Wednesday, June 26, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 150



Fires ravage western states

Stuart H. Clements
Opinion Columnist

You look out over the great, vast desert paradise that you consider home and see hazy, dreary smoke clouding the normally clear and pristine sky of the Southwest.

Stars don't come out at night any more, and the soft sounds of breezes and birds are replaced by the hard, penetrating buzz of aircraft flying low.

Soon firefighters find your neighborhood and order an evacuation. You are forced to leave your home with minimal possessions and watch flames consume the home that you have loved for so many years.

Your children ask you questions for which you do not know the answers, and life goes from luxurious to desperate in a few moments, while your government fights their latest domestic war.

Terrorists have not attacked Arizona, Colorado or New Mexico, but equal if not greater damage and devastation is being perpetrated not by evil mind-melted international criminals, but by careless American citizens or Mother Nature.

Wildfires are running rampant in the Southwest and destroying forests, businesses, homes and lives.

The threat and danger of wildfires has been one that Southwestern natives have grown accustomed to and expect every year, but it is a problem that the rest of the world has found all too convenient to ignore until two years ago.

On May 10, 2000 the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico destroyed parts of the town of Los Alamos, located in the Santa Fe National Forest. Some victims had only 20 minutes to leave their homes before the flames arrived.

Ironically, the area of Los Alamos was created more than one million years ago by the eruption of the Jemez volcano, which is now dead and a major tourist attraction in New Mexico.

The reason the Los Alamos fire made national news was because of the possible damage or destruction of Los Alamos National Laboratory -- home of the Manhattan Project back in the 1940s, and still an extremely important research facility in the United States.

Fortunately, the laboratory complex suffered only minimal damage. The people of the town were not so lucky.

The Cerro Grande fire was originally a prescribed burn, but quickly went sour as it turned into a 48,000 acre blaze. However, many wildfires are started by natural causes, such as lightning fires.

In 1988, more than one million acres of forest in Yellowstone National Park went up in flames over a period of several months.

Yellowstone was a natural fire, but the current policy was that certain lightning-caused fires would be allowed to burn in the spirit of natural selection or something.

So how "natural" was Yellowstone? Only the cause of it. Bureaucracy kept it going.

This year Arizona and Colorado are seeing the brunt of wildfires popping up all over the place, but New Mexico is seeing some of its own.

One New Mexico fire sprung up near Mayhill that was started by a man who later committed suicide.

Several fires that are spreading in Colorado were also man-made; some controlled burns and some stupid people. So far, more than 350,000 acres of Colorado forest have fallen to fire season.

Not only are wildfires getting larger, but firefighters are getting harder to recruit. There is a huge shortage of willing and able firefighters right now. There are too many fires to fight with current resources.

Nevada is having a problem in some areas where there are terrible droughts, so much so there isn't any water to fight the fires.

Arizona has it the worst, however. Rodeo Fire and Chediski Fire are eating away at the countryside in Saguaro country.

Rodeo originated near Cibecue and has consumed 210,000 acres northward. More than 150 structures have been confirmed destroyed, and the fire is now visible in Show Low.

Humidity isn't getting any higher, and all that surrounds the fire is dry foliage, so there are no estimates of containment possibilities and the fire is only expected to grow.

Chediski is more than 121,340 acres and actually drove out firefighters yesterday when it quickly consumed a spike camp.

Technology and research have minimized any human loss of life. New methods of controlling fires and the use of avionics helps firefighters be more effective.

Although there is no way to keep a natural fire from sparking, there are many ways to keep man-made forest fires from ever happening.

When camping, forest visitors need to be careful and responsible. Dump dirt on fires, don't leave cigarette butts lit and always keep an eye on what you're doing.

Smokey the Bear's not the big dumb idiot people think he is. He's simply outdated. Perhaps other methods of fire education would be more effective.

Clements, sports editor of The Daily Cougar, 
can be reached at

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