Los Alamos fire offers a lesson in humility


The Cerro Grande fire in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico blackened 42,869 acres, destroyed the homes of 400 families, and penetrated the security of Los Alamos National Laboratories more effectively than any Cold War enemy. In much the same way that the Cerro Grande restarted ecological succession on the scorched slopes above Los Alamos, it has also set the stage for a new succession of ideas about fire.

It will take years for these ideas to settle out, just as it will take years for those who lost their homes to feel that life has returned to normal. Land managers as well as the townspeople of Los Alamos will mark time by the fire: they will think of pre-Cerro Grande as one world, post-Cerro Grande another.

And all of us in the greater community of northern New Mexico will remember the crisis in complicated ways. We'll remember the heroism and stamina of firefighters, especially that of the Santa Fe Hotshots and the Los Alamos Fire Department, who fought valiantly to defend home ground. We'll remember the taste of ash and smoke, the sifting of ashes, the indelible images of pain and destruction. We'll remember the outpouring of generosity: people taking in strangers as well as friends, donating services, cash, and goods, finding ways to help. We'll reflect with gratitude on the remarkable wealth of American society - that we can absorb so devastating a loss and come back strong.

And no less, we will remember the anger the flames released and the all-too-human impulse to blame quickly and punish dramatically, to "make heads roll." It is said that for every complex question there exists a simple, easily understood and completely erroneous answer. Such answers have sprouted like radishes from the ashes of Cerro Grande. One must hope that better, more useful crops will soon germinate. What follows is intended as a kind of factual mulch. Use liberally or not at all. See what comes up.

Consider this: The prescribed fire widely credited as the cause of the conflagration probably wasn't. What sent embers and flames scudding before the wind on a destructive path toward Los Alamos seems to have been a backfire set to contain the prescribed burn. Later evaluations suggest that a backfire was unnecessary and that the prescribed burn would have been contained without it. But the decision to ignite the back burn (made by whom is not clear) came in the heat of battle.

There is nothing exculpatory in this: lighting the prescribed fire was an error, and a bad one. But the deeper one delves into the chain of actions unleashing the fire, the better one understands how effects can cascade from small acts, how easily things might have turned out differently. Some even argue that the ill effects of the backfire had been contained, when one lone snag candled up, flared in the wind, and ... "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, and for want of a shoe, the horse ..."

But it was not contingencies that worried the fire managers of Bandelier National Monument; it was inevitability. They may have overestimated their powers and underestimated the uncertainties of fire and weather, but such hubris explains only part of their decision to proceed with the burn.

An acute sense of urgency and dedication explains the rest. The fire managers quite rightly viewed the over-dense, fuel-heavy forests above Los Alamos as a bomb set to explode. One of the likeliest triggers was the upper reach of Frijoles Canyon, a tinderbox that lay within Bandelier. The targeted burn area of Cerro Grande lay directly upslope. In order to establish a decent fire boundary, they had to burn Cerro Grande before they could burn upper Frijoles, and they had to burn Frijoles before superintendent Roy Weaver retired, possibly as early as next year.

Under Weaver, Bandelier had become a showcase of progressive ecological management. He and his team had restored extensive ponderosa savannahs and maintained them with fire; on an experimental basis, they'd stabilized rapidly eroding pinon-juniper sites with mechanical treatments, even in a wilderness area. They'd assembled a dedicated and aggressive prescribed-fire crew. The next superintendent was unlikely to have Weaver's vision or his nerve, and so to save Los Alamos, the work had to move forward while he was still on watch.

The irony and tragedy embedded here need no embellishment. Skiers are taught not to look at the danger they wish to avoid but to focus on their path to safety. The Bandelier team was like a skier who could not take his eyes off a tree - and crashed into it.

Only a dramatist with a Sophoclean turn of mind would have predicted the particular choreography of the crash, but the crash itself fit a long-established and obvious pattern. Consider for a moment the present condition of the east slope of the Jemez range: Starting in the south and proceeding north along more or less constant elevations, we have the Dome Fire (c. 16,500 acres in 1996), which adjoins the La Mesa Fire (15,444 acres in 1977) which adjoins the Cerro Grande Fire (nearly 43,000 acres in 2000) which adjoins the Oso Complex Fire, (6,508 acres in 1998). The cumulative effect of these powerful fires, amplified by additional stand-changing burns on the southern slopes of the Jemez in the 1970s, has been to destroy the continuous belt of ponderosa pine that used to wrap around the east side of the mountains. Those who feed on irony can fatten here: The lumber-rich pine zone was the most economically valuable ecosystem in the range, and so it received the lion's share of management attention and resources. In fact, the central goal of a century of forest management in the Jemez Mountains was to protect and enhance the pine zone - yet the result of management, in this most flammable portion of the range, has been to destroy it.

The physical culprits are well known: grazing, which removed the fuels that powered forest-thinning light burns, and fire suppression combined to jack up stand densities. The fire-starved pine zone shrank as pinon and juniper crept upslope and mixed conifer species crept down. Logging probably accelerated both trends; by removing big trees, it speeded establishment of over-dense, weedy cohorts. These were not accidental outcomes. The ultimate culprit was a way of thinking: the impulse to simplify.

Scientific forestry and the idea of land management developed from a view of the world and of nature that was mechanical. If a factory was a big machine, a forest was a bigger one. The same scientific principles that rendered assembly lines more productive would also make the machine of nature more efficient. The first thing to do was to eliminate waste and superfluous movement.

By removing unneeded parts: floods in rivers, fresh water flowing to the sea, bark beetles and budworms, predators, prairie dogs and other varmints, even porcupines. Especially get rid of fire because it is disorderly and kills trees, which are the output we want.

We've learned from that experience. We've learned that when we try to maximize production of a single variable from a complex system, we destabilize the system. Whether the cherished output is codfish, board-feet of timber, or Animal Unit Months of grass, the system tends to crash. In theory, an obsessive effort to maximize output of an endangered species would be no different.

In recent decades we traded our mechanical model for a systems view, and glimpsed a partial answer: We should look beyond the individual variables. Ecosystems are too complex for us to attend to every part, even if we could count all of them, which we can't. But if we focus instead on the keystone processes that structure the systems, the variables tend to take care of themselves. The natural flow regime of a river, including periodic floods, is such a process. Fire pre-eminently is another. Every thinking land manager from the burn team at Bandelier to Bruce Babbitt has known this truth: We've got to return fire to its native ecosystems. We've got to do it for ecosystem health, no less than for prevention of catastrophic events. When the water squeeze of multi-year drought again hits us, we'll say we need to do it for water yield.

The necessity of fire is a relatively new realization, and the instrument of choice for its reintroduction, prescribed burning, is a relatively new tool. Cerro Grande has heightened attention to its limitations, and they are significant. First, the risks of prescribed fire in heavy fuels are great, maybe too great to be acceptable most of the time. Fire is the embodiment of uncertainty, and playing with it is just what mama said it was.

Second, the scale of prescribed fire required to address landscape needs is many times greater than our capacity to provide it. Consider the alignment of stars a burn boss on public land must achieve: archaeological clearance, interagency consultation on threatened and endangered species, environmental analysis, survival of appeals, clean air permit, crew and equipment availability, weather window. A thousand-acre burn can take a year or more of preparation and may cost more than $20 per acre. Even then its chances of occurring in optimal conditions are slim. The additional supervisory review that is sure to be required in the aftermath of Cerro Grande will further encumber the process. Within the existing management paradigm, we will never fully offset, let alone reduce, the accumulation of fuel.

Third, the disaster of Cerro Grande has put the fear of God in every fire boss in the West. Cerro Grande's practical effect, irrespective of policy changes, will be to close the hotter part of the burn window. Managers will meet their acreage objectives by turning landscapes temporarily black with mild, cool treatments. Rarely will they torch off a burn hot enough to reduce hazard fuel substantially, much less achieve ecological effect.

The chainsaw, on surface, offers an alternative to the use of prescribed fire, and the years ahead will be noisy with debate over what kinds of mechanical treatments to use and how intensively and extensively to use them. Profferers of simple answers may want to exercise care here: Logging and thinning slash have helped launch many a crown fire. In a sane world, people would speak of tree cutting not as a substitute for prescribed fire but as a partner to it.

Nevertheless, the debates will rage, and it will be interesting to see if anyone acknowledges the 600-pound gorilla frowning in the background of every discussion.

That gorilla is our ignorance. We don't have complete answers to the conundrums we face. We really have not learned how to live in this place. Our land-management infrastructure (in which I include environmental and industry interests) is presently incapable of dealing effectively with the fuel and fire challenge. This inability is perfectly mirrored by the sustained lunacy of mortgagors, insurance companies, and the general citizenry.

How else should we characterize subdivisions and second homes in the piney woods - frame houses with shake or tar-based roofs, pine straw lawns, and doghair yards? Enforcement of a fire-savvy building code might have cut the losses in Los Alamos by half, but a town that leads the world in Ph.Ds per capita never thought the matter through. Good luck to the rest of us.

If we were to acknowledge the gorilla of our ignorance, we might start by putting aside the language of "land management." We rarely manage; we mostly shove and bludgeon, or we walk away. A few noteworthy individuals have learned to nudge, and go with the flow, and if the rest of us wanted to be like them, we would approach every land treatment as an experiment, and we would experiment explicitly with different approaches in different places. We would monitor everything. We would expect to be surprised. We would become compulsive learners. We would study humility. We would agree that we are all in this together.

William deBuys lives in Santa Fe, N.M. His latest book is Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California, which recently won the Western States Book Award for creative non-fiction.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and William deBuys

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