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.