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Fire, Part 3: Questioning Wildfire

Saturday, January 30th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Discovering Wildfire

Wildfire in the Desert

Climate Questions

More than a hundred years ago, in 1918, the European “War to End All Wars” was ending and the worst pandemic in history – the Spanish flu – was being spread across the globe by modern innovations like steamships and railroads. Far from the hysterical news cycle of their day, a group of young men from the U.S. General Land Office, laden with surveying equipment, drove a sort of primitive SUV up a broad arroyo into the heart of one of the most remote mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert.

They were conducting a “cadastral” survey to map the surface of the earth onto a standard grid of latitude and longitude, defining the boundaries of public and private land. In addition to producing a map for public distribution, they recorded their work on the ground by placing engraved metal discs – benchmark monuments – at the intersection of “township and range” lines which would appear on the maps, providing fixed reference points between the map and the territory.

Like every European explorer who ever stuck a flag on foreign soil and claimed it for his country, these young men were furthering the European conquest of native land. Prior to the European invasion, science has shown that indigenous tribes maintained a sustainable way of life in the desert for thousands of years, adapting their lifestyle or migrating as needed, from time to time, in response to variations in climate and resource availability. In the 16th century, their arid homeland was claimed, but not settled, as part of the empire of Spain, but the only effects desert natives suffered were the secondhand stress of disease and upheaval spread from the distant Europeans through neighboring tribes on the desert’s border.

Then in the mid-19th century, the U.S., a “precious democracy” of British invaders who had conquered, slaughtered, and displaced indigenous tribes in the eastern half of the continent, attacked Mexico, a nation of Spanish invaders who had conquered, slaughtered, and displaced indigenous tribes to the south. The English-speaking white invaders won their war and claimed this desert as part of their new territory “from sea to shining sea.”

Their first objective was to “open” the new territory for white settlement and economic exploitation. The U.S. Army slaughtered and otherwise terrorized and displaced indigenous inhabitants so that white entrepreneurs could seek silver and gold, and so that wagon trails, followed by railroads, could be laid across the desert to transport white settlers to the West Coast.

The Army, the miners, and the transport workers all needed to eat, but unlike the uncivilized natives, they weren’t willing or able to harvest the desert’s bounty of wild foods. So other white entrepreneurs released cattle – a generic Old World food species uniformly imported by Europeans to all their colonies – onto this former indigenous land, establishing the first desert ranches.

How could cattle survive in a desert? What would they eat, and where would they find water? The word we use to describe this place originally meant not just an empty wasteland, but a once-productive land destroyed and ruined. Our precious democracy modeled itself on the Roman Republic, and during the Roman conquest of Britain, an indigenous chieftain was quoted as saying “they make a desert and call it peace,” the connotation being that a desert is a very bad thing. Words matter – that’s how we white Europeans first saw it, and from the safe distance of our cities and our cars passing on the Interstate, that’s how we continue to treat it – as a bad thing, an emptied wasteland we exploit by right of conquest.

By chance, from the start of the U.S. invasion until the 1890s, the Southwestern climate was fairly wet, from the lingering effects of the global “Little Ice Age.” In the desert’s eastern half – the “high desert” whose intermountain basins average 3,000′ in elevation, the first white settlers found extensive grasslands for their hungry cattle, and with the government’s encouragement, they began to “improve” natural water sources by drilling wells and installing windmills, pipes, storage tanks, and watering troughs.

The entire Southwest was suddenly stricken by severe drought in the 1890s, but by then, white settlers and their ranches were long established, and they would not give up. Nor would the miners, who cared only about the fluctuating value of underground minerals on distant urban stock markets. By a generation later, when the young surveyors of the General Land Office drove up the broad arroyo into the big interior basin of this remote, rugged mountain range, brief waves of mining activity had preceded them here. Each time, dozens of laborers temporarily settled in, hauling tons of equipment using mule trains and wagons, and dynamiting holes high in the rocky slopes. Miners built steam-powered ore mills, temporary cabins for themselves, and corrals for their mule trains. And in a year or two, when the stock market price fell, they left, abandoning most of what they brought. The mountains were now empty and quiet, but the surveyors followed the miners’ wagon trail and saw their ruins and junk scattered across distant slopes.

The surveyors began their measurements, locating the global grid lines of their imperial culture on this stolen and scarred land, placing their metal discs at the intersections. Meanwhile, in their field notes, they wrote that the floodplain of the arroyo, and the big interior valley, were covered with lush, verdant grasslands, prime country for raising cattle. Easy to call it a ruined wasteland from a distant city, hard to ignore the commercial potential when you’re walking through waist-high vegetation.

Consistent with our precious democracy’s promotion of commercial development, the report was made available to potential entrepreneurs through government offices, but only a few years after the survey, another severe drought hit the desert. It wasn’t until the 1930s, after wetter weather and more abundant grasses had returned, that the son of one of the old prospectors decided to establish a ranch in these mountains and set cattle loose in the big, quiet valley below the mines his dad had worked.

And to answer the question of how cattle can survive in a desert, it wasn’t just because grass appeared in wet years – it had to do with the cattle, too. For hundreds of years, the Spanish had carried the drought-adapted Criollo breed, from the dry province of Andalusia, across the ocean on their wooden ships and set them loose in the arid lands of the New World. They thrived, and that was the breed first introduced in these mountains.

As mentioned in Part 2 of these Dispatches, I encountered cattle here on my first visit, more than a half century later – the night we were all blinded by the smoke of an invisible wildfire. The desert was in the midst of another drought, but cattle had stayed, assisted by both natural and artificial water sources “improved” by ranchers. And after I bought this stolen and damaged land, I dug up the old survey report – still the only survey ever performed on the ground here – on microfilm at the nearest government office and brought a copy out to the desert with me. There, I tried to match visible landmarks to lines and contours on the topographic map, hiking up and down rocky slopes, looking for metal discs left 70 years earlier. As far as I could tell, there were valuable things on or near the boundaries of my land – a water well and its windmill prominent among them – and I needed to know whether they were on or off my property.

I found some of the discs – others, anchored in sand, had probably been washed away in flash floods. But I’d read the surveyors’ field notes, as I was hiking up those rocky slopes and gazing out over the desert, I kept recalling their mention of lush grasslands. I sure couldn’t see any of that now. How the hell could things change so much? Or were people from different generations and eras of our culture simply conditioned to see things differently?

Unstoppable Invasions

Two years later, I was living in Oakland, in a relationship with the love of my life. As spring approached, I heard that heavy winter rains had broken the drought in the desert. I needed to see it for myself, so I drove out in early April, to find a stream running through my land. Years of longing overcame love, and I left the girl to move to my land, live outdoors, drink the stream water, and hopefully harvest some of the desert’s new bounty. Maybe this would be my opportunity to fulfill a long-gestating dream to live like the old ones, the prehistoric Indians whose relics had inspired me, changing my life and work years earlier.

Among my first challenges were the cattle – they were literally shitting in the stream – and a Middle Eastern plant called tamarisk which had been accidentally introduced in the Southwest in the 19th century. Back then, railroads imported a non-invasive species of tamarisk, growing as trees, for windbreak, to keep sand from blowing over the tracks. But the seeds of the invasive species were inadvertently mixed in with the tree species, and immediately began spreading.

Since then, their tiny seeds had blown into every canyon in the desert. Sprouting after a brief rain, their fast-growing seedlings send roots down deep to follow the receding water table. The plants sweat out salts that poison the soil, killing off native plants and reducing biodiversity. My friends and I worked hard to eradicate them from our canyon – as did large, well-organized and funded volunteer groups around the desert. But we all quickly learned that no feasible amount or duration of effort would succeed. The seeds were everywhere, mixed into the sand by seasonal floods. Crews would need to hike into thousands of remote canyons every year, year in and year out, working for up to a week in each, just to keep up with new seedlings. That level of effort was impractical and unsustainable in any society, let alone one with as many urgent problems as ours. Cattle could easily be removed from the desert, but tamarisk never.

So no sooner had I become aware of invasive species and the problems they could cause, than I was brought up short by their irreversibility. The society that could send a man to the moon, couldn’t reverse the damage it was causing to natural habitat. Full stop.

From the beginning, I’d been hiking solo all over the nearby ridges, where my socks continuously collected the prickly seeds of foxtails, otherwise known as red brome, a Mediterranean grass accidentally introduced to the American West by Europeans in the late 19th century, like tamarisk. The thin spikes of the seed case burrow into clothing and the fur of animals like horses and cattle, where they’re dispersed across the desert, from low bajadas to the highest ridges. They were incredibly annoying and hard to remove, but it wasn’t until the Hackberry Fire of 2005 that I realized their impact on wildfire and their potential for totally destroying native habitat. How were other invasive species involved with wildfire?

Despite my decades of experience living, camping, and hiking in the desert, it wasn’t until 2019 that I became aware of an even greater invasive threat: Sahara mustard. This shrub-like annual from North Africa and the Middle East was first identified south of our desert in 1927. It began to spread during wet winters in the 1970s and 1980s, but was considered rare until 2005. The wide-branching plant dies after setting seed, providing ready fuel for the fast spread of high-intensity wildfires. During one of our group campouts, a botanist friend pointed out that our big dry wash was full of this plant I’d probably seen for years but never identified as invasive. Later when I left, I saw it all over the vast alluvial fan surrounding our mountain range. It could never be eradicated now – it was here to stay, like tamarisk and red brome a permanent part of the new habitat regime.

Deserts are defined scientifically by their average rainfall. But it was now clear to me that the average existed only in someone’s mind. What you encountered was usually going to be the exception – either extreme drought or “unusual” precipitation. Scientists say the global climate is changing, and local climates will change correspondingly. But the desert climate has always been in flux. Invasive plants spread in wet years and fuel high-intensity wildfires in dry seasons. How will that change in the future, and how will those high-intensity fires promote even more dramatic changes in habitat?

We’re told that climate change is our overriding environmental crisis. But climate change doesn’t cause the spread of invasive species. Invasive species spread due to industrially-enhanced human mobility and imperialist expansion – our “manifest destiny.” Cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes spread invasive species just as effectively regardless of whether they’re powered by fossil fuels, electricity, hydrogen, or any other technology. When we fly from region to region, from continent to continent, for family, business, or pleasure, each of us carries invisible seeds, representing up to hundreds of plant species, in our clothing. We can send a man to the moon, but we can’t stop plants from hitching a ride on us. Despite all our imagined power, we are no more in control of our world than are those plants.

Soil Crusts and the Fire Regime

We desert lovers learned long ago that the term for our favorite habitat is misleading. We know deserts as some of the most diverse living habitats on earth – the opposite of ruined wastelands. I know from personal experience that you can spend decades walking the same desert, eyes glued to the ground, and still discover new miracles.

I’d seen biological soil crusts in the desert for decades, but until 2016, I’d never really seen them, never really identified them for what they were: complex symbiotic communities of microscopic organisms, working together to stabilize the soil, mediate solar heating, regulate moisture, process and transport carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients, helping to create habitat for so-called “higher” organisms that were much more visible to us.

Once I knew what they were, I saw them everywhere and became obsessed with them. Intricate and opaque, still, silent and mysterious, they sat there like rocks, but they were constantly, invisibly at work, and when it rained, they swelled and glistened like black jewels.

What happened to them in a high-intensity wildfire, fueled by red brome or Sahara mustard? On the same trip when I discovered soil crusts, I stumbled upon the burn scar of a wildfire perhaps a decade old. Lacking both forest and deep organic soils, desert wildfires are always surface fires, burning through grass and other undergrowth. In this burn scar, I found both cattle and red brome thriving, but soil crusts had been virtually eliminated. Yucca, cholla cactus, and native shrubs had been mostly killed off. Scientists report that after a high-intensity desert wildfire, complex soil crusts are replaced by a much simpler and less productive community of bacteria.

In the scientific literature, I’d sporadically encountered the term fire regime, connoting a stable long-term pattern of wildfire specific to a local region or habitat. The pattern could be defined by frequency, intensity, size, season, or severity. As far as I could tell, there was no stable pattern, no fire regime, in my desert. Long before I’d discovered it, my desert had been brutally disturbed by Europeans, their livestock, and their accidental plant introductions. The lightning fire I’d escaped on the first visit to my land had probably spread due to invasive red brome, like the catastrophic Hackberry Fire in Round Valley.

Our native deserts, “wastelands” teeming with diverse, mysterious life, much of it still unknown to science, are in the midst of an ever-evolving new fire regime driven by the invasive species thoughtlessly introduced by our technological innovation and imperialist expansion. No one can predict how it will unfold. But in the meantime, more and more desert habitat is destroyed each year to host giant solar plants and wind farms, driven by the concern of distant city dwellers who fear the “global environmental dangers” of climate change but are ignorant of ecology and unaware that energy production on an industrial scale is ultimately nonrenewable and unsustainable, regardless of the specific technology used.

Wildfire in the Southwest

Fire Cycles, Succession, and Decomposition

In October 2011, five years after moving to New Mexico, I revisited a remote mountain range in Utah that had intrigued me for decades. The approach to its southernmost high peak is via a rough dirt road that plunges into the small canyon of an ice-cold mountain stream, then rises onto the lower slope of the distant peak’s eastern flank, with the peak looming miles ahead. Soon after emerging from the canyon onto the upper slope, I entered an old burn scar that stretched to the horizon, a spooky expanse of dead grass dotted with the blackened skeletons of juniper, pinyon pine, and mountain mahogany – the former mid-elevation forest, now populated only by ghosts.

The peak itself was blanketed with snow, revealing that its own cover of mixed-conifer forest had mostly been killed off by the fire. I hadn’t heard of this fire – the range is so remote that few even know about it, and local news doesn’t reach the wider world. When I finally reached the foot of the peak, at an elevation of 7,500′, I parked and hiked back into its foothills on an abandoned ranch trail. Rising sparsely from the slopes of the peak ahead were the pale snags of fire-killed ponderosa pine, but the trail itself was hemmed in by a dense thicket of quaking aspen seedlings ten or twelve feet tall. And when I pushed through them, hoping to climb the slope for a view out over the landscape, I was turned back again and again by impassable thickets of Gambel oak.

So this is what followed a wildfire in the mixed-conifer forests of the Southwest: thickets of oak and aspen, replacing the tall pines and firs. It was my first foray into what biologists call ecological succession – the response of a natural habitat and ecosystem to a major disturbance like wildfire. Dominant plants – the mixed-conifer forest – are eliminated, and other species – oak and aspen – “invade,” temporarily replacing the conifers in what is called stand replacement, initiating a period of “competition” in which many species jockey for position and resources until finally a new equilibrium is reached. Perhaps the end result is the same as the beginning – a “mature” mixed-conifer forest. Or maybe there will be a forest conversion – a more or less permanent loss of forest cover to shrubland and grassland.

Behind all these orderly scientific concepts is the notion of a fire cycle – as opposed to a fire regime. Whereas the regime is the pattern, the cycle implies that wildfires are not only natural, they’re repeating, in cycles, and the cycle is the time period between fires, during which ecological succession occurs.

That’s a neat, mechanistic explanation, but it was of only limited use as I fought my way up the flank of that snow-covered peak. Did those thickets actually invade – move in from outside – or were their seeds or roots already there? And if so, why didn’t the pines and firs also regenerate after the fire? If everything above ground is killed, what remains below? How exactly is the cycle renewed?

The following summer, when an arsonist killed off most of the pinyon-juniper-oak forest on the little peak I hike regularly near home, I had the opportunity to examine the beginnings of the fire cycle up close. Instead of mourning and avoiding the charred slopes like my traumatized hiking buddy, I returned to learn, to see how succulents like cactus, yucca, and agave, that store large amounts of water in their leaves and stems, can resist fire and endure charring of their extremities, to survive and thrive while trees and shrubs around them are killed off. As I kept hiking that devastated trail in the years that followed the fire, I saw how in that middle elevation between 6,000′ and 8,000′, annual wildflowers immediately filled in and blanketed the previously forested slope. A small, shaded forest had been transformed into an exposed riot of color in summertime.

Immediately after the fire, those slopes had been been stripped of all plant life and blanketed with ash. Even the exposed rocks had been scorched. Where had that blanket of wildflowers come from? Had there been seeds buried in the soil – a seed bank stored, safe from the heat directly above it, waiting under the ash for rain to germinate and renew?

I’d read that mature organic soil contains a dense, intricate network of fungi that act as intermediaries between inorganic matter – rock – and higher plants, working with other soil organisms to break down and transport nutrients for the rest of the natural community. How much of this hidden underground community is killed off by wildfire, and how much remains to begin the restoration of habitat above the surface?

On weekends, I was hiking higher peaks, where I noticed evidence of much older fires, and clues to how that habitat had responded to their disturbance. On the ascent of a ridge, at a transitional elevation where pinyon-juniper-oak forest normally gives way to mixed-conifer, an old burn scar had been colonized by a large stand of ferns. Sporadically, amid the ferns, rose a few old charred snags, all that was left of the transitional forest, and right next to the fern blanket was a thicket of aspens. But the ferns were here to stay – they turned brown and shrank to the ground in late fall, only to burst out in vivid green again in summer. Why ferns, and not oaks or aspens?

On the 8,000′ peak south of town where I’d found a pleasant open, parklike mixed-conifer forest, I noticed more and more evidence of an old fire: occasional charred stumps and snags remaining among the mature, healthy trees, which themselves had patches of charred bark around their bases. I began to realize that a low-intensity wildfire must’ve spread through this forest, killing off undergrowth and a few trees, while sparing most of the mature forest, and leaving only grass on the ground between. I realized that wildfire had actually created this pleasant, easy to navigate parklike forest.

“…during a span of two to four centuries before 1900…Intervals between fires in these forests mostly ranged from an average of only about two years in parts of northern Arizona…This pattern of frequent fires was instrumental in producing and maintaining parklike ponderosa forests with big trees and open, grassy understories…Flammulated owls in particular favor open ponderosa pine forests, and black bears sometimes hibernate in fire-carved hollows at the base of big pines…Open-growth ponderosa pines commonly features vigorous bunchgrass undergrowth, which is more accessible and nutritious than vegetation beneath other forests.” Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno, Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree

And as an artist, I was drawn to the colors and patterns evoked by fire from the canvas of burned trees. I became a connoisseur of charred bark and the patterns exposed on the sapwood of a fallen tree trunk as the dead bark falls off or is torn off by bears looking for insect larvae. I marveled at the fungi that colonized dead tree trunks and fallen logs, and the beautiful “pleasing fungus beetles” that ate the fungi. Together, the fungi and insects were processing nutrients from the once-living plant matter and releasing them for the rest of the surviving community.

Some parts of a tree, like leaves, needles, and bark, were fairly quick to decompose, but where the crown of a conifer had been burnt off, the remaining trunk often stood for decades, resisting rot like the structural lumber in your house. Like I would discover after my house fire, for a flammable material, wood can be surprisingly resistant and resilient to fire. And those standing snags, even the ones that fall within years after a fire, provide a bounty of new habitat for woodpeckers and other birds.

Forest Health

In summer 2015, during our regional hiatus between major wildfires, I suddenly began to notice isolated ponderosa pines with dying foliage amid the otherwise uniformly green mixed-conifer forests of two peaks near home. It seemed we were always in a state of drought, so I initially wondered if that was the cause. But over the next few years, the crowns of more surrounding pines turned brown until patches of forest became exposed. It had to be bark beetles.

For decades I’d read about the loss of entire forests to bark beetles, farther north in the Rockies. I was already concerned about the loss of Southwestern forests to wildfire – especially in the unique Sky Island habitats – and I assumed that trees killed by bark beetles would provide a lot more ready fuel for high-intensity wildfires. But when I mentioned the spreading die-offs to a friend, she pointed me to an article claiming that bark beetles are actually an integral part of natural ecosystems and can help cleanse the forest of weak, already unhealthy trees.

These uniform forests, dominated by only a few species, that I’d always considered monotonous and boring, were turning out to be much more complex than I’d ever guessed. They appeared simple on the surface, in a momentary snapshot, but their complexity emerged over time, as layers were exposed and communities transformed themselves in the wake of wildfire.

Next: Recovering in Burn Scars

  1. Sparky McManus says:

    ‘Now the lord can make you tumble, the lord can make you turn. The lord can make you overflow, but the lord can’t make you burn. Burn on big river burn on… Burn on big river burn on’ – R. Newman

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