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Know the West

Give Smokey Bear a vacation

  Dear HCN,

Here in my driveway on Carrizo Valley Ranch, I'm sitting on the tailgate of my pickup watching the most vicious forest fire I have ever seen. The entire Patos mountain range is ablaze, producing smoke thermal clouds that can probably be seen from 150 miles away. Flames are visible through the smoke leaping at least 100 feet into the air.

A week of extreme heat and low humidity before the lightning strike created favorable fire conditions, and today a brisk wind from the West has given us almost Yellowstone fire weather. Nothing can stop this onslaught but backfire, and that will start tomorrow.

I have lived at the foot of the Patos range for over 30 years. During that time I have watched the year-by-year build-up of fuel load and ladder fuels that we all knew had to burn someday. I guess today is the day - but it didn't have to happen this way!

Fighting fire, to most people, is like killing snakes. They feel really good about it and the pay is great! But what if that money had been put to use conducting controlled or prescribed burns when conditions were most favorable? I would be watching the Patos burn all right, but it would be a much cooler burn that would not be destroying 500-year-old juniper trees and getting the ground so hot that rocks explode.

How ironic that this is happening at the same time we in Capitan are celebrating the birthday of Smokey Bear. Maybe this coincidence will help people realize that fire is as important as soil, water or sunlight in our southwestern ecosystems.

Tree-ring research has proved that this country averaged burning about every 10 years. How could we expect anything but a wildfire disaster after 80 years of fire suppression? A little overkill by Smokey, I'm afraid.

This fire is like major surgery - the patient is going to look pretty bad for a while, but in the final analysis, we will all be better off. Biological diversity will improve, as will wildlife habitat; nutrients that have been tied up for 100 or more years will be recycled and springs that haven't flowed for 75 years will have water again.

The fire has just reached one of the timbered peaks above my house. Flame lengths must be reaching 200 feet or more. Majestic 200-year-old Ponderosa pine trees will be only a charred stump now. I hope you are listening, Smokey - Happy birthday!

Sid Goodloe

Capitan, New Mexico