Jun 172011
 

Wallow Fire Update New Mexico – June 17
Anima Sanctuary and School

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Busy as we are, we feel like we owe it to all those caring and asking, to try to post updates at least every couple of days… and especially given the sad dearth of up to date reports elsewhere.  Thank you so much for your comments, letters and support.

Update June 17th

The now infamous Wallow Fire Grows to Over 1/2 Million Acres – over 750 square miles in size – with only 33% containment… and with that containment on the heavily populated north side, while the eastern front continues to push towards and into New Mexico.

This spread is largely overlooked by the national news channels including Fox, who have reported only about fire fighting efforts “turning the corner” and Arizona residents’ relief at being allowed to return to towns like Springerville.  This is the equivalent of someone’s house being on fire, with only two thirds of the rooms continuing to blaze and flames moving outwards towards any remaining outbuildings.  The majority of our neighboring White Mountains are horribly scarred, and this weekends winds are expected to challenge the existing northeastern fire lines.

Our nearest village, the county seat of Reserve (affectionately known as “Reverse” for its archaic flair) is home to only a few hundred residents, but it now hosts over a thousand fire fighters, N.M. National Guard and state law enforcement, temporarily giving this proudly backwoods outpost the feel of a large and bustling town.  A vast array of brightly colored nylon tents fill both the Fairgrounds and our tiny county airport, our local grocery store struggles to keep food enough on the shelves for both the residents and guests, and long lines of trucks and Humvees make it difficult to get fuel.

Work to protect the N.M. pioneer town of Luna has been extensive, with a reported controlled burnout, the cutting of double fire lines around the entire community, and the stationing of fire engines at Luna residences likely to stave off its destruction even as the Wallow swells to the south of there.  It continues to be the SE quadrant that’s most worrisome, being fought hard near rural residences along Blue River, but apparently running its course unhindered further south at the Blue Primitive Area and near the Largo.  It’s from there that the smoke we see rises from, most evident in the evenings, and appearing much closer than it actually is.

Most recently, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning today due to strong expected winds and continuing low humidity: “Southwest winds are forecast from 15 to 25 mph with gusts of 35 to 45.  Critical fire weather is expected through Sunday.  The hot, dry and windy weather coupled with the drought stressed vegetation and heavy fuel loading in mixed conifer forests has the potential to create extreme fire behavior.”

More Southwest Fires Compete for Finite Resources

Locals in this area have been told that some of the fire fighters are being sent home.  Some personnel are indeed being moved out, but near as I can determine they are being moved to other new fires in the region instead.  The Horseshoe Fire continues to burn south of the Wallow near the border with Mexico, and the last week has seen the eruption of a large (mostly grass) fire near Carlsbad in the S.E. corner of New Mexico, a gigantic fire in the N.E. of the state near Raton, and the Ridge Fire in the Manzano Mountains south of Albuquerque.

Tankers Left Grounded?

Success at halting the Wallow Fire spread depends on the USFS making the S.E. quadrant a priority, and finding ways to combat it in spite of the lack roads and steep terrain.  Ground crews will undoubtedly be used to establish a line if they haven’t done so already, but questions arise not only locally but among the national fire fighting community as to why so few air resources have been employed.  The steeper the landscape, the less effective any slurry (retardant) drops are, but that doesn’t explain why there have been so few planes and so few drops other than the much appreciated heli-tankers.  I’m not sure how many of the large slurry planes are in the USFS fleet, or how many might be available on loan from the Air Force, but if only one or two have been flying the Wallow as reported, there are some questions to be answered.  Word has leaked out from within the agency that additional large planes intended for use have been left parked in Tucson due to the contractor/supplier either not having been paid or some other absurd glitch.

Whatever the number of slurry tanker planes, we can compare that number to the many thousands of strategic bombers we maintain to fight our wars.  If the forests and rural communities of this country were considered even a fraction as important as a well equipped military, we would have fleets ready to fight our fires.

The Larger Wildfire Management Problem

In the long run, we will have to move away from the many decades of total suppression, reducing the fuel load in order to replicate what would be more natural conditions, and then allowing future, less destructive, low intensity wildfires to burn.  Ecologically sensitive thinning projects are far more expensive than clearcuts, and the only market has been for the large old growth rather than for the small trees that are removed in thinning operation.   In a time when money is considered the bottom line, products from small timber like pressboard lumber will need to be developed in order to fund the work.  Intentional or managed burns are hard to accept, but we humans have been altering the environment for so long that it will require further human engineering to return it to a more natural and dynamic state.

Projected Time for Fire’s Possible Arrival At Anima Sanctuary

We remain hopeful that something will be done to halt the southeastern spread before it gets here, even as we continue working hard to prepare.  Yesterday I carefully studied previous rates of Wallow Fire expansion in our direction, and it has averaged only 1.5 miles per day.   This means that unless the eastwardly winds greatly increase, we likely have at least a whole week before any evacuation… and it could easily take twice that long to actually get here.  That’s pretty good news.

The Strain of Uncertainty

The last 2 weeks of anxiety and uncertainty have been hard on us, however, with our bodies remaining in “fight or flight” mode even when we are able to calm and quiet our minds.  I in particular, do much better in the middle of dangerous situation where there is some way for me to attempt to resolve it.  In this case, we are in many ways powerless against the fire, and decisions about what we should be doing minute to minute hinge on information that is either slow or impossible to come by.  At our Anima botanical and wildlife refuge, we were in the midst of the first “home improvements” in decades, upgrading our solar electric system for improved reliability and installing a 1600 gallon green poly tank to replace the deteriorating “trash barrels” that we have used for 35 years to collect our sole source of water… the precious, decreasing rains.  Progress on building a small wooden building around it has come to a screeching halt, of course, with the knowledge that anything we construct now has a 50% of being reduced to ashes in a week’s time.  A juniper post had been cut to help prop up Rhiannon’s treehouse she lives in, sagging a bit after years of happy use, but it’s been dragged away from here for now so as to reduce the amount of burnable material nearby.  The only laundromat in the county now is filled with fire fighters of late, resulting of huge piles of dirty clothes that may have to be packed and evacuated as they are, and Loba cutting up old flannel sheets for handkerchiefs.  When I sleep, it is with a continued sense that danger is about and I must be ready to leap up at any minute.  This, in spite of my rational mind having concluded we probably have at 7 or 8 days before it might finally get here.

Loving Help and Anima Preparations Progress

There is no way we would be as prepared as we are, or as resistant to embers, without the intense efforts of our backwoods outlaw crew, especially the very devoted Dan’l and Don.  Their idea of sending love and wishes was to set aside every other project and priority in their lives in order to be down here a large part of the last few weeks doing all they can to assist, including getting our vehicles running and running saws, hauling brush and moving our pile firewood, installing a water tank and hauling up load after load of water.  There is an illusion of trades and wages, but in reality it is us giving them things like an antique Willy’s Jeep and handmade antler handled knives, and money when we have it and they need it, simply because we care about them… and with them helping not for what they might get, but because they care about us and the land, and because they support and are a close part of the teaching and healing work that we at Anima do.

They’ve also been central in our determining the best courses of action.  Many is the night they’ve stayed up late after a day of hard labor out in the sun, in order to research and make plans regarding what we might be able to purchase, implement or devise.  And for all my brain’s obnoxious cleverness, I’m just not that good at solving problems that involve the mechanical or mathematical, relying instead on the uncanny practical sense and downhome abilities of my adopted brother Dan’l and Don our intrepid “Trail Boss”.  Thank you, fellers, and now tip those new cowboy hats we got you.

Priorities, of course, include preserving a working solar and internet system, so that we’d be able to continue our magazine and conference work even if the fire came through, and doing what we can to ensure we will still have a humble roof over our heads when as reinhabit a burned land and do what we can to help seed and heal it.  To this end, emotionally troubling thinning around the main cabin/office is thankfully complete.  Prep continues with the last clearing of long-downed wood, low branches and dead scrub within a reasonable arc.  The trees themselves will be cut down and skidded away only if the fire is impending and assured, and only at the very last minute.  It looks like a neatly tended park close to the house now (which you can be sure we all find extremely disturbing).  This is apparently the best we can do for ourselves, with the expensive aluminum structure wrap unavailable in the midst of an awful fire season and retardants said to last only a few hours.   The one exception would be a very effective water sprinkler system, drawing from the river that lies 180 yards away and 225 feet lower than our main cabins, with the use of a portable high power water pump.  Such pumps are known to be expensive, which is why we never dared consider one before.

Emergency Fire Fund and The Hoped For Pump

Thanks solely to the over 40 donations that have come in over the past 4 days – both large and small – we were able to get on the internet last night and order the pump we believe we need: a 9.5 hp Honda driven high head unit reputed to be able to push water through a small (1.5”) hose up to 340 feet, with enough pressure to operate low volume sprinklers on all sides of the main cabins.  We hope to be able to raise an additional $1000 by no later than June 21st, mostly so that Dan’l can run to Albuquerque to buy the remaining hose, pipe, fittings and sprinklers before the pump arrives via freight delivery… and of course, hopefully before the east moving front of the Wallow Fire might could it this far.

We still have measures to consider for protecting the guest cabins, and may still end up needing help replacing belongings and paying for tools and seed if the blaze burns through.  But now as we concentrate on gathering the funds for the sprinklers and high pressure hose, we just want to focus on being grateful that we may have a water pump system that we can quickly set up when this or any future wildfire approaches.

Donations to the Anima Emergency Fund can be made at:

http://animacenter.org/donate.html

-JWH

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