Outside, three Ponderosa pines shed needles onto a yard that is dry as an old man’s fart, despite the feeble stream pissing from my hosts’ garden hose — our “best practices” attempt to maintain a barely green buffer that just may keep the deep research facility from going up like a totally interfaced candle, if fire comes down from the ridge. Across the state, several dozen houses went up in smoke the other day. To the south, the Land of Enchantment set a new record for acres burned. Close to home, the headwater ridges two rivers east send impressive carbon-laden columns skyward. Meanwhile, a Rep-rat fingers dead trees on roadless public land as the culprit and Dem-rats take the bait, howling that politicization of natural disasters is unfair, to which all good Rep-rats respond … well, you’ll have to follow all this on your quote-mongering media super-corp of choice, ’cause it’s about time to move the garden hose again.
Last year, the U.S. Drought Monitor map showed Texas redder than the great decider’s favorite election-map wet dream, while my home range delivered soothing acre-feet of watery manna to the Colorado Basin’s fret-filled real estate schemes. A Texas forest I pass through a couple times each year caught fire, and a few hundred houses surrounded by decades-old tinder didn’t stand a chance. Now, it looks like our turn.
While most of Texas fades to a comparatively soothing “Moderate Drought” beige and fire-insurance windfall dream home speculators build new fodder on the ashes, ever-growing patches of the interior Mountain West turn “Extreme Drought” red. We’ve been through all this before, of course — try any year of the current century (the drought map first appeared in the lame-duck season of the Clinton era). If you compare the statistics, you’ll see that, most years, more of the Mountain West is in some stage of drought than not. Whether human-caused (or cyclic) global climate change is to blame is another quote-generating dream match entirely, and will be lightly skipped over in this consideration of humans’ recurring interface with forest fire reality.
No matter how many houses burn this year, with attendant personal tragedies aggregated into prize-winning tear-jerkers for our browsing pleasure, humans will want to buy houses in a forest next year — thereby ensuring that ensuing years will have ample quote-generating “natural” disasters, and I’m wondering whether it’s a case of nature or nurture.
When their state is on the fire line, governors across the political spectrum line up for deficit-deepening federal bail-outs, and despite election-year posturing over whether to insure humans with pre-existing medical conditions (even the arguably-not-quite-fringe-enough Rep-rat candidate for President now advocates a corporate profit-protecting option of not insuring people who’ve ever been un-insured), neither party questions the economic wisdom of selling fire insurance on new houses built in forests guaranteed by nature to burn some day.
While leaving the defense of “no federal aid for disaster victims” and “no insurance=death” positions to a certain seriously fringe failed Rep-rat presidential candidate (who also proposes selling off all public lands and closing the Department of Interior to help “Restore America”), and preparing myself for howls of outrage and accusations of insensitivity bordering on barbarity from those of the kinder/gentler persuasion, I do humbly question the widening support for “mitigating” swaths of public lands so that housing developments can keep pushing the suburban interface deeper into fire-dependant Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine forests. Maybe, just maybe, periodic wildfires visible to urban centers could serve as fair warning, even as they renew the forests from bug-kills and over-harvesting growth cycles.
(World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, courtesy Library of Congress)
Now, I know all rants should lead to a grand solution for politicos and pundits to argue unto dust, but the talking blues isn’t about solutions. The masters of the genre — Guthrie, Dylan, et al. — only described the problem as they saw it, and then laid out a poor man’s survival strategy. It worked for them, and I figure it’ll be good enough for an itinerant scribbler sitting in a mobile deep research facility in the southwest edge of a Ponderosa forest.
Yes, friends and enemies, the facility is on wheels for this summer of our drought. In talking blues tradition, I’m leaving solutions to those with more ambition than me, and less desire for personal survival. Most fires in my home range move east and north, most of the time, so I’ll be hitting the road at the first smoke coming over the ridge to the west or up the river from the south, collecting all living things that will fit into my research facility as I go. Not much of a strategy, I know, but then I haven’t bought enough insurance or political capital to afford many unnecessary chances.
To cut through aggregations of disaster-spin politics, and find out how close this year’s wildfires are to your own personal facilities, I suggest regularly checking the InciWeb page for your region. To learn about wildfire ecology, you could start here, check out Ponderosa and Lodgepole fire cycles, and then take a walk in your local woods. Right now, it’s time to move that hose again.