Posts Tagged ‘wildfire’

Let It Rain

April 19, 2014

It’s the end of a long, productive but tiring day and I had no idea what to write about for this week’s post.
I opened email from a dear friend, to find a single word – “rain”.

Perhaps because my last email to him announced happily that it was raining outside? For all of five minutes, it actually did rain, hard enough to be heard from inside the house.

Rain – its long absence from our lives, the urgent need for it – is on many minds. An elderly client stated that damp weather – like cold – makes her bones ache but she’d welcome the ache if it brought water for our thirsty earth.

Driving into town (I live about 15 miles out) earlier this evening, I remarked on the dusty, silted, sadly brown fields and talked about the Depression Era dust bowl with my companion. In that area of our community, on a windy day, the air is almost unbreathable, thick with topsoil being scoured from the land. Ninety plus years along, and it seems we haven’t made any progress at all toward preventing another dust bowl.

Hmm… the saying is that you attract what you give your attention to. Perhaps the problem is that too many of us have been giving attention to the drought, when what we should be doing is meditating on rain, snow, lakes, springs, moisture in all its myriad and lively forms.

Like the pond I discovered beside the road back into the mountains, en route to do an assessment with a client who lives in a tiny camper trailer on a twelve acre parcel of wooded mountain land. Several ducks floated on its surface, undisturbed by a chorus of frogs loud enough to be heard over my car’s engine. More than twenty years of living not far away from the area, and I’d never heard that the pond existed. My client informed me that it’s not a year around water, that by June it will be dry.

So think about rain. Think about all the different types of rain I’ve experienced.

The first that comes to mind is in Saigon. My usual form of transport was a cyclo-pousse (French for the combination of bicycle and push, describing a bike with a seat in front, sitting on two wheels).

Cyclo Drivers, Saigon 1957

Cyclo Drivers, Saigon 1957

The faster, noisier variety were called cyclomoto, did not have a carriage cover, and so could not enclose the rider. They were better adapted to carrying large loads.

Motocyclo - Saigon 1957

Motocyclo – Saigon 1957

During the rainy season, the cyclo driver would deploy, from behind the seat, a sort of umbrella cover to which tarps could be attached, ostensibly to keep the rider dry. You can see the cover, minus its surrounding tarp, on the central cyclo. Being enclosed did help a bit, but one still got soaked from below, as furiously fast rains pounded the pavement and rebounded up to a height of two feet or more. There was really no way to be dry if one went outdoors during the downpour. Fortunately, the rains came on a predictable cycle, gradually working their way around the twenty-four hour clock as the season progressed. One could even safely plan to hold an outdoor party at night, during the part of the season when it rained in the morning.

Any wonder that I questioned a local station’s weatherman about his use of the term monsoon for the nearly non-existent rains of the  summer season in New Mexico? Turns out the term describes patterns of air movement which, in wet countries, produce rain and which – rarely – do the same here.

Think about rain.

The British have a wonderful word – mizzle – for the thick, misty, almost-rain conditions associated with foggy London nights. I remember walking across my college campus (Swarthmore, in Eastern Pennsylvania) in a mizzle, bundled against a wet that somehow penetrated all my layers and left me dampened and chilled. There was a beauty to the campus on those wet nights, lamplight haloed by mist showing my way through the rose garden and along winding, tree lined paths. It took several cups of hot cocoa to thaw me, when I reached the warmth of the student center.

The first summer – 1990 – that I lived in my present home in Sapello, I wondered what I had done, buying a home in what felt like a flood zone. My previous residence, on eleven acres southeast of Santa Fe in the Galisteo basin, was almost 1000 feet lower in altitude, and definitely in a more desert-appearing landscape. We received the blessing of summer thunder storms during the years I lived in Galisteo. Great arcs of lightening would leap across the sky, crash into the Ortiz Mountains, and unleash water onto the prairie at a rate that could be absorbed. An occasional gully washer would plow a furrow down my drive, but was always sufficiently short-lived not to do damage.

The summer of 1990 in Sapello was different. It started raining in May and seemed not to stop, not to show the sun, not to warm enough to wear lightweight summer clothing. It rained and rained and rained. My uphill neighbor’s catch pond overflowed and sheets of water poured down across my property, overflowing the culvert and – twice – washing out my driveway completely. I had to have another neighbor come in with his backhoe to rebuild the drive, installing a larger culvert in the process. My horses’ hooves softened and began to rot, as they were unable to escape standing in sopping mud. I scrambled to create a cement pad and shelter for them, before they suffered serious harm. Try laying concrete in a persistent downpour!

Meteorologists tell us that the 90’s were an exceptionally wet period for this area, not a standard against which to rate our current situation. There certainly has not been a summer like 1990 in the past 15 years. I’m gently teased by a friend (native of a tropically wet climate) about my attention to our weather, to the condition of the prairie, to what I see on the distant skyline. He has yet to live through a wildfire summer. He tells me that a member of his church regularly petitions the congregation to pray for rain.

Please join me in a collective focus on wetness falling from the sky onto the lands of the Southwest.

In reciprocation, I will join you – if you live in the Midwest – in a collective focus on calm air and balmy days of recovery from the storms and ice of this past winter.

Together, may we find a better balance and harmony in all aspects of our lives.


PS: Between writing yesterday and posting tonight it rained, intermittently, for several twenty minute periods. The air is cool and damp, the ground moist and there are a few puddles glistening on the highway. I see no stars nor moon tonight – rain clouds hover overhead.

Dieu nous benisse. 🙂


When Life Gives You Lemons

April 13, 2014

Ah, the wonders of modern reliance on connectivity!

I had set aside an important three hours on Friday morning, to enter client assessments into the data base system on which my job relies. Guess what? Not only could I not connect, the entire system is down. The only way I can complete any aspect of my work is by telephone – calling into the IT number from time to time, to learn whether the massive problems have been solved. With several thousand employees disbursed across the large state of New Mexico, there is no way – apparently – to alert all of us to a change in status.

Disaster preparedness lessons are certainly now being scheduled.

One of my duties as a Care Coordinator is to educate the clients on my caseload about disaster preparations – to help them think through where they will go if they must evacuate, what they need to have ready to take with them, how they will have their needs met in a new location, etc. The area where I live – and across which my clients are scattered – has been in severe drought for close to ten years, with this past winter being one of the driest on record. Spring is showing in town as forsythia flowering, but looking out my window I see only the dry brown of parched end-of-summer. Driving into the nearby mountains yesterday, there was no hint of green on bare branches of scrub oak, which should already be leafed out.

Like most of my neighbors, I watched TV news of feet of snow being repeatedly dumped on the Midwest, and wondered why the prevailing winds could not let some of that moisture drop on us here, rather than sailing by, overhead. Surely the scientists who can put a man on the moon can figure out how to redirect moisture flows here on earth and distribute needed water more evenly!

When will those individuals supposedly concerned with the nation’s welfare stop bickering about the reality of climate change in the abstract, and focus instead on solving the very real problems of weather extremes being experienced right now? These extremes are causing disasters of varying sorts, every season. That is a fact, not an abstract.

Does it matter whether one believes or not that there are major, impending climate alterations for which mankind is responsible? Not at all, if the priority is to address the very real drought – and the equally real polar vortex – being experienced in different regions of our country.

Stop bickering, and just fix it, already.

Meanwhile, it’s an interesting experience to observe a huge non-profit brought virtually to a standstill for an entire day, because somehow its computer networks have failed. I don’t know as of this writing whether it’s the servers themselves, or access to the Internet, or some other issue that prevents us from emailing one another, or using any of our data base systems. I only know that it is obviously dangerous to build a service delivery system around an expectation that all information one needs to perform ones job can be accessed via the computer.

I’ve ranted here before on the limited vision of techies who build their systems in the midst of large cities with good Net access, and who then expect those of us living in the mountains and “on the frontier” to be able to use those systems. I have to admit I’m perversely glad that serious problems have arisen today right in the center of New Mexico’s largest city. Maybe now, the voices of those of us who are frontier people will be heard!

Maybe now, as well, local stores will consider making the ability to do simple arithmetic and to give change a job requirement once again. They’ve had to shut down serving customers when we’ve had power outages that turn off the cash drawer calculators. Oh, that’s right, the store’s inventory tracking is based within those calculators, and heaven forbid they make a sale that isn’t tracked. After all, doing business is about making money, not about serving customers – right?

Inability to distribute food or other essential goods because the power is off, or the computer is down – now that is a recognizably man-made disaster! No need to get into the debate about man’s contribution to the current climate extremes being experienced – just look at the many local mini-disasters we most certainly cause by ignoring the fallibility of our mechanical creations. Millions of vehicles recalled, dams that crack and flood, power grids that rupture… Haven’t we collectively figured out that if it can be built, it can fail?

No, I guess not. So today I don’t work as expected. Or rather, I will schedule extra clients to visit, collecting information in an old-fashioned, hand-written file folder. Whenever the technical problem is fixed, I’ll have a backlog of data to enter – as will many of my co-workers. I do hope the upsurge in computer usage doesn’t cause a new crash! Is that potential disaster being planned for, as the current repairs are undertaken? We’ll see.

Meanwhile, if the present computer problem isn’t fixed before Monday, I’ll actually have a whole weekend off, for the first time since January 1.
Make lemonade.
Drink lemonade.
Enjoy lemonade.

Finding Balance

June 15, 2013

Recently, two quite different groups have asked me to write articles regarding local events. One project is a report on a fun activity of the local amateur “ham” radio (ARES) community in which, on Sunday, June 23rd similar groups all around the country compete to see which one can make the highest number of successful radio contacts, from a field location and “off the grid” of power supply to the radios. San Miguel ARES will be up in the Rockies, above the village of Pecos, running radios off solar panels. ARES functions as a network of radio operators who provide backup communications in emergencies. The San Miguel group coordinates with the county’s Office of Emergency Management, to assure communications in case of wild fires or other catastrophes, more of which seem all but certain to affect us in the near future. The group provided invaluable communication service already, for the Pecos/Tres Lagunas fire. Its members are part of the county emergency planning effort, addressing in particular the concern that a wildfire in the Gallinas watershed could contaminate the water supply to the City of Las Vegas (NM, not NV!) for years to come. The Pecos wildfire (now close to complete containment) came near enough to cause a separate fire-fighting crew to be assigned to protect the watershed.

My second writing project is an essay about the impact on local farmers of the drought, and the seeming failure by the Las Vegas City Council to respond to the threat of severe water shortage. “We won’t run out of water, we never have,” as one councilman put it. Well, we’ve never been in such a severely depleted water situation at this time of year, either. Less than one inch of moisture (including the rain in early June) since the start of 2013.

The group asking for the water story began as an anti-fracking coalition in San Miguel County. I live a short mile from the border between San Miguel and Mora counties. Mora, one of the poorest counties in the state of New Mexico – one of the poorest, probably, in the nation – has recently made a name for itself by passing an outright ban on all fracking activity within its borders, despite a state law that grants oil and gas exploration extraordinary freedoms.

The San Miguel group has begun to morph into a broader coalition intent on protecting water, air and earth. It includes some of the area’s historic ‘rabble-rousers’ intent on overcoming apathy and implementing needed environmental and social protections. They have a challenging task, given the historical perspective reflected not only by the city councilman, but by the populace of the region as a whole. When you live in an area so poor that economic recession in the larger scope of the nation goes relatively unnoticed (not even the Great Depression had much impact on daily life in this area), a survivor mentality takes hold. Little is perceived as likely to alter ‘how things are’ unless or until the threat becomes so immediate (as with the effects fracking would have on Mora County) that it becomes tangible in enough lives for there to be a protest.

When groups face seeming unconcern, they tend to take a confrontational approach. Understandable, though not necessarily the route with the best chance of success. I spent the better part of a day going line by line through a twenty-plus page document, the proposed Oil and Gas Regulation for San Miguel County, finding every place where the wording was inadequate and needed to be changed in order to prevent fracking from destroying my home environment. I provided appropriate alternate wording in my edit. I handed out written copies of my work, and it took me every second of my allotted fifteen minutes of testimony to the County Commission, to specify all the changes the proposed law needs. It did not feel good to be told, by an anti-fracking group member as I stepped away from the podium, that “all I was doing was rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”

That person’s insistence that only an outright ban like the one in Mora County, was an acceptable decision, probably represents her belief that nothing short of blunt confrontation will “work” to bring about change. I, on the other hand, tend to look for a middle ground, a compromise, which achieves protections and feels like a ‘win’ for both sides. I’ve been trained that way, and perhaps – as a Libra – already oriented that way from birth. It remains to be seen, in what is shaping up to be a serious legal battle, whether Mora’s outright ban will be more or less successful than San Miguel’s pending new proposal, similar to Santa Fe County’s enacted ordinance, which tightly regulates fracking. It remains to be seen just how effective confrontational activism can be at overcoming generations – nay centuries – of a “duck your head, go quietly about your life and survive” mentality. And it remains to be seen how quickly the small San Miguel ARES group can again organize itself to be of service in an upcoming crisis.

What is certain is that both groups are addressing a serious threat to the safety and well-being of all of us in this area. I saved my home from wildfire in 2001, when we had our own conflagration, without resources to help us fight it because those resources were all focused on the larger fire around Los Alamos, burning at the same time. With power turned off, so wells were unavailable, all of us neighbors used what we had -two backhoes and a grader, rakes, shovels and huge amounts of energy – to prevent the fire from reaching a 5000 gallon propane tank. Four homes and a barn were lost, but a wider community of twenty or more families was saved.

What is equally certain is that finding a balance between wants and needs, between gaining income and saving a rural lifestyle, between “the big guys and the little guys”, between confrontation and concession, between use of or destruction of the water, air and earth upon which we all depend – finding balance is essential.


June 9, 2013

Heading up my driveway, on my way to town, I glanced toward the barn and there, nestled against the weather wood boards, were six glowing dandelion flowers. A small jolt of joy ran through me and I greeted them as I passed – and then laughed to myself as I considered the huge expense of time and money commonly directed, in other areas of the country, to the eradication of these small blossoms I was so happy to see.

Everything is relative! In my deeply drought-stricken area of the high-mountain southwest, anything that manages to flower is a delight, even what some people consider to be a pernicious, pestilential weed. Up to the morning I saw the dandelions, we had had just a smattering of rain – what here we call a six inch rain – six inches between drops when one looks at the ground upon which the moisture has settled. We had a couple of these ‘scattered showers’ over the month of May, but not enough in one place or at one time to seem to have any effect. Certainly the foresters report our mountain trees are at an all-time low level of moisture content, and ripe for continued wildfire explosions. The grasslands remain dun-colored, or silvery, where last year’s dry stems still stand. Much of my pasture, and that uphill from me, is just brown – bare earth with nothing showing. No new spring green. So those six sunny flowers are a welcome hint that the scant raindrops were not totally for naught.

Fire exploded, smoke choked, and then – miraculously – we got dumped on, hail initially, enough to make everything winter white, and then a decent rainstorm two days in a row. Because of the lack of plant life to catch the water, it turned into rivers, cutting channels in the pasture and bringing a load of silt down across my front walk from the hillside behind my house. Mud everywhere. Judging by the reaction of my dogs, glorious mud, to be splashed through and liberally distributed around their sleeping porch. It is drying and apt to become dust once again, as the weather is predicted to be once again hot and dry for the coming weeks. Maybe, just maybe, nonetheless, we may see tenacious wildflowers later in the season.

For now, I have to accept that natural color is mostly limited to what I see on the feathered visitors to my bird feeder. I’m a bit of a bird watcher, but not a bird identifier, so I can’t list the ones that visit, only note when there are new species that I haven’t seen here before. Perhaps because of the drought? At the moment the feeder is dominated by small, familiar, finch-like brown birds with red above their beaks and down their breasts. They make me aware that I have not seen robins so far this year – but have been startled to see bright Baltimore orioles, which are only occasional visitors to this area. Doves and scrub jays routinely fly in and push the smaller birds aside. Now a raven has sent the doves and jays scattering to the ground, to collect what they can find that has dropped over the edge of the feeder.

As I write, clouds are building again, and there’s at least a hint of promise they may coalesce into the dark grey which promises rain. We used to see these clouds, beginning in early July and appearing all summer. They indicated a monsoon pattern that brought us our summer rains. We’d wake to a clear, sunny sky and know we needed to do outdoor activities – go for a horseback ride, weed the garden, get laundry out on the line – finished before lunch time, when the clouds would gather and bless us with moisture. It’s been ten years or more since we’ve had to time activities to the weather. Ten years, instead, of sniffing the air for early signs of fire, of watching the sky anxiously, as wisps of white turned to grey – not wet grey but burning grey. Weeks of smoky air, damaging to breathe, forcing us to stay inside with doors and windows closed despite high daytime heat. Few homes in my area have air conditioning because we’ve been accustomed to daily breezes and cool night time temperatures to regulate the indoor atmosphere.

Maybe this season will be different? More like “it used to be”? That row of smiling mini-suns by the barn, and the rains of these past few days, suggest the possibility of a break in the drought, in the fires, in the smoke and danger and loss. It’s going to be a big year for cicadas on the East Coast. Might we hope for it to be a big year for thunder clouds and rains out here in the far-too-dry Southwest?


June 3, 2013
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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