Smoke Coming At Us

Smoke Coming At Us

The national news is talking about the Pecos fire – our latest fire. Sixty miles distant, around by the road, but only fifteen miles overland. And it’s overland that the smoke travels, directly at us so severely today that looking out my window is like looking into a swirling mist. Dry rather than damp, and much harder on the lungs, eyes, taste buds than a good wet mist would be. The smoke is not just from the Pecos fire – the one burning in the Jemez is blowing this way also, though more attenuated because it is somewhat south of us. And the Jemez fire isn’t “ours” – not close enough to threaten our immediate well-being.

The Pecos fire is the latest in a too-long series of “our” fires, stretching back to the one in 2001 that almost took my home, and did take those of three neighbors, along with the barn of another. “Our” fire, that time, burned simultaneously with the first big one to sweep through Los Alamos – so we got little attention on the news, and commensurately little outside support. The neighbor whose barn burned was out on his backhoe, scraping fire breaks around nearby homes, and working to prevent the fire from making it to a 5000 gallon propane storage tank not far behind my house. Had that gone up, an entire small community would have been blown off the map, and undoubtedly lives would have been lost.

We stopped the fire before it got to the tank. The barn, when it caught, rained flaming bits of hay and other debris down onto my property. Some thinking-to-be-wise soul had cut the electric power to our area, probably to prevent further damage if a power line went down. But in the process, we were left without access to our wells and the water that could have helped fight the fire. So I walked around with a shovel, a damped cloth over my face and wearing goggles, throwing dirt on the small fires that began to flare from the burning debris. My Scottie was with me on patrol. As we came around behind the wood garage, to a metal storage building set up on railroad ties, she began to bark frantically. I thought there might be a cat or other small animal underneath, bent down to look, and saw fire filling the open space between the first set of ties. It was inches from the garage wall, reaching hungrily for that generous supply of fuel.

In a matter of seconds I had grabbed a rake, pulled the burning grasses and bits of wood apart and away from the garage. It took close to ten minutes to get all of the material out from under the shed, covered with a layer of dirt, and more dirt thrown into the protected space where the fire had taken hold. It was another half hour of watching before I was satisfied that the danger was past. The garage abuts my home, which is also built of wood. I learned later that there had been an effort by police to evacuate the area, and knew that if I had been forced to leave, I would have had no house to return to. Rowena, the Scottie, had alerted me, so that together we could save our home.

Smoke and Fire in Sapello

Smoke and Fire in Sapello

A downed power line is what has now sparked the Pecos fire. High winds brought it down – the same high winds which, traveling farther east, became the tornadoes which have devastated parts of Oklahoma. The same high winds which now make containing the Pecos and Jemez fires so difficult, and which are suffocating us with smoky air and an almost uncontrollable sense of anxiety that the adage, “where there’s smoke there’s fire” will once again become true of our immediate surroundings. Fifteen miles isn’t far to travel for a fire pushed by fifty mile per hour winds.

Between the fire and my house lies the Gallinas watershed – the source of drinking water for the city of Las Vegas. Already on Stage 4 water restrictions (there in only one higher level) due to the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, Las Vegas will become completely dry when fire reaches the Gallinas. Yes, I used a definite tense, not the conditional. Despite the short-sightedness of the city’s mayor and some council members, there is no ‘if’ about the impending water loss, only a when. San Miguel County’s Office of Emergency Management (Las Vegas is the county seat) has done what it can to prepare for a fire along the Gallinas, and for the need to distribute trucked-in water to citizens, one gallon per person per day. But with its elected leadership not taking the situation seriously, residents of Las Vegas do not seem to understand what life will be like under those circumstances.

I’ve lived without running water – or rather, with access to running water limited to a single hour out of each twenty-four, during which time we filled storage cisterns. That was in Saigon, Vietnam, in the mid-1950s. I learned to shower by pouring a half bucket of water over myself, soaping up, and pouring the other half bucket over me to rinse off. Even that kind of “shower” is not possible with only a gallon of water, for ALL purposes, per day. And don’t forget the pets. Dogs and cats need water to survive, and they can’t get in line for a gallon from the emergency dispensing station.

Humans need water to survive. Fire needs water to be quenched. Without water, we risk dying as the result of the conflagration created – this time, in Pecos – by a failure in our electricity delivery system. Next time you buy an electric mixer, instead of deciding to mix up batter or whip cream by hand, please consider whether you are contributing to a demand that can in turn contribute to your own – or a neighbor’s – demise.

Meanwhile, I’ve shut all the doors and windows, and stripped down (we have no air conditioning) to reduce my exposure to the stuffy, scratchy-throated, itchy-lunged discomfort of inhaled smoke. I try not to wish for a shift in the wind, as that would only transfer the smoke stress to another group of people, farther up or down the road. I ask instead for the winds to fade (not likely this time of year) and for a good hard rain (even less likely).

I also envision a shift in the collective consciousness, to bring about the necessary recognition that we must move toward living more in harmony with – rather than attempted domination over – nature. Conserving water. Reducing dependence on electricity, and the fossil fuels that produce it, as well as learning to live without all the items that require transport over long distances, using fossil fuels, to reach us. Bathing from a bucket, or following the cheerful suggestion to “save water, shower with a friend.” I envision greater awareness of all the little things each of us can give – or give up – to produce an environment less prone to turn on us, one with which we can more easily live in harmony, instead of breathing smoke.
Will you join me in this?

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2 Responses to “Smoked”

  1. Ron Maltais Says:

    Your personal reflections of what day to day living entails in Northern (rural) New Mexico is touching and quite revealing. It is a story which needs to be told. Thanks for writing it and wishing you some relief from the smoke.


    • chelawriter Says:

      It’s better today, at least first thing in the morning. I believe I got the same feeling about life in drought and fire into my novel, Like Dust Devils Through a Card House.

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