Dispatches Tagline

Fire, Part 2: Discovering Wildfire

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Stories, Trouble, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Growing Up in Flames

Blinded by Smoke 

To our amazement, shortly after Katie and I put out the woodrat midden fire and settled into our cave in the desert, we began finding prehistoric artifacts in our front yard – the sandy gullies and gravel banks between cacti, shrubs, gnarled juniper trees and boulder outcrops that surrounded us in all directions. Colorful, translucent stone flakes produced during the making of everyday tools, red and gray pottery shards, even a nearly perfect, impressively artful little arrowhead.

Even more astoundingly, when we met the new directors of a nearby ecological preserve, they showed us hidden “rock art” – petroglyphs and pictographs, pecked or painted inside boulder piles like ours.

As artists, we were already in love with the desert, but here was proof that other creative people had actually lived here long before us. Who were they, and what had happened to them? And above all, how did they live without cars, without the Von’s supermarket in Barstow? Everything around us took on new dimensions and raised new questions, now that we knew people had lived and created in this wild, arid place, getting everything they needed straight from nature.

These discoveries transformed our lives and work. Together, Katie and I began a passionate amateur study of prehistory, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to experience the prehistoric way of life firsthand. That’s what ultimately led me to the aboriginal skills school in Utah.

But meanwhile, I was learning, seeing with my own eyes, how our precious desert was under continual threat from people who saw it only as a playground, or as a wasteland ripe for development. I became determined to find a piece of land in the wilderness that I could own and take responsibility for. On a scouting trip in summer 1989, I rented a high-clearance, 4wd Jeep Cherokee to follow a maze of sandy, rocky, and deeply eroded old mining roads, abandoned for decades, deep into the heart of a remote, barely accessible mountain range.

Completely alone, years before the advent of cell phones, I drove the Cherokee miles up a narrow, boulder-choked canyon between steep ridges that towered 2,000′ above me. It was by far the wildest place I’d ever entered with a vehicle. Eventually I reached a place where the canyon was blocked by boulders, but there, the trace of another old mining road branched off to climb the bank of the dry wash. It was steep and so rocky and deeply eroded that I had to switch to low gear and drive at walking pace, but I followed it carefully up an outlying ridge to a level clearing, with the gaping hole of a mine visible far in the distance, at the base of steep cliffs that rose to the high ridge above. When I got out and turned around, I saw I had climbed hundreds of feet above the canyon bottom and had a spectacular view out over the center of the range to jagged ridges and peaks many miles away.

Dark clouds had been massing overhead, and the sun was going down. I built a campfire, made dinner, started a beer and smoked a couple hits of my drummer’s mild, high-energy pot. In the past year, I’d gone through the trauma of a breakup with Katie and the major effort of rebuilding my band and finding a new audience. We’d achieved success together, but it wasn’t the ensemble or the sound I wanted and I was creatively frustrated to the point of desperation. And my San Francisco loft, once a teeming community, was now down to only two from the original five roommates – just a big, echoing workspace and a lonely place to sleep. My heart was looking for a new home in the desert.

I’d never been so alone in such a spectacularly beautiful place, and I felt staggeringly liberated, humbled, one with nature, impossibly far from the city and the oppressive, conflicted culture we imported and imposed on this continent from Europe. I was even distancing myself in my wardrobe – I was wearing a pair of primitive-looking designer sweat pants from the Castro district, dyed in earth tones, and a pair of suede moccasins I’d picked up at an Indian trading post on a road trip with Katie. The low cloud cover was holding in the warmth of the day, and I pulled off my shirt and went for a walk down the road, to get away from the vehicle and other reminders of civilization. As darkness fell, I returned and went to bed on the ground, falling asleep with a head full of beautiful visions, way up there at the end of the old mining road, high on the exposed mountainside.

The next thing I knew I was coughing, waking in a blinding cloud of smoke. I couldn’t see flames, but using a flashlight I was able to quickly gather up my stuff and throw it in the Jeep. Not knowing where the fire was, all I could do was try to get away, and the only way out was back down the old road.

The survival instinct kicked in, big time, and although my heart was clenched in fear, my head was clear as I bumped and bucked the unfamiliar, unwieldy vehicle as quickly down the road as I felt was safe. Visibility in the dense smoke was only a couple of yards, but when I reached the canyon bottom my headlights lit up half a dozen terrified cattle, clumped silently together, their eyes glowing like coals in my headlights. They backed away from me as I turned and headed down the canyon.

I never encountered the actual fire. Miles later, as I drove out the broad, sandy wash toward the canyon’s mouth and the open desert, I finally emerged from the cloud of smoke. It takes the better part of an hour to reach the paved highway from there, and back then, there was a phone booth with a pay phone in the tiny settlement another 20 minutes up the road. It was about 4 in the morning when I got through to the county sheriff’s office to report the fire. Of course, it was burning deep in desert wilderness, 20 miles from the nearest ranch or house, and posed no real danger to anyone, so despite my breathless excitement, the desk officer who answered merely thanked me and said not to worry about it.

It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered the burn area while hiking the ridgeline more than 1,000′ above that night’s campsite. Dry lightning had apparently struck the slope on the other side of the ridge while I was asleep, and since there are no trees on that ridge, the dense smoke had been caused by the burning of widely scattered yucca trunks. Dense, fibrous yucca burns slowly, producing far more smoke than heat – I found that out the hard way.

Swimming in Wildfire

By a decade later, in 1999, I’d been hammered by more crises and traumas, more losses, poverty and homelessness. I’d been forced to set aside my dreams, my art, and my music to focus on finding a new day job. I’d eventually reinvented myself as a creative guru in the DotCom Boom, and although I was single, I was dating and wasn’t lonely anymore.

Big, high-intensity wildfires were becoming a more familiar news item in the West. One fall weekend my drummer’s girlfriend talked us into an overnight camping trip on the dry inland side of the coast range north of the San Francisco Bay. We may or may not have known about the wildfire in advance, but we surely saw the smoke and encountered emergency vehicles as we drove up the valley of Cache Creek and its tributary, Bear Creek.

But in those days firefighting agencies had a much more casual attitude toward public safety. Despite the fire being only a ridge away, the road was wide open. We drove farther north to a gravel road that climbed over a high ridge toward a remote reservoir, and chose a campsite at the top of the ridge, where we could look down on the fire a few miles south of us. Seems insane now, but I guess we felt if the fire moved closer, we could keep driving ahead of it to the backcountry reservoir, where we’d surely be safe.

After watching the sunset, we made dinner and went to bed, there beside the road. As usual, dinner had been accompanied by a few of northern California’s best microbrewed IPAs, and a few hours later, Mike and I got up to pee. No moon, and countless stars teeming and twinkling above us. We walked down the road to where we had a view south. As the mountain’s silhouette fell away before us, the fire’s spectacle was revealed. Like hell mirroring heaven, a hoard of flickering rubies, cast carelessly across the vast, crumpled black landscape we’d crossed to get here.

There was no wind, and although only a few miles away, the fire didn’t seem to be spreading. So we went back to bed.

The next morning, we drove back down the canyon of Bear Creek. During the night, the fire had burned downslope toward the creek, charred tree trunks were still smoking, and flames were still running along the west edge of the highway. But the road was open and we could see no firefighters anywhere. We stopped at our favorite swimming hole and hung out for hours opposite the steep, ash-covered hillside, lined with the blackened skeletons of ghost pines, smoking and smoldering less than a hundred yards away.

The next day, back home, I had my first episode of severe lower back pain. Completely unexpected, it wasn’t triggered by injury or exertion – it just appeared out of the blue. I’ll always associate that wildfire camping trip with the onset of a condition that has gradually gotten worse over the years, nagging me almost continuously, regularly interrupting my life and occasionally sending me to the emergency room with unmanageable pain.

The Year We Lost the Deserts

A few years after acquiring my land in the desert – in that same canyon I’d been driven out of by smoke – I became friends with an older couple, a writer and an artist, who lived about 60 miles north of my place. Neighbors, in the far-flung society of the Mojave. Their compound was in a high-desert basin, lush with sagebrush and juniper, surrounded by colorful mesas and low basalt bluffs. It became one of the jewels of the new Mojave National Preserve, and I’m still smudging my home with pungent sage I gathered there 20 years ago.

Then, in June 2005, it was struck by lightning. After decades of grazing by cattle, their trampling of fragile soils, and the spread of invasive Old World grasses, fire raced across the desert. Ranches, trailer homes, and Park Service infrastructure were at risk, and as usual, government agencies mounted a military-style response.

Ultimately the Hackberry Fire spread to 70,000 acres – the biggest wildfire on record in the desert. It burnt sagebrush and juniper all the way to the roots and sterilized the soil so that this precious habitat may never return.

My best friend from the Bay Area happened to be there at the time, on a camping trip, and literally stumbled upon the fast-moving fire while heading up a dirt road looking for a campsite. He had to give up and turn back, but at least he was able to send me a photo.

That wildfire was a wake-up call for us desert lovers. Another friend, the desert’s leading botanist, pointed out that despite cattle and other modern impacts, fire has always been part of desert ecology and evolution. But before, many of us had only seen invasive plants as a nuisance – now we knew they were capable of completely destroying irreplacable native habitat. That fire felt like a terrible loss, and a prominent conservationist called 2005 “The Year We Lost the Deserts.” Little did any of us know how much more was coming, and how much worse it would get.

Nothing But Forest

I was born and raised in the upper Ohio River Valley, a rumpled, mostly forested landscape of rounded ridges and deep hollows. The forest was the remnant of a mature, temperate hardwood forest that, when Europeans first invaded, covered virtually all of the continent east of the Mississippi River. We know about it from countless written reports of explorers, hunters, trappers, and pioneer settlers, as well as early natural historians. In their accounts, that forest, dominated by giant oaks, chestnuts, elms, and other deciduous trees, was staggeringly, almost unbelievably productive and diverse in resources for humans.

Of course, it was already inhabited, by the people we Europeans conquered, brutally slaughtered, and drove off their lands. Whereas Native Americans had thrived in those forests, relying solely on native plants and animals, we cleared the ancient forests for European-style farms and replaced diverse native habitat with a much smaller number of domesticated plants and animals we imported from back home in the Old World.

Now we take the patchwork of farms, factories, and cities in the eastern U.S. for granted, forgetting the forest ever existed, proud of our preservation of a tiny fraction in parks and preserves.

The American West has much higher, much more rugged mountains, which still feature completely different, predominantly evergreen and coniferous, forest habitats. My dad moved west before me, and even before following him out there, I spent decades’ worth of vacations exploring, camping, and backpacking in densely forested western ranges – the Sierras, the Cascades, and the high ranges of the Great Basin.

But it wasn’t until I discovered the eastern Mojave Desert in February 1982 that I felt truly at home in wild nature. Why? Why don’t I like forests?

The year after that historic fire in the desert, I followed my desert friends to southwest New Mexico, at 6,000′ elevation, with vast national forests and wilderness areas in the backyard. The southeastern end of a 16,000 square mile swath of mountains, rising to nearly 11,000′ only an hour’s drive away.

The Southwest is arid, but most of it is not technically desert. And unlike the angular, stony mountains of my beloved Mojave, these had a rounded silhouette, covered by a continuous blanket of dark green forest.

Our European legacy conditions us to expect and admire forest-blanketed mountains, and during the past century, we’ve come to accept the continuous forest as the natural, primeval state of western mountains. But I love rocks – growing up in the Appalachian foothills, I was always most attracted to the occasional rock ledge, cave, cliff, or outcrop that stood out from the forest.

Hiking desert mountains, I always had distinct landmarks in view, I could always tell where I was. I could walk along a ridge and watch the landscape shift around me in three dimensions, with farther ridges lined up into haze at the horizon. I could point to where I wanted to go, then get there and look back at where I came from. In dense forests, your horizon is only a few yards away – a wall of vegetation – and as soon as you enter it, you’re basically lost.

I retain an abstract respect for forests as an equally important sort of habitat. Sure, data shows impressive biodiversity in the prehistoric eastern deciduous forest and the Amazonian rain forest. But to me, forests in general feel monotonous, confined, sometimes a little oppressive. Unlike the Easterners or Texans who typically relocate here, it wasn’t natural beauty that drew me. In general, I found this landscape pretty boring.

However, it was my new home, and I had to come to grips with it. One of the earliest things I noticed was the relatively “pristine” state of nature. Most everywhere I hiked in California, native habitat had been invaded, degraded, and largely replaced by invasive plants. From the coastal eucalyptus forests in the Bay Area to the star-thistle-blanketed hills farther inland, from the tamarisk-infested desert canyons to the red brome-covered slopes above, the European conquest had turned California into an alien mess.

Sure, our New Mexico landscape included basins and floodplains that had been overgrazed in the 19th century, and still hosted herds of cattle. I even found feral cattle following hiking trails deep into the wilderness – here they call them “trespass cattle.” But in the mountains where I was hiking, the only invasive plants seemed to be the occasional dandelion sprouting on trails heavily used by equestrians, from seeds impacted and carried in the animals’ hooves. The forests themselves seemed almost completely natural, native, and primeval.

Southwestern habitat changes dramatically with elevation, as can be seen from far away. Blindingly white salt-covered playas may line the bottom of basins, surrounded by low desert scrub, gently rising to rolling grasslands. Mountain slopes begin with a narrow band dominated by low, spreading trees: pinyon pine, alligator juniper, and Emory oak. As elevation increases, Gambel oak, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir enter the mix – our “mixed-conifer forest” – and the low, spreading trees gradually drop out. At the highest elevations, quaking aspen and Engelmann spruce join the pines and firs. And all these high-elevation trees can be found thousands of feet lower in well-watered canyon bottoms where cool air settles.

The more I hiked, the more I noticed variations. In many places near town, the mixed-conifer forests were jungles, densely packed with small-diameter trees, choked with undergrowth and fallen logs. But one of my favorite hikes climbed to a rolling, parklike plateau, with tall, widely separated trees and nothing but grass in between. Those are the places we Europeans are deeply, emotionally attracted to – not just because that’s where we supposedly evolved, in Africa – but also because it’s an easy landscape for us to navigate.

In 2016, I backpacked into a remote range in southern Nevada where I found a forest out of nightmares: pinyon and juniper trees with branches that interlaced from the ground up – an almost impenetrable maze. I found plenty of droppings from deer and elk, and when I eventually reached an open plateau on top I discovered it hosted a herd of feral horses. So animals had found paths through the maze, but this range had clearly been abandoned by humans long ago.

I gradually realized that some forests – particularly the parklike ones – had burned not long ago. Charred trunks and logs still remained here and there, seemingly taking forever to decompose. From my reading, I had a sense that wildfire as well as historical logging and other human impacts played a part in these forest variations, but how, exactly?

It now seems obvious that conifer forests in an arid landscape would be ripe for wildfire, but after I moved to New Mexico, we had a deceptive hiatus of five years without any significant local fires. Like everyone else, I came to take the continuous, dark-green forests for granted, assuming the conifer blanket was the essential, primeval state of this landscape.

Fire Seasons

Then, in 2011, the big fires began. The Miller Fire, caused by lightning, threatened the home of my artist and writer friends, burning 89,000 forested acres in the heart of our local wilderness areas. But it mostly spread at low intensity, and experts cited it as a success of the Forest Service’s new policy of prescribed burns to reduce fuels, replacing the old policy of full suppression.

Then the Horseshoe 2, allegedly started by illegal immigrants, destroyed an inconceivable 223,000 acres in the heart of the Chiricahua sky island, a treasured, world-famous range just across the Arizona border southwest of us. When the wind shifted around to the southwest, our sky filled with haze, we choked on its smoke, and our sunsets were red.

My favorite route between my new home and the California desert ran through the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. I came to love that high, gently rolling plateau at almost 9,000′ elevation, its lush, grassy meadows dotted with sapphire lakes, its distinctive volcanic peaks streaked with black talus slopes. Most of those peaks were blanketed with dense conifer forest, featuring giant moss-covered firs and spruce, and again, I accepted that as the natural order.

Then I heard about the Wallow Fire, started by careless campers abandoning a still-smoldering campfire. Over a period of weeks, it spread across almost the entire plateau, becoming the biggest wildfire in the history of the Southwest at 538,000 acres. The wind came out of the northwest much of that summer, so we were often breathing that smoke. Toward the end, when the fire was spreading into New Mexico, I couldn’t wait any longer, I drove up to where the road was blocked, and I could see active burning. I was heartsick to think of the loss of that habitat, and the suffering of wildlife.

So much had burned in one year, we hoped to get a break. But 2012 brought massive destruction to the high forests of our own local wilderness – the Whitewater Baldy Complex, sparked by multiple lightning strikes that grew together to span 298,000 acres, leaving our highest peaks and ridges gray “moonscapes” where all vegetation was destroyed.

I was hiking a small peak just outside of town on a weekly basis at that point, and only a month after the start of the Wallow fire, someone deliberately set a fire that destroyed most of the vegetation on that peak. The arsonist was never identified, and I was sad to lose trees that had become my favorites, even featuring on one of my holiday cards. My local hiking buddy was so upset she refused to ever hike that peak again.

But I was still studying ecology, and I’d gradually moved beyond mourning burned habitat. Yeah, I hated to lose trees that were my friends, but stronger still was curiosity about what would come next, how nature would adapt. Don’t mourn – learn.

It wasn’t just the Southwest that was burning: huge wildfires were spreading all over the West, and I could see a pattern emerging in society. Thanks to the massive scale of our impacts, general ignorance of ecological history, and inevitable over-simplification by the media, urban dwellers were developing a habitual response to wildfire: shock, sorrow, and anger.

In 2013, the lightning-caused Silver Fire destroyed 139,000 acres of high-elevation forest in the smaller wilderness area just east of us. I’d started doing weekend hikes to a 9,000′ peak just north of town, and in 2014, human carelessness turned its back side into a moonscape. “Only” about 9 square miles were incinerated, but wildfire was getting close to home.

Then came the break we’d been hoping for – after 2013, the big Southwestern wildfires went on hiatus.

At the same time, I was losing my mobility to chronic conditions becoming acute in one body part after another. First my right hip, leading to surgery in 2015, with two years of slow recovery. Then a long-standing foot condition crippled me in 2017, followed by another two years fighting back. In between, severe lower back pain took me out of service twice a year, for weeks at a time. And beginning in 2018, rotator cuff tears in both shoulders limited my ability to navigate rough terrain and jungly habitat. I kept working to bounce back, but for years I was mostly limited to short walks, many of them on city streets near my home.

I would never take my mobility for granted again. If I ever recovered, I would return to the mountains with deep gratitude, more motivated than ever before.

Next: Learning From Wildfire

  1. michael j corbett says:

    Hi max I like your reports -but a actual phone call or letting me know you received my emails would be nice

  2. Jack Alpert says:

    Thanks Max,
    Every time we connect
    you broaden my view.

    Jack Alpert alpert@skil.org

    to our joint friends,
    Jack’s work 600 word summary

  3. Mark Norris says:

    “Long long life of trouble, few more years to go, long life of trouble dear lord, poor boy with a broken home.”
    Courtesy of the Stanley and Didactical Brothers

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