Monsoon Magic

For weeks, we have waited, hoping that the early July pattern of monsoon rain arrival would be repeated.  It did not look promising.  June was brutally hot and dry, clouds rare, winds fierce.  The scrub oaks and manzanitas have shed most of their leaves; time will tell if they will all survive this challenge.  Grasses were dry as tinder, nutritionless.  Sprouting daturas withered and died except where we gave them water.  We are the recipients of past pluvial generosity, siphoning water from underground stores without little thought of where that water has come from.  But for now, sharing a little of that water with the other creatures that share our space seems like the right thing to do, since we have taken so much from the wild already.

Water set out for the local birds and mammals was eagerly sought by both.  Our house became the oasis to which dozens of species flocked.  Quail seemed to have had a good reproduction year, as at least a half dozen broods came in daily, but what would have happened without our water subsidy?

Quail brood at water dish

Quail brood at water dish

Rufous –crowned Sparrows, Crissal Thrashers, finches, towhees, and even woodpeckers—they all drank from our little pools in apparent harmony.  Continue reading

The Hotshots & the Juniper

June 30, 2014 marks the first-year anniversary of the tragic Yarnell Hill fire that took the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots.  A day of infamy in US fire history, it has provoked abundant reflection and some action.

Twelve days before the fatal, fateful fire, another blaze, the Doce Fire, started in dense chaparral and shot northward, propelled by powerful winds.  It jumped the highway and sped up over both Little Granite Mountain and Granite Mountain itself, descending with unexpected ferocity down the north slope right up to the edge of homes in Williamson Valley.  It was a terrifying reminder of the power of nature that can overwhelm the puny efforts of humans, even with our advanced technology.  It was humbling.

There were bright spots in that human-nature conflict.  The 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshots team was aware of the ancient alligator juniper that grew in view of both mountains for centuries.  Revered and respected, that tree stood in the line of fire.  But for the intervention of the hotshots, it might today be nothing more than a lifeless, charred trunk, victim of one fire too many.  The crew saved it by creating firebreaks and by using their personal water containers to put out spot fires in its branches.  This was an act of thoughtful heroism; these men put themselves on the fire line simply to save a tree.

Ancient juniper at edge of Doce Burn

Ancient juniper at edge of Doce Burn

But it was, and still is, more than a tree—it is a symbol of resistance, of fortitude, of ancient wisdom.  Continue reading

Yarnell Revisited

Nine months after the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, the event continues to touch many of us with a rawness only slightly softened by time.  My memories remain vivid.  With thunderstorm activity developing in the Prescott area that afternoon, I grabbed my camera and headed out to the Doce Fire area south of Granite Mountain.  Fierce little rain squalls gave me subjects to explore visually.  The powdered ash deposits post-fire are very vulnerable to erosion, a step in the ecologic process I wanted to capture.

June 20, 2013 rain on burned chaparral

June 20, 2013 rain on burned chaparral

Then as a squall shifted south, I could see in the distance a column of smoke that caused my hair to rise—it appeared to me that the small town of Yarnell was on fire.  Without hesitation, I leaped into the car and shot toward Skull Valley, having to slow down once in the midst of an intense downpour.  The closer I got to Peeple’s Valley, the more my concern intensified, and I made a decision that gave me a perfect vantage point on a ridge north of the fire.  If I had continued any farther down the highway, I would have been stopped by emergency vehicles and stuck in a line of other cars prohibited from moving farther.

I remember as keenly as if it were still happening how, as I began to photograph the towering cloud of smoke, winds shifted, chilling me briefly with horizontal pellets of rain.  A small herd of horses ran north to below my position.  I continued to watch and document as the fire split into two fiery tongues—one right at Yarnell and another in rugged canyons in the Weavers to the west of the valley.  Planes and helicopters appeared as tiny insects buzzing around the periphery of the towering giant.  I watched until sunset, an eerie yellowish light bathing the entire scene, and I sensed that this would be a moment of tragic history.  Continue reading

Landscape Lunacy: Chaparral on Fire

29 June 2013.  Prescott, Arizona.  At Granite Mountain, eleven days after the eruption of the big Doce Fire, the smoke has cleared—mostly.  There are still hot pockets (inedible ones) with potential for flames to rise from the ashes and run amok again.  Mother Nature teases us with clouds trailing virga—and even a few drops of liquid that reach the ground—but the hot winds accompanying the clouds continue their mischief, and dry lightning ignites new blazes around the county.  A microburst (sorry, not an artisan brew) takes down trees in town and starts a fire.  The firefighters are still out there at the mountain, and aircraft drone overhead on their missions of attempted control.  But for most of us, the adrenalin has subsided; our fears have receded.

30 June 2013.  One of those fires started two days ago happened to be in Yarnell, and today it erupted into the disastrous fire that took the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the same folks who fought the Doce Fire and, in the process, saved the sacred ancient juniper that may have watched the comings and goings of wildfire for millennia.  I was photographing the aftermath of the Doce Fire when I saw the terrible black cloud rising to the south, so I raced down there and watched from a safe distance as the flames engaged in the chaotic dance of pyrotechnics triggered by an advancing monsoonal cell.  I heard and saw the screaming influx of ambulances and feared for the worst—but it was even worse than my greatest fears.

Two major local disasters by fire in Yavapai County within two weeks.  Sorrow and grieving for beloved Granite Mountain (clearly personified in the emotions of many) and the brave firefighters dominate discussion.

28 July 2013.  Now a month later, our wounds healing with time, we can look at the context of these fires with a bit more rationality—or at least we should.  “Don’t mess with Mother Nature” is a common phrase, and it exemplifies our tacit willingness to shift responsibility to a perceived natural deity rather than accepting an obligation to live our lives as informed citizens of Planet Earth. Continue reading

Heroes: Reflections on the Granite Mountain Hotshots

As the nation and especially the citizens of Prescott mourn the loss of 19 brave firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, we learn that this is the greatest loss of first responders since the tragedy of 9/11, when firefighters and rescue personnel, at great risk to themselves, rushed into the mayhem of the burning towers in efforts to save fellow human beings.  To lose such brave men and women is a personal loss for most of us, even if we were nowhere near the scene of catastrophe.  They would have done it for us, if we had been there.

For us—strangers.  Continue reading

Yarnell Fire

Monsoon rains hit Prescott hard today, and I thought I should check on the Dosie Fire to see if erosion were occurring.  While there witnessing heavy rain on the ash-blackened landscape, I saw a huge conflagration grow quickly to the south, and alarm bells went off in my head.  I guessed Yarnell was in trouble, so I shot south through Skull Valley.  As I approached Peeple’s Valley, the fire storm was shockingly large.  I suspected the road ahead would be closed by safety personnel, so I took the Ruger Ranch Road and walked through dense chaparral on a ridge to get a viewpoint across Peeple’s Valley.  Sure enough, the road was blocked off a half mile ahead.

Yarnell Hill Fire visible while approaching Peeple's Valley

Yarnell Hill Fire visible from north of Peeple’s Valley

I spent the next hour or two watching this massive fire morph and change like the Balrog in the depths of the mountain in Lord of the Rings.  One minute the wind would be blowing west, then suddenly it would shift south and east.  A north wind nearly blew me off the ridge. Continue reading

Drought and Dry Humor

A weather forecast of “fair” or “dry and sunny” can get away with a lot.  Rain or snow quickly call attention to themselves, but “another sunny day” can hide the cumulative stresses of drought to those of us whose technology provides us with the water and other resources we need.  The recent fires remind us how stressed the plants are—ready to burst into flame when provoked.

No one can deny the magic of water.  After months of prolonged drought, the plants are so dry that you hesitate to touch them for fear they will disintegrate in your hand.  Rub your hand over a patch of moss, and it flakes off like dust.  Lizards look parched, desiccated, skeletal.  Frogs are nothing but a vague memory.  Leaves have dropped from some of the oaks, a necessary sacrifice if they are to make it through the period of stress.

Drought is worse than it generally cracked up to be.

Drought is worse than it is generally cracked up to be.

When drought persists for months, you stop expecting rain.  Your skin cracks, your nostrils crust with blood, and there is a constant taste of salt on your lips.   The sun moves across the sky each day, and the shadows echo its passing.  Your own shadow appears less substantial, as if life everywhere has backed off, been reduced to its minimum.  Your cracked lips can barely smile at dry humor. Continue reading

Granite Mountain Ablaze

June 18, 2013.  The anniversary of my father’s birth.  A Red Flag day, according to KNAU, with hot temperatures, fierce winds, ridiculously low humidity.  Fire weather, just needing a source of ignition.

At noon I noticed a plume of smoke to the west and knew this was no “controlled burn.”  Grabbing cameras and a hat, I jumped in the Subaru and headed for Iron Springs Road, only to be turned back as soon as I got out of town.  The fire had started at Dosie Pit Road and had jumped the highway, heading for Granite Mountain.  OK, my vantage point would have to be over near Williamson Valley Road.  I could get up high on a ridge above a housing development to the west of Granite Mountain, and the view should be good there.

View west toward Granite Mt.

View west toward Granite Mt.

Sure enough, Little Granite Mountain was smoking as if she were a volcano, and a towering column of smoke curved over Granite Mountain, casting a strange orange light on its rocks.  A helicopter arrived, hovering over Granite Basin Lake as it dipped buckets of water to drop on the fiery leviathan.  Like spitting into a roaring bonfire, I thought. Continue reading

Burning Desires and Incendiary Thoughts

Horseshoe Two Fire, Chiricahuas

Hot winds batter the landscape, sucking whatever moisture they can coax from desiccated plants.  Record-breaking temperatures challenge the survival skills of wildlife, as they and we wait for the merciful monsoonal rains, should they come in a month.  We wait and watch, knowing that the first plume of smoke to rise skyward could create a blazing inferno defying our feeble but expensive efforts to limit the damage.

Arizona has endured droughts and heat waves before, but there are strong signs that human activities are exacerbating the challenges faced by the more-than-human world.   The summer of 2011 saw huge tracts of forest burn up in the Southwest.  I witnessed the dramatic Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahuas, but in a summer of exceptional fires in both Arizona and New Mexico, that one was just the tip of the melting iceberg.  That was the summer of the Wallow Fire in Arizona (largest in history), the Conchos Fire in New Mexico (also the largest recorded there), the Monument Fire in the Huachucas (which consumed the home and irreplaceable insect collections of one of my friends), and many fires in northern Mexico, where suppression was not even attempted.  More than 2.1 million acres burned, over twice the previous record set in 2006 for these two states.  Megafires.  Unprecedented.  Shocking. Continue reading

Granite Dells Partnership

An aerial perspective of Granite Dells in Prescott, Arizona, reveals a wonderland of rocks, an upthrust flowering of granite domes, ridges, and canyons, that amazes and inspires.  For years I have worked with others to help protect and educate about this special place–first through the Open Space Acquisition Committee for the city, then as one of the founders of the Granite Dells Preservation Foundation, and now as one of the principals representing members of the Granite Dells Partnership.

Granite Dells & Watson Lake

We care about this landscape Continue reading