July 25, 2011 at 7:02 PM

Despite Smokey Bear, Fire is Ultimately Good

" Fire is transformative--this we know. So why is it such a shock when it happens in the forests?"

By Karen Denison

At Home Outdoors

Karen Denison is owner of Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing guide service, a former biologist, and a shameless admirer of the outdoors.

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Burn him! Burn him! BURN HIM!

Each year during Santa Fe's Fiestas, Zozobra (a.k.a. Old Man Gloom) is torched to the delight of the chanting crowd of thousands. Townspeople write their worries on scraps of paper to be stuffed inside his 40-foot tall body like reverse fortune cookie wishes. His burning is celebrated as a way of leaving behind the old and starting anew.

Fire is transformative--this we know.  So why is it such a shock when it happens in the forests?

In New Mexico, we don't have earthquakes, hurricanes, or gigantic floods to speak of--but we do have fire. And when we've got a big fire year like this one, people outside the state seem to think that everything burns to the dirt, the skies are choked with smoke, and nothing will ever look better than one of those post-apocalyptic movies with all the color drained away. In reality, we have patches that are burned thoroughly, patches that are toasted, and islands of unburned greenery. Like tile work, rather than a wall-to-wall carpet.

Fire, in fact, is really Mother Nature's way of house-cleaning. The Southwest is too dry to rot stuff away, so what's left but fire?  And come on, haven't you ever joked that your bathroom had gotten worthy of a flame-thrower?

Most of our trouble with forest fires seems to be that we think we have control of our surroundings and that we want them to stay exactly the way they are now, especially if we've built our little cabin in the woods. But the "wild" doesn't work that way. Stuff changes and sometimes in dramatic fashion.  Big fires are devastating, but the woods themselves are pretty resilient in the long term.

So just like after other big area fires like La Mesa in 1977, Dome in 1996, and Cerro Grande in 2000, life will go on after this year's Las Conchas fire.  The woods just won't look quite the same.

Photo caption: Life after the fires
Photo credit: Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing

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