New Mexico is burning
a forest fire SUIT column by Chris Jungle
I was on nine-mile hill on the west edge of Albuquerque last Sunday as the sun was setting. A man pointed far off to the north where smoke was rising and said "Bandalier is burning." I shook my head in disappointment. The Bandalier National Monument had suffered a vicious forest fire only four years ago and was just beginning to mend itself. The winds blew around fifteen to twenty mile an hour in Albuquerque, and that usually meant they whipped even harder through the mountains to the north.
I didn't find out about the flames reaching Los Alamos until Tuesday morning. Unlike most people, I spent my Monday night TV time watching Natural Born Killers and went to bed without a glimpse of any local news. Of course, it didn't take long to catch up with everyone.
The Cerro Grande fire, which torched a sizable chunk of Los Alamos, was started by the National Park Service as part of their controlled burn procedures. A park employee named Roy Weaver authorized the burn. While hindsight is always 20/20, it didn't seem to take a lot of foresight to realize that conditions were not the best for fires as it was going to be windy this week. My newspaper weather forecast pretty much consisted of the phrase "Warm and breezy" for the entire week. Not a good time for a fire of any kind.
Thinking logically and without passion, I believe Roy Weaver has performed his final duty for the park service. He's been with the park service for 33 years and makes close to $80,000 a year. It's time for him to retire and move to another state. Nothing he says will appease the families. Nothing he does will mend the situation. It was not a malicious or venomous attack, but it was a mistake. Sometimes, our mistakes have consequences far beyond our intentions. Mr. Weaver is the scapegoat, and he should lose his job.
The funny thing about media attention is that it sometimes creates more news. In addition to the Cerro Grande Fire which burned 42,000 acres, the state is enduring the Cree Fire near Ruidoso (8650 acres), the Scott Able Fire near Cloudcroft (20,000 acres) and the Manuelitas Fire near Las Vegas, NM (2000 acres).
None of these fires would have made the news out of the state if it weren't for Cerro Grande. Although the Scott Able Fire forced people to evacuate the small town of Weed, it doesn't have the same impact as Los Alamos. Los Alamos has plutonium, and Weed has weeds.
If it sounds like New Mexico has a lot of forest fires, it's because we do. It's the fifth largest state in the union, and we have lots of open space and forests. After dry winters (like this one), we usually have a serious fire or two during the summer months. Some are caused by fallen power lines, some by camp fires, some by cigarette butts. This is the first one I know of that was caused by the National Park Service.
I will say this about New Mexicans. When disaster hits the state, the donations and help comes in abundance. Although we are one of the poorest states, there were jars and boxes all around Albuquerque full of bills and change by Tuesday morning. Donation drop offs were organized, and people tried to figure out how they could help. The secretary at my workplace wanted to drive up to Los Alamos and help with animal rescues. When disaster hits, every day work life seems extraneous. People want to make a difference.
That's what I'm going to take away from the New Mexican fires this year. As a collective, we may not have a gushing amount of sympathy for the scarred forests, but once disaster hits other people, humanity kicks in with abundance. Shelters were stocked with food, people opened up their houses to Los Alamos and White Rock residents, and volunteers came by the hundreds. We may not be as environmentally sympathetic as we should be, but it's nice to know that we look out for each other.
After a week of whipping winds, the air is beginning to calm down. The Cerro Grande Fire is still going, although its flames are diminishing. The story will disappear from the headlines. Every Albuquerque news channel will begin promos saying they brought us the first and most complete coverage of the fires. Los Alamos residents will get on with the task of rebuilding their houses and lives.
This was a full blown, unnecessary tragedy. It wasn't exactly the Chicago Fire, but it certainly got people interested helping their anonymous neighbors. A little less than 300 homes burned in Los Alamos, but everyone was evacuated without loss of life. Sometimes it takes disasters to revive our humanity. While human error caused Los Alamos to burn, it was human compassion that burned the brightest in the long run.
Chris Jungle will miss the trees he strolled through in Bandalier.