by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Taos Pueblo, N.M.
July 24, 2003
A FOREST FIRE'S LESSONS
TAOS PUEBLO, N.M., July 28, 2003 -- The competing interests of lumber, tourism, public safety, and Native American traditions all challenged firefighters this week in and around New Mexico's northernmost autonomous pueblo.
It took nearly three weeks, and up to 1,600 firefighters to bring the Taos Fire under control, with no loss of life, and little building damage, but it was a wake-up call to complacency in an are at high risk for fire. As the ski resorts, casinos, art galleries, and vacation homes of the Enchanted Circle have grown in recent years, governments and subdivisions have had to deal with years of forest management neglect. In some cases the problem resulted from mandated elimination of tree harvesting; in other cases, developers have worried more about landscaping and remote dream houses than fire equipment access and fire prevention education. "We traditionally do not interfere with nature, and view fire as a natural way of clearing brush and trees which had overgrown land," said a Taos tribal elder called "Ernesto," who lives in one room behind his adobe jewelry shop on Pueblo land. When I asked him about the place where the fire was started by a lightning strike near Blue Lake Wilderness Area, alongside New Mexico's highest peak, Mt. Wheeler, he looked puzzled.
"I don't know about that name," he said. "All I know is we call the place "Where Horses Drink," and I hike up there every week for exercise. We plant pinon trees along the ridge of all our settlements, because they slow or preventires. But this time, there was much concern when the fires came down the mountain and started to consume the pinon," he said pointing to a charred ridge about 500 yards behind his home. The fire, whipped by unusually high winds from several directions, destroyed more than 7,500 acres, and came within five miles of the resort town of Angel Fire and the small artists' hamlet of Shady Brook. Flames were within a few miles of Vice President Dick Cheney's ranch, and spewed thick white clouds of smoke 50 miles to the east, past Eagle Nest and Cimarron, to the million-acre ranch of CNN founder Ted Turner. Depending on the winds, the Plaza in central Taos was sometimes gusted over by clouds of smoke. In the old mining towns of Red River and Questa, even when skies appeared to be clear residents still dabbed at teary eyes; health warnings were issued to the elderly and those with respiratory diseases. One official in a neighboring county suggested privately that the Indians - his term - had no desire to fight the fire, stop the fire, or divert the fire. Even as flames came within a few hundred yards of the outskirts of the Pueblo, or "village," there was debate over how vigorously nature should be fought. "Someone pointed out that the Pueblo's gambling casino was a profitable commercial venture, and if the Indians did absolutely nothing to call in state and federal firefighters to extinguish the flames, and neighboring private property was destroyed, or people were killed or injured, there could be legal actions taken against the Pueblo," I was told. In any case, the Pueblo was closed to all visitors and tourists, and first a few, and then as many as 20 state and federal crews and equipment from the adjacent Carson National Forest were called in. Planes, helicopters, bulldozers, roadblocks - a full mobilization took place, with men and women wearing and hauling hot and heavy equipment in 100-plus degree heat.
"These are the heroes of our area," said a greeter at the Taos Wal-Mart, pointing to printed and homemade signs adorning many area homes and stores, for the mnost part proclaiming, "Thank You, Firefighters!" At the annual "Wings Over Angel Fire" air show and hot-air balloon festival, anyone with a fire rescue shirt or jacket was treated to food and gifts from vendors who refused to take their money. A volunteer fire chief and forest fire marshal meeting with a small group of homeowners gave a primer on the need for a resumption of some small-scale commercial lumbering; proper landscaping to keep all brush more than 30 feet from houses and wood decks, and constructions of roads and driveways which are wide enough for fire trucks to come in, do the job, and turn around to move to the next hotspot. Craig Lyman, an AIA architect, builder, and outdoorsman who has done design work and consulting with Habitat for Humanity, concurred: "Clearing the slash (downed brush and waste growth), thinning trees, and appreciation of special precautions and fire retardant construction materials are a full-time job," he said. "Some people want the rustic beauty of a shake-shingle roof, and wooden or vinyl siding materials - not understanding that we have many advanced, and often more cost-efficient building materials today which are more fire-resistant and longer lasting." Possibly as a positive offshoot of the fire, there is talk that the last commercial sawmill in Colfax County, in Cimarron, N.M., might reopen. Also, Angel Fire, with only 1,200 year-round residents, has been contacted by a specialty wood-molding company, specifically interested in cutting small-diameter trees, exactly the kind which crowd out the sky, and pack fire-prone areas with such tight growth that one report in the Taos News indicated that a fire crew "could not move through the trees." For many Americans, the annual Western and Southwest wildfires are a nine-second clip on the evening news, and a one paragraph item in the local newspaper. But for those in the areas the fires strike amid a decade-long drought, the reality of wildfires involves commerce, home, family - and life and death. "Nature usually knows best, but, sometimes - well, sometimes - we are responsible for guarding nature, and have to take some actions," explains Ernesto.
Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co., NASD, SIPC, Boca Raton, Florida.