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Not My Favorite Reason for Vacation

June 26, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I've just been instructed that I'm not to come to work tomorrow.    

The Las Conchas fire, which started in the Jemez mountains just this afternoon, is already burning so badly (thanks to this afternoon's 50 mile per hour wind gusts-- now you see why I complain about wind all the time) that they're closing LANL tomorrow.  And they're talking about evacuating the county. (That part doesn't effect me, because I don't live in Los Alamos county.)

The Pacheco fire, to my east, continues burning up the Santa Fe National Forest, very close to the ski basin.

I wasn't living in New Mexico during the infamous Cerro Grande fire of 2000.  I've talked to many people who went through that, but I only know secondhand just how bad that was (and how much worse it might have been).  I can't imagine what the survivors of Cerro Grande are feeling right now.  This must be bringing many flashbacks and terrible memories.  How awful for everyone involved.

I'm heartbroken.  Both of these fires are chewing up some of the most lovely scenery, places where I love to drive and hike and, possibly, ski.  The hills around parts of Los Alamos are barren, studded with charred matchstick trees.  The view from my office window shows Pajarito Mountain, which didn't burn during Cerro Grande, right alongside pieces of the Jemez that did burn.  It's a stunning comparison. 

Normally, I don't complain if circumstances give me an unexpected day off.  Normally, though, that means a snow day.  But this... I much, much would have preferred the long and difficult Monday at work than this. 

I'm safe.

Send rain, if you can.


Steve Halter June 27, 2011 at 9:22 am
I'll try to direct some of our rain your way. We've had 5" so far this June and average 4", so we can spare some. Is the vegetation at least of the type that needs a good fire in order to propagate so there will be a massive regrowth when the rain does come?
Ian June 27, 2011 at 9:39 am
We'll gladly take that excess off your hands. It was really weird, moving down here from Minnesota. I went from a place where there are thousands of lakes and everything is green and sometimes the humidity is 95% (which is awesome when the dewpoint is 75 degrees at 7 am), to a place where they measure humidities in the single digits. I don't know anything about these ecosystems. They do say that fire is necessary every once in a while as part of the natural cycle. The infamous Cerro Grande fire happened because the undergrowth hadn't been burned back in a long time (as that was policy at the time, unfortunately) and then they decided to attempt a controlled burn on one of the windiest days of the year. I can tell you that the regrowth is very slow. Much of what's burning is Ponderosa pine, and they grow slowly. The Ponderosa forests are really beautiful (and their bark smells like vanilla), but it's been 10 years and from a distance you can barely see any recovery on the mountains scorched by the Cerro Grande fire. The figure I heard a while back was that it would take about 50 years for the mountains around Los Alamos to get back to looking like they did prior to 2000.
Brit Mandelo June 27, 2011 at 9:49 am
Oh, that's awful. I hope it calms down soon, without much more damage.
Ian June 27, 2011 at 9:54 am
Thanks, dude. I just feel so badly for the folks in Los Alamos who just went through this 10 years ago. I really hope this turns out to be nothing like Cerro Grande. In other developments, my neighborhood experienced an ashfall overnight. Red sky this morning...
Scott Denning June 27, 2011 at 10:47 am
We were on the east side of the Sandias yesterday, and in the early afternoon I remarked upon a strange cloud growing in the north. "That cloud is in an odd location, for this time of year," I said aloud. "And it's got on odd conformation." I wrote it off to global warming madness, but kept an eye on it. When we came back west of the Sandias and headed north, we could see why it was of such odd conformation -- it had for a base the smoke from the fire, the particulates from which formed the condensation nuclei for the cloud building above. Which cloud had the form of the unseasonable thunderhead I had remarked upon before -- would that it really were such a cloud, and that the smoked formed its own raincloud! Our poor Jemez Mountains are looking mangy and leprous. In retrospect, it seems amazing that forest management policy could have been so tunneled in vision, suppressing small fires for decades so that we could have whompin' big fires slow to heal. Every time I travel through the Jemez (a favorite destination for cooling off, slowing down, and taking visitors -- we were actually talking about visiting Jemez Falls for the July 4th holiday, if the forest was open) I play with the idea of dedicating my life to forest management. Not a bad life: working outdoors in the healthy air, in a huge garden. Wind isn't too bad yet this morning -- I hope it stays calm and helps them get a handle on the fire and keep it from encroaching on people's lives. Fire is a big concern here on the bosque. (For you fans of Ian's from around the world, the bosque ("bos-kay") is the forest of cottonwood trees that runs along the Rio Grande, perhaps the largest of its kind in the world. Folks in NM use the term for any wooded strip along a river.) We've had several fires along the bosque over the last few years, one just a few miles from my house. Underbrush builds up beneath the cottonwood trees; in the old days, small fires would quickly sweep through and clear out the brush, leaving the trees largely unharmed. Of course, in the old days there were also seasonal floods of the river that kept the areas around the trees policed. But humans have flood-controlled the river and suppressed the small fires, and build their houses right along the river. (Some on uncontrolled flood plain -- there are some very expensive houses on admittedly-lovely spots, where I have seen the waters knee-deep on a cow...) This time of year I do many fire prevention tasks around the property -- clearing underbrush, cutting tall grass, raking and toting away anything that could be fuel. I also have to keep the roof cleared off -- the "cotton" that gives cottonwood trees their name is highly flammable, goes up almost like flash paper, and it builds up in drifts. And we have several large cottonwood trees that healthily produce large amounts of cottony seeds in preparation for the floods that no longer come. And the fireworks are popping in the area. Here we are in the midst of one of the highest-danger fire seasons in years, hasn't rained in about 9 months, and some of my (triply-damned unmentionable) neighbors are setting off bottle rockets. All it takes is one of those landing in some tree cotton and suddenly the whole area is threatened. Add the wind you have been so justifiably cursing, and you've got a fast-moving fire that can send embers up to half a mile in advance of the fireline. This time of year I keep a firefighting kit by the front door, a backpack with water and supplies and some boots. I'm always ready to grab it and some tools and run, because it is the first responders who do a lot to prevent the spread of a bosque fire. Sometimes it is "just" a matter of stomping out embers that have blown into your yard. I am thankful that no fire has approached the house while we have lived here, but I am always ready -- I can see the edge of the bosque from here, across the field in back of the house. In fact, as soon as I send this post I will head out to do more fire prevention cleanup. I hauled 14 barrowloads of fuel out the other day, pruned out deadwood, cut grass. And with more than 3 acres involved, there is always more to do. Fortunately, most of the fields around us are well irrigated and green and difficult to ignite, but the wind can send embers over those zones like buzz bombs over the Channel, and you just know an ember is going to land precisely wherever there is a wind-drift of fuel. So my every free moment is spent with chainsaw and machete, barrow and rake, and will be until the fireworks season is over and the fabled monsoons begin. (For most of my life, it has rained on the evening of July 4th. Except for the last few years, when it has been extra-dry. People debate the global warming thing, but let me tell you from the perspective of 46 years of living in New Mexico -- the weather has been very weird, for the last eight years or so.) I said above that I had considered dedicating my life to forest management. It seems that I actually have, just in my own little forest. Time to put on my ranger hat (OK, actually a "Firefly" billed cap) and get back to it. Let's pray for rain.
Ian June 27, 2011 at 11:41 am
Scott, that's an excellent snapshot of New Mexico during fire season. And beautifully rendered, as always. I wish your thrice-damned neighbors would realize just how fortunate they are to have somebody as conscientious as you watching their backs. I haven't heard the bottle rockets start up yet, but it's inevitable. Any moment now. I came to New Mexico 9 years ago (ohmygodhowisthatpossible) and so I've never experienced what locals like you would consider normal weather. All I know is that this is a strange place, and even after almost a decade, I'm still coming to terms with it.
Dan Goodman June 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Oh, that's not good. Must not be pleasant, taking in ash-fall... or is it that common in New Mexico? Are there any good things weather-wise, or geographically, that comes out of living there? By the way, I sent an email to you. Just checking to make sure it didn't get swallowed in your 'Junk' folder, which might be the case since I switched email addresses. Stay safe.
Susan Loyal June 27, 2011 at 12:39 pm
It's not exactly a sentence I ever expected to utter, but I'm praying for rain out there. Here in Georgia we've had far more rain than I'm altogether happy about, as it keeps coming with thunder and lightening and tornado watches and warnings. The planet seems less than happy this year.
Ian June 27, 2011 at 1:18 pm
Hi, Dan! This is the first time I've experienced ashfall since living here, but I'm just a carpetbagger compared to the true locals. The scenery is gorgeous around here, and the food is fantastic (so much more vivid and exciting than where I grew up) and it's much more diverse here than where I grew up. Plus, there's fantastic skiing within an easy drive (in winters when we have snow), and I get to see mountains every day. Lots of pluses to living here.
Ian June 27, 2011 at 1:21 pm
Hi, Susan-- It wasn't all that long ago when Georgia was in the throes of a truly terrible drought, wasn't it? I seem to remember hearing predictions that Atlanta was coming perilously close to running out of water. And now this. It seems like everywhere is either drowning under too many thunderstorms, and flooding rivers, or burning like a tinderbox. It's terrible all around. Hope the tornado warnings don't persist all summer long... Tornadoes have been absolutely terrible this year.
Scott Denning June 27, 2011 at 1:39 pm
Ian, thank you for coming to the defense of your adopted home. New Mexico can seem sere and uninviting to those passing through from greener climes, and folks out there are hearing about our fire season exacerbated and exaggerated by the odd weather. Just like anyplace, we can have our challenges, but overall it's a great place to live. You put it nicely: lots of pluses to living here. I used to work in a Visitor Information Center and I would tell visitors that New Mexico has a lot to offer, it just isn't always in-your-face obvious. And you might have to drive a few hours to find it. But it's there. They don't call it "The Land of Enchantment" for nothing -- it truly offers a distinctive ambiance. I think Georgia O'Keeffe put it best: "Visit New Mexico once, and it will itch you for life."
Scott Denning June 27, 2011 at 2:42 pm
Wait a minute... It never clicked, before this. I mentioned that New Mexico's weather used to be reliable, even predictable, until the last eight years or so. Right on the heels of that, you mentioned that it has now been nine years that you have been in residence here. The penny drops. Coincidence? Coincidence that the weather change dates to soon after your arrival, in fact just around the time that rumors began of coruscations and ululations emitting from an odd castle-like building atop a remote mesa beyond Los Alamos? Coincidence? Hmmmm.....
Tengland June 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm
I remember standing in the back patio of my SF apartment in 2001, looking at the huge column of smoke, and thinking "They've lost control." They had and houses burned and acres of thick forests blazed. (You could see trouble was coming by how thick those forests were long before the idiots came along. Beautiful thick green mountainsides but spectacular when set afire.) Well, perhaps when all the trees are burnt and the vegetation turned to ash all around LA perhaps the fires will stop. Yes, the weather has changed, but some of it is just going back to an older pattern. We'd had what, half a century of good moisture, mild winters and plenty of water in the monsoon season. But that was the unusual part, not the norm, according to the old folks who were old when I was young and likely aren't around any more. That big aspen forest in the mountains above Santa Fe is there because sometime in the past, likely early 20th century, a huge fire burned (so I'm told) the forest there out, with the flames almost making it to Las Vegas. I'm not saying the climate isn't changing due to warming, there are too many off-the-wall weather events happening lately to deny it completely. There are patterns to weather, from drought to wet and back, so it's hard to pin the exact cause of pattern shift. And our opposite problem continues: The Missouri River is spilling over its banks all the way from the Dakotas. It still hasn't done much in the local town Parkville, but the sandbags are in place. Forecasts range from the water won't reach the sand bag walls to the water will overflow and cover part of the town. No one knows and so far, that ol' river has kept its intent to itself. (I'm not affected by floods where I live with my sister except I might have to find a different route to work.) Last night it rained hard for a while, making the creek at the base of the hill where we live rise halfway up its banks (and adding more the the Missouri). I just wish I could send a bunch of this water all around here your way. And for this year, you have mu permission to shoot people setting off fireworks in dangerous ways.
Ian June 27, 2011 at 11:15 pm
I think Georgia O'Keeffe put it best: "Visit New Mexico once, and it will itch you for life." I'm seeing the truth of that. I know Melinda's dad used to say that once somebody lives in New Mexico for six months, they never make a clean break with the place after that. They keep coming back, whether they intend to or not. This place does have a lot to offer. Even when the weather isn't this exciting...
Ian June 27, 2011 at 11:18 pm
Perhaps, sir, it will not surprise you, that while I come to these climes by way of the upper midwest, my forebears (a squamous and rugose bunch) came to Minnesota by way of New England. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, I shall set that tale in writing. But to do so would mean extended interviews with a gibbering madman in St. Paul.
Ian June 27, 2011 at 11:24 pm
Hey, Terry, I've been thinking of you. I know you said a while back that the flooding didn't effect you directly, and I'm quite relieved to hear that's still the case. I hope it continues to be so. We would gladly, gladly take that extra water off your hands. I've heard things similar to what you mention about the long-term weather patterns around here. There's a 50 or 100 year cycle, if I remember correctly, and so some of this is congruent with that. But, as you and Scott also point out, some of the weather patterns of recent years are well outside the norm. Interesting times. We live in interesting times.
ChiaLynn June 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm
The College of Santa Fe was the first place I flunked myself out of. I never stopped thinking about Santa Fe. A couple of years ago, I took my husband there for his birthday, with a side trip to the museum in Los Alamos. When he saw that Georgia O'Keefe quote at her museum, he started laughing. After just a couple of days in New Mexico, he knew he was never going to get it out of his system, either.
Ian June 29, 2011 at 12:40 am
When were you at CSF? How long were you in Santa Fe overall? I'm curious about what aspects of Santa Fe kept you thinking about this place even after you left. It's really charming that you've both been touched by New Mexico in that way. (I hope it's a positive thing for you both.) If you guys are ever passing through again (quite a haul from the East Coast, I know) send me a note and we can all go out to dinner! Mmmm, green chile.
ChiaLynn July 2, 2011 at 9:38 am
I was at CSF from August 1990 to May 1991, then didn't visit Santa Fe again until 2010. I found it much like I'd left it - bigger, yes, and with fewer howling pink coyotes (ick, gag, blech), but still Santa Fe. I love the light, and the architecture, and the food. (Mmmmm, green chile...) I do find that the city is very aware of itself, in a not-entirely-comfortable way. Sometimes it feels like Santa Fe Style might overwhelm Santa Fe. When I moved there from Laramie, Wyoming, I felt at home in the mountains and that high, dry landscape, but the galleries and the New Agey vibe were something exotic. The weather was a lot better than I was used to, too. My husband, on the other hand, grew up near Chicago, and is fascinated by the desert. We've talked about relocating there (not to Santa Fe itself - probably to one of the smaller towns to the north), but it's more likely that we'll just come back to visit. I'm not waiting 20 years for my next stack of blue corn pancakes.
Ian July 2, 2011 at 11:33 am
Your husband's experience sounds much like mine the first time I came to the southwest. I first visited New Mexico during a spring break camping trip in 1994. We drove all night from Minneapolis and I happened to wake up just as sunrise was hitting the mountains-- the very first time I'd ever seen mountains with my own eyes. Pretty dramatic. And then we arrived in the high desert and just couldn't take my eyes off the landscape. I'd decided then that if I ever had a chance to live in the southwest for a while I'd take it. Seven years later I had a job offer here, and so here I came. I didn't believe folks when they'd warn me about the green chile. Little did I know.
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