The dark storm clouds grow as I write this in mid-June. Will they bring rain, or … will they just bring lightning? 2012 has been a bad year for lightning fires in New Mexico.
We have had several lightning strikes that have started fires in this district in the last month. Because of well-trained local firefighters, all of them have been stopped, almost in their tree tracks. A very recent story in the Optic was titled “Western Wildfires Forcing Evacuations.” We at this ranch are familiar with the huge wildfire burning out of control in the Ruidoso area. My son Carl is the chief of the Bonita Fire Department there, and has had very little sleep in a long time. Hundreds of homes have been lost and as I write this the town of Ruidoso may be directly in the line of fire.
This is the inevitable outcome of lightning strike fires, if left to burn. The Optic says our Congressman Steve Pearce said decades of mismanagement, forests packed with trees and persistent drought conditions have resulted in an explosive situation. “We just can’t keep managing our forests this way. It’s not a question of if our forests in the West are going to burn; it’s a matter of when. This is just one demonstration of that.”
Pearce has the over-forestation problem correctly nailed, and the whole big area of out West will eventually pay the price for this.
I know our state forestry department is stretched too thin, but after watching the dollars spent on fighting these big fires, that money could have been better spent, starting years ago, on vast tree-thinning projects. Our local landowners and our neighbors have all joined in any available program to properly thin their forests, both big and small. And in the old days, even small diameter trees that were felled were marketable around here. The market for rough cut lumber is small and most of the lumber used in building anything today comes from very far away.
Way back when, when I was a little kid, we had a fire up in our West Canyon, probably started by a lightning strike. There was no forest fire alert sounded because very few people even had a telephone back then. But word spreads fast.
All our neighbors soon showed up with shovels, rakes and even denim jackets. Yes, you can beat out a small fire with a Levi’s jacket — I did once along the railroad track at Valmora when I was a kid on my horse, suddenly at the right time and place.
The fire in our canyon burned a few acres, but we didn’t have the thick forests so full of trees to fuel the fire, and the winds back then probably weren’t as fierce, either. The farmers and ranchers who lived in these distant mountain canyons were fearless firefighters back then and they knew they had to act fast with whatever they had to fight both forest and house fires.
The aftermath of these huge fires is almost as much of a problem. Because there now will be no forest floor to stop the heavy rains that are sure to come with the (hopefully) monsoon season, the flooding will be really bad.
The dirt on the forest floor gets so hot it becomes a hard crust that cannot stop the rushing water. So ash and burned debris will inundate the local streams and canyons, often for years.
My hope and prayer is that the fires that are sure to come when the lightning strikes won’t just be “let it burn” fires. That idea may have worked 50 years ago, before the watersheds weren’t so overgrown, but it won’t work today.
So if you see a “smoke,” call the fire department ASAP. I know we and our neighbors will, for sure.
Editha Bartley lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.