Fire on the mountain 

New Mexico faces blazes for better and worse

I have grown accustomed to stinging eyes, an itchy nose and a raw throat. Smoke is always heavy in the air, especially in the morning after cool nights have pushed it down to the deepest part of the Gila River Valley, where I live.

Despite all this, I have to confess that I take some delight in watching the progress of New Mexico's biggest wildfire, now called the Whitewater-Baldy after two lightning-caused fires merged. It is almost as if I have a front-row seat at a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

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One afternoon—perhaps the day the fire grew by a massive 60,000 acres—I noticed the light was dimming, though it was too early for the sun to be going down. I looked out a north-facing window and was sobered by a swirling, dark sky that resembled a bad bruise of purple, black and rose. The fire kept moving. By June 6, it had spread across 259,025 acres of the southwest portion of the Gila Wilderness in southwest New Mexico. Fortunately, this is a remote area where few people live.

Trained as a forest ecologist, I recently completed my red card and assisted with a prescribed fire on the Gila National Forest. I'm starting to feel like I might have missed my calling. Maybe I should be out there fighting the fire, armed with a drip torch or a Pulaski.

The day after the storm ignited the Baldy Fire, I noticed a wisp of smoke that looked almost like a cloud high above the mountains. Over the next few days, the smoke grew and I began to track the fire's daily progression online as well. Usually, not much happens in the Cliff-Gila Valley, and yesterday, a phone message from a neighbor said, "The best view of the fire is probably from our house. We propped up a ladder so we could get on the roof for a better vantage point. Come on up."

Locals have mixed feelings about the fire. We know that the piñon-juniper and ponderosa pine needs to burn, and it rarely does these days, even in the Gila National Forest, which has developed one of the most progressive fire-management programs in the nation.

Foresters prefer the kind of fires that creep along the forest floor, rousing themselves for occasional blowups that create an opening in the canopy, then returning to creep along the ground again. Low-severity fires thin trees, bring sunlight and nutrients to grasses and wildflowers, improve the resilience of the surviving trees and lower the likelihood of subsequent serious fires. Out-of-control fires that burn through the canopy leave sediment and ash that can turn rivers black, kill fish, bury frog habitat and ruin water quality for months. It can take decades for tree cover to return, and sometimes it doesn't return at all.

The Whitewater-Baldy Fire is burning in a place that I hold dear to my heart. Mogollon Creek is where I first backpacked in the Gila Wilderness. A friend and I spent the next day there, sitting on warm rock slabs by the river, alternately swimming and drying off in the sun. We also watched Gila trout dart through the crystal-clear water. I wonder now, Will the creek be clear or choked with debris when we next hike in?

Every time I return to the Gila Wilderness, I notice old fire scars. I would love to have an enormous map that shows the area's fire history. Many patches of ground in the Gila have burned not just once but several times, and recent fires, like last year's Miller Fire, are now retarding the progression of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire. The press is calling this fire "unusual" because, despite its huge size, it seems to be one of those mostly low-intensity blazes.

Meanwhile, I continue to cheer this fire on, reminding myself of the good work it is doing, leaving behind a mosaic of burn severity. The end of heavy smoke is in sight, and I'm looking forward to resuming my morning runs. I am grateful this fire is being managed in a way that will, in many places, restore the watershed to a healthier state.

We're all learning so much: how to think and talk about the complexity of fires and forest and smoke, and how to reconcile the good effects with the bad. There are so many shades of gray. Just look at the changing sky outside my window these days.

Martha Schumann Cooper is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Gila, New Mexico.

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