Saturday, June 4, 2011

Earth, Wind, and Fire: Struggles with gardening and wildfire

     Over Memorial Day weekend, Bruce and I made a command decision that our seedlings, which have been growing wildly and becoming rather high-maintenance, had to get into the ground. Period. They were getting too "leggy," turning slightly yellow at the leaf-tips, and generally becoming a pain. That Saturday, however, it was really windy. People who don't live in northern Arizona don't understand what that means. I'm talking seriously windy, red-flag alerts, 30-40 mph sustained, gusts up to 50 mph, etc etc. Common for our spring weather, but generally these winds subside by Memorial Day, certainly by June. Not this year. We put off planting on Saturday, knowing that these leggy babies would be blown over and dead within an hour. Sunday, the wind was worse. Again we waited. Monday, well, that was it. The wind did subside a bit, and we got everything in the ground, and propped up the leggiest of them with pipe cleaners.
     We were quite excited, our garden was basically planted!!! After months of preparation, we were ready to go. Snap peas, pole beans, zucchini, yellow squash, butternet squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers were carefully tucked into the ground, watered, and fertilized. These would be added to our already-planted radishes, carrots, beets, spinach, and lettuce, which had started to sprout:
Spinach! Grow baby grow!
     Monday night rolled around, and sure enough, it got down to 30 degrees. The next day, panicked, we apprehensively tiptoed to the garden, but it appeared that most everything made it through. Over the rest of this past week, however, the wind never subsided, and perhaps combined with that touch of freezing weather, most of our snap peas are gone, several pole beans, nearly all of our cucumbers (we're down to two or three out of 11), most of our yellow squash, and most of our zucchini. Gone. I'm too sad to even take pictures! Suffice it to say, I had to rocket around town visiting anywhere that has plants, and picked up a few each of zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumber. We'll be planting our snap peas directly from seed, which we still have, and we have some last germinating pole beans we'll use to fill in the gaps. But again, we must wait; the winds have not subsided in the least and we're beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as TMW syndrome (Too Much Wind); didn't pioneers go nuts in Kansas because of the wind? Is there a pill I can take? Needless to say, we're a little sad to see that our seedling experiment just didn't quite work out.

     Over this same windy Memorial Day weekend, a couple campers tenting out in the Bear Wallow Wilderness of the Apache National Forest, east of our home, started a campfire. While it was a red-flag warning day, the Forest eased up on campfire restrictions for the weekend, probably assuming that most people would use their heads and perhaps be extra cautious about managing their fires. Bad assumption; never assume people actually think about what they do. These campers left their fire smoldering in the morning, and took off on a hike. From that brainless action, the Wallow Fire kicked in gear on Sunday, May 30. As of June 4, it is now the 3rd largest wildfire in Arizona history (our 2002 Rodeo-Chediski, to the west of us, was the largest). This fire has hit both Bruce and I harder than the R-C, even though the R-C came within about 10 miles of our house and we experienced the mandatory evacuation that others are now going through. 

     It's hit us hard because the Wallow Fire is burning in probably the most scenic spot in our White Mountains--and one of the most scenic places in the state. Mixed-conifer forests, creeks, meadows, rolling mountains--all are a welcome respite to not only desert-dwellers who come up here by the thousands each weekend to cool off, but also to the people who live here year-round. Williamson Valley, Mount Baldy, the West and East Forks of the Black River as they flow through canyons packed with spruces, aspens, and is, or I should say was, just plain gorgeous. Even more so given that most people have no clue a place like this exists in Arizona of all places. Almost every Arizonan who has lived here for any good length of time has memories of fishing, camping, and hiking in the Alpine/Hannagan Meadow areas. And now, this special place has been consumed by one of the most intense wildfires ever experienced in Arizona. To date, nearly a week later, there is no containment, and the fire is anticipated to possibly make it into Greer, get to Mt. Escudilla, and points north and eastward. People in Albuquerque and even Colorado Springs are experiencing smoke from this fire. If you want to take a look at some eye-opening photos, visit Wallow fire pics.    
     Bruce reports from his work connections that at least two, now possibly three, wolf dens with pups who had not yet been weaned have been burned over. Wild-born wolf pups are the key to a successful Mexican gray wolf reintroduction, and this is a major hit. Nesting songbirds and raptors likely lost all their young; it's still too early for birds to have fledged. To say nothing of their nesting habitat, which has now been decimated for the foreseeable future.

     It has been depressing to say the least. To my friends I know fighting this fire, I say thank you and please stay safe. It's amazing how we all pull together at times like this, too. Several towns are offering their school gyms as Red Cross shelters. County fairgrounds and other areas have opened up their facilities for people to bring livestock, horses, and other pets, where they will receive free food and care.

The White Mountains in the early morning mist, pre-fire
      So, between garden problems, this devastating fire, and the wind which seems to just not quit, it's been a week to ponder about disasters, our role in our world, and how much power nature has--from affecting snap pea seedlings to capitalizing on fuel loads, low humidity, and wind to become a ferocious conflagration that no human can control. I have a hole in my soul this weekend, knowing that a part of my world is forever changed; will I even want to re-visit this favorite place of mine, only to see the fire's aftermath? Who were these stupid, stupid people who couldn't douse their fire on a windy day, and now have affected so many people and creatures, including birds, wolves, elk, deer, bears, weasels, mice, fish, and countless other species that make up the fabric of our wild lands?
      To cap it off, and perhaps as a karmic ploy from our friend Fate, the next movie in our Netflix queue that arrived early this past week was "Avatar." Months ago, I added that movie to our queue, since we were probably two of only, what, 14 people in the world who hadn't seen that movie. I had no idea when it would reach the top of our queue, but here it was, showing up during our very depressing week. I guess many of you know the theme of the movie--ongoing destruction of a planet by one species and a violent takeover by said species of another planet for a natural resource they need, with no regard for the impacts to that second planet. Will we continue to make the same mistakes, over and over? I guess there will always be people who don't understand that what they do, a simple thing, maybe one that if done on any other day wouldn't have the same affect, can ripple into the history books (and not in a good way). A decision to lift fire restrictions, an unattended campfire, planting seedlings knowing their vulnerability in the wind--all lead to unintended consequences that, in the case of the Wallow fire, will last hundreds of years. Our garden will survive, and I know we'll learn from our mistakes and do things differently next year; but will the next camper learn? The next?

Wallow fire plume from Sunrise Lake
Photo by Barbara L. Davis

Wallow fire plume from A-1 Lake, approx. 40 miles away
Photo by Barbara L. Davis

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