Gila Wilderness

May 6, 2015


It is strange to sit by a campfire and type on a computer, yet here I am alone at 9,500 feet preparing for another day of fieldwork in New Mexico. Tomorrow I will visit a record of S. austromontana that overlaps directly with the massive 2012 Whitewater Baldy fire. The fire did more than burn hundreds of thousands of acres; it also was responsible for destructive flooding the following year, killing at least one person and forever changing the tiny town of Mongollon down valley.

Today, as I rambled a rental SUV through boulders, scree and downed trees, I couldn’t help but notice how quaint the town appeared. Despite the thirty foot wide and eight-foot deep gash through the center of it, where the main road once ran. I stopped and talked to a native wearing a tattered flannel, Dutch. He declined to be videotaped, not surprising given his appearance. He was older, at least sixty, grey in the hair and he had two silver goatees extend from the corners of his chin. I noticed the one on left was at least an inch longer than the tuft on the right. He had few teeth left and spoke eloquently through them.

Dutch explained the natural disaster mater of factly. After the fire, there were no roots on the steep slopes to slow the water down. And after a monsoon released nine inches of precipitation in 24 hours, a dark deluge ripped through the valley. Dutch said he collected some of the water, and when it settled it was as much charcoal and debris as H20. Houses were torn from there foundation, and on person who tried to escape in there car was killed. “A 30 foot by 10 foot culvert was torn from the ground and shot through town like a canoe.”

He mostly blamed the Forest Service for the flood that destroyed his town, and killed one of his neighbors. He said they refused to fight the fire since it was in a wilderness zone, and now “there isn’t any wilderness yet. It will take 700 years for that forest to regenerate.” He understood fire fighting policy in designated wilderness areas, yet found it foolish given the previous history of fire suppression. He agreed, had we let fires burn in the 1900’s, such large fires, as the Whitewater Baldy would likely be less frequent. He also suggested thinning, logging and grazing as ways to mitigate risk. I told him about my project and how climate change is predicted to make large fires more frequent and intense. Did he believe in climate change? “My answer to climate change is: it does.” He declared.

As I left him there, standing by his house mere inches from falling in the new river channel, I wondered whether such communities are worth saving. Fires are wild, and a force of nature. Must we fight every fire to save every community? At what expense…billions of dollars, the safety of firefighters, and the natural environment. I drove slowly past further dilapidated buildings and into scorched Ponderosa pines. These trees are adapted to fire and can survive frequent ground burns. Yet not even the Ponderosa can survive an intense crown fire.


How can we as a nation cope with wildfires, rural communities, and climate change without doing further harm? Now that’s a burning question.


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2 responses to “Gila Wilderness

  1. So much of our population lives in close proximity to one sort of natural disaster or another. Yet most of us live in willful ignorance of the danger. As a society, we rarely plan for the future, and our development is guided not by wisdom but by expediency and profit. When the next ill-advised rural development burns to the ground, the developers who leveraged their clout on local zoning boards, chambers of commerce, environmental regulators, etc., will be long gone, laughing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, people lose their homes, taxpayers foot the bill, and firefighters die.

    I wonder what our civilization would look like if we abandoned the arrogant pretense that we can control or ignore the forces of nature? Perhaps we would learn to live as an ecological animal and practice good stewardship, instead of pouring our collective resources into the false permanence and illusory security of built infrastructure.


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