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
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 →
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 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 →
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 →