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Monday, July 18, 2011

Contemplating Fire

It is the third time in four days that a single raindrop has fallen on my skin, a reminder of why I am here, sitting in the shade of a living ponderosa pine, in the Jemez Mountains in Bandelier National Monument. I am a lookout, a sky watcher, secretly praying for rain in a landscape of dried grass and shriveled flowers. This land is dusty, dry, parched, splitting at the seams, splattered black with ashen trunks and scorched limbs.  I wonder what on earth is providing sustenance for hummingbirds? The air is thick, acrid and stings my lungs with each life giving breath. What movie-set have I stumbled onto? I want rain.  

The ponderosa pine providing my comfort has a laminated 8 1/2 by 11 sign stapled to its bark. The irony of the message stands out like bold letters printed on a huge signboard, “Area Closed” Due to extreme fire danger. All Bandelier trails and backcountry are closed to entry. Effective 8:00 am June24th.”

The morning the sign was posted  I hiked to the top of Cerro Grande, making sure people were compliant with the message. They were. People stayed away, keeping the forest safe from accidental ignition. The closure would be lifted when monsoons arrivedBriefly refraining from hiking in the tinderbox landscape was a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the major inconvenience of inadvertently introducing catastrophic fire to this already stressed ecosystem.  

In the weeks before the closure, I hiked in steeped walled canyons, along broad mesas, up peaks and across meadows in Bandelier National Monument.  With each twist in the trail and open vista, I became reacquainted with a landscape first introduced to me on a cross-country road trip many years ago.
It was back then that I thumbed the pages of a tattered southwest hiking guide and stumbled upon a place called Bandelier National Monument. The hiking sounded good and I was eager to explore.

I fell in love with the landscape of Bandelier on that first visit. The afternoon of my arrival I hiked out of Frijoles Canyon and roamed the mesa top until I reached the breath of a canyon called Alamo. I sat under a large pinon tree, along the edge of the canyon, devouring pine seeds. It was a banner year for pinon seed production. I got my fill. Someday I will return, I mused, my eyes bathed in a palette of sienna, pink, ochre, buckskin, green and blue shading the canyon, sky, mesa and mountains.

In August of 1997, I returned to Bandelier and stayed, my love affair with color, light and beauty continues fourteen years later and strengthens with each step placed upon this land. I share my passion for this sacred ground while giving tours and programs, as an interpretive ranger, to countless people from all over the world.

Over the years, I have observed the changing climate and landscape of Bandelier.  In the first summer of my arrival rain fell, the verdant land became irresistible to those who sip nectar. Broadtailed and black-chinned hummingbirds zipped from blossom to blossom lapping up sweetness. In subsequent years, summers arrived with record-breaking heat and diminished rainfall.

Weather graphs illustrate the hottest and driest summers on record and winters lacking significant snowfall. Pinon and ponderosa pines fail without moisture. Native bark and twig beetles thrive on the weakened trees eating away what little life is left.  Only pinon skeletons remain, leaving juniper to shoulder the burden of green in a land of terra cotta cliffs.

I grieve the loss of the pines and pinon jays that followed suit.  Intellectually, I know weather patterns cycle, climates change and land rebounds. But this cycle is different, its scope broader, its effect strengthened by the impact of our behavior. I am in-part responsible for the loss of that which I love. This is a lot to ponder.

I continue to watch the sky. Through the haze of smoke, I see expanding blue.  The threat of rain recedes with the afternoon. I am stationed at the headwaters of Frijoles Creek ready to alert workers, in the canyon near Headquarters, of precipitation. I take my post seriously.  The Visitor Center and Frijoles Canyon has been closed to the public for three weeks.  Rain has become a threat.

A small storm can drop enough moisture to cause a flash flood. There is nothing to hold back the water. The land above headquarters is charred. There is no vegetation to keep the soil in place. Rainfall will bring logs and mud and ash slurry of crashing down Frijoles Creek in the wake of the Las Conchas Fire. On the blustery afternoon of June 26th. at approximately one o’clock, a tree fell on a powerline near a private ranch in the Jemez Mountains along state road  igniting a blaze, exploding into a funnel of wind and flames, blasting upwards and out, rapidly devouring all in its path.

On Sunday, June 26th, I shared a lazy day with a friend in Santa Fe. At 3 pm we stepped out of the house, our arms laden with sliced watermelon and cold beverages, treats to share at an afternoon party. “Hey I think the Pacheco Canyon fire blew up, the air is so smoky.” It took a few moments to get our bearings and realize this fire was new. This fire was different. My friend exclaimed, “ I think Bandelier is on fire.” “No, I think it is a bit west of the Monument” “Are you sure?  I think we should drive up and get your things.” I live, or should I say lived in the historic district of Frijoles Canyon near Park Headquarters. “No I don’t think we need to drive up. Someone from the Park will call if there is a problem.” Two and a half hours later I got that call. “Have you heard, we are officially evacuated.”  “What?”

That evening some friends and I grabbed a few important things from my cabin. It was not until we were driving out of the Park did I see the gravity of the situation. Orange flames mixed with a black and purple sky. Already bruised I thought. Maybe an hour or two before headquarters is gone. ”This is crazy. Lets get out of here.” It was hard to sleep that night wondering how life would be changed in the morning. Two of my co-workers had already lost their homes that afternoon to the fast and furious fire that would become the largest in New Mexico history. How much of Bandelier would be gone by sunrise?

When all was done, over 20,000 acres of Bandelier’s 33,000 acres were affected by the Las Conchas Fire. Some areas scorched to mineral soil and other areas lightly burned. Owing to the heroic efforts of Bandelier’s firefighters, the historic district stands, but not without threat.

Three out of fifteen miles of Frijoles Canyon, not consumed by flames, is now vulnerable to flash floods. A week after the fire ignited a decision was made to close the historic district. Bandelier employees were ousted from their offices and for others, like me, their homes; ousted from the canyon we love. Bridges have been removed, barriers and sand bags have been placed; Headquarters is at the mercy of rain.  I sit patiently waiting for rain to return this brown land back to green.

Full length:

closeup of the vortex:


  1. So sorry you had to write that; but thank you for doing so. And thanks for continuing to protect a special place.

  2. Any news on what started the fire? My family and I passed through on June 17 on the way back from a trip to Yellowstone, and other national parks, and I wanted to go back in the future to explore Bandelier. So disheartened to read of the fire. Carlsbad burned shortly before we arrived to it, as well. That was caused, if I recall correctly, by some *CENSORED* flicking his cigarette out the window of his car.