The western sky was blood red when we reached Kayenta, AZ, on our way home to Flagstaff, in summer 2006. I figured that old Flag was finally burning down, as it lies in the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, a forest that will burn, ‘not if but when,’ as they say. The feeling this red sky instilled was typical of what we go through here every summer, when the dry, warm, flammable months of May and June test the metal of those who claim this town as home. It turned out Navajo Mountain was burning, a hard, long burn in a remote mountain. The fires in southwestern forests are getting larger as the years go by, in response to drier, warmer times and a century of mismanagement of fire-adapted forests. Two years ago the eastern half of the San Francisco Peaks burned … near the edge of town. I was at the Museum of Northern Arizona for an art lecture, and all of a sudden the mountain was up in smoke. Everybody congregated in the museum’s parking lot, unable to do anything but stare, both in awe and in fear…fear that this was the one.
They say that southwestern fires used to be quite different. Around Flagstaff, fires moved through pine stands every two to five years as fast moving ground fires that burned away branches, needles, debris and pine seedlings. The forests were more open, more park-like, with grasses and wildflowers filling in the spaces. After a century of fire suppression and overgrazing, it is pines that fill in the spaces now, with dense, dark, unhealthy forests.
And yet, just when you think you cannot bear another day of such anxiety, it rains, the summer monsoon storms come and change everything. The town of Flagstaff….actually all of the plants and animals and, yes, soils of the region let out a palpable sigh of relief. The risk is gone, at least for another year and the rains soak the land and all of us, too. It feels like a miracle, really, the way that nature takes such care.