Monday, September 27, 2010

Fire Season

The end of September - the Autumnal Equinox - has brought with it a huge heat wave and fires. It seems to happen every year, this turning of the seasons from summer to I-can't-move-I'm-burning-up. Of course, I have to admit that this body of mine does not handle the heat, especially high heat with extremely low humidity, very well. Yesterday we were well over 100 with a humidity well below 15%. Add in some wind and you get the perfect recipe for wildfires.

There have been a handful since our experience here at the cottage last weekend, but none so dramatic as what I saw yesterday.

Taking the stepdaughter back to her mother, we decided to take the road through the back country. This is a treat for me as it is a little bit longer, but I love to tootle along on the two lane highway and look at the mountains and trees, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it "towns" on the side of the road, the view of the border... where we realized after we had turned past any detours back to the big freeway that there was an awful lot of smoke rising. Looking it up after returning home, there were three large fires burning out of control across the border. As we drove along we could look across the valleys and see the fire lines raging out of control across the hillsides just beyond the reach of our own firefighters on this side of the border.

In the past, this would have terrified me, knowing that we would have to continue past these raging fires where we could see no hint of organized attempts to control the flames in order to reach the relative safety of a road that would go away from this little old two lane highway. But I have been making peace with this childhood terror, and at one point we paused briefly to take advantage of a teaching moment for the stepdaughter about fire safety. We stood outside of the car, watching the firefighters watching the fire (they could do nothing to fight the fire until it crossed the border or they were invited to cross to give assistance) and in the silence of a relatively little traveled back country road we could hear the hiss and pop of the fire from a distance of a mile or more away. We were able to show the stepdaughter about how wildfires spread so rapidly, how fire likes to go uphill but is not so happy about going down, how the wind drives it forward, and how helicopters and other firefighting machinery that assists at wildfires looks and works.

As we drove home after the drop off, we looked out over the hills at the orange glow in the south and I felt a great respect for this beast. I still don't want to have one in my backyard by any means. But I feel as if this important part of our ecological development is no longer my enemy, to be greeted with fear. You see, here in this part of the world nature developed a wonderful mechanism to control the grasses and underbrush that would otherwise choke out the young seedlings of trees and hardier scrub. These grasses and underbrush that die back each year after their wet season growth burn very hot and very fast. If the environment is completely pristine with no human interference, lightning strikes or hot dry winds spark fires that rip through and consume these hot, fast burning fuels without being able to stay in any one place long enough to consume the trees and tougher scrub. As humans have moved in and shifted the balance of what grows and doesn't around our homes as well as adjusting to fight the natural fires we throw off the balance of our native burn and renew environment, setting the stage for the fires to burn longer and slower, consuming everything in their paths including the trees and scrub that used to have protection from fast moving wildfires. The firestorms that have raged across our county in past years are a result of that human interference with the natural cycle of fires.

So peace is being made between myself and wildfire. Like any wild creature it is to be respected, and I am coming to that point.

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