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Fire Season

July 1, 2012

I’ve been back a week from a moderately smoky backpack in southern Colorado, watching and sometimes breathing the smoke plume from the Little Sand Fire. On our last afternoon in the mountains, I was waiting for the evening light, and noticed that it was getting good, warm, orange and gentle like 20 minutes before sunset. The problem was, sunset was still over two hours away; sure enough, I looked to the west and saw a new octopus of smoke spreading its tentacles eastward over the San Juan Range (probably from the Weber Fire near Mesa Verde). A few days later, and Colorado Springs is now losing houses to another blaze, and yet more fires are springing up in Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

We’ve had huge blazes already in southern New Mexico, notably the Whitewater Baldy Fire, which covered a third of the Gila Wilderness plus plenty of non-wilderness, and whose 298,000 acres have shattered the state record, which was set only last year by the now seemingly modest 156,000-acre Las Conchas Fire. It’s been hard to read about the Gila burning, having visited the area several times and with many more visits on the wish list. And another area I’d been hoping to visit this year, the White Mountain Wilderness, was the site of the state’s other big blaze for the season, the 44,000-acre Little Bear Fire. But the burn severity map below gives some cause for optimism that the real treasures of the Gila, its deep canyons and riparian areas, may have fared relatively well.

The high forested ridges seem to have born the brunt of the flames, so the main danger to the canyons is now flooding (it rained today here in Santa Fe, at last, and the weather people are optimistic that the monsoon pattern is in our near future). People who don’t live in this country probably don’t realize it, but the aftereffects of these fires can be worse than the blazes themselves. For instance, the following can happen when heavy rain falls on a stretch of canyon denuded of plants, with no roots left to hold soil in place (video from last summer, in the foothills of New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains following the Las Conchas fire):

Places like the South Fork of Whitewater Creek (below), have been much on my mind lately, and I sincerely hope that many of these hidden wilderness canyons will survive this summer.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 12:57 pm

    Thanks for this post. My wife and I had been wondering what parts of the Gila were affected. Your image of the Little Sand Fire btw: strangely beautiful.

    • July 9, 2012 1:08 pm

      Thanks John! I’m still eager to get into some of the affected areas once they open up. Maybe sometime in the fall I can go get a first-hand look at things.

      • July 9, 2012 1:15 pm

        I’m going to be in southern UT later in Aug–nothing even close to the scale of those fires in CO and NM, right?

  2. July 9, 2012 2:43 pm

    Not anywhere you’d be likely to visit. There have been some, hopefully they’ll have died down by August. But you might want to check occasionally as your trip approaches: http://www.inciweb.org/state/46/.

  3. July 10, 2012 8:41 am

    Wonderful images, Jackson. Here in southern California we know all too well the effects of heavy rain on a burn area…no good can really come of it.

    We just returned from Wyoming where we had some extremely smoky days. On our drive between Casper and Shoshoni, it felt like I was in a science fiction movie, because the smoke was so thick and the sky was amber-colored. My best guess is that it was smoke from the Squirrel Creek fire near Laramie.

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