn eventually, just the way Boulder's canyons will almost certainly burn again. If it isn't a campfire, a smoldering burn pile or a cigarette butt, it will be a lightning strike. Fuel and oxygen have a way of finding each other. The result is always beautiful, even if terrifying.
Wildfire can also be humbling. Ten thousand years of civilization has remade the world, but it hasn't changed our genetic makeup. Fire reminds us of our vulnerabilities. We gather and stare into the flames and know, once again, that we are not gods.
Michael Wolcott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.