On Monday I had the chance to take a field trip with a bunch of fire experts to the edges of the Las Conchas burn area (I still can’t believe there are days I get to wear hiking boots to work!). You can hear a brief summation of the experience here, but there were so many fascinating tidbits I had to leave unspoken: the actual physics of the fire, the flooding that followed, the ways in which water and fire are inextricably connected, how the wildlife fared… You can look forward to more fire follow-ups in the next few months, primarily at Valles Caldera (with a focus on wildlife) and Bandelier (with a focus on the floods and what the future holds for visitors).
But one element I really want to touch on here is the historical/ evolutionary perspective that came up over and over again during the day-long tour. Our very first stop was at the Walatowa visitors center in Jemez, where Professor Tom Swetnam talked about a federally-funded study underway to examine the historical relationship between Jemez-dwellers and fire. It’s not like people are new to the scene around here…not even dense populations of people. And until Smokey Bear began hogging the spotlight, wildfire was an equally familiar character. So how, exactly, did that interaction play out? And what lessons can we use in reshaping our current behaviors?
We also visited archaeological sites on the mesas surrounding Bandelier, and in Frijoles Canyon itself. In the canyon, our guide pointed to a small pink flag marking the highest point of the flood waters that gushed down from above a few months after the mesa tops were denuded by fire this summer. Just above that flag was a mound: a man-made terrace that once housed a dwelling of some sort. Was it a coincidence that the level of that flag so perfectly coincided with the base of that terrace? Probably not. Had anyone paid attention to the likely purpose of that terrace before last summer? Not really.
And then there’s this: in the Valles Caldera, those same post-fire flood waters led to a serious increase of ammonia concentrations in streams and rivers. Thousands and thousands of trout, many imported from the non-fire-y wilds of Germany, floated to the surface. The native species that had evolved in the fire-y wilds of New Mexico? Unscathed.
It’s not news that humans aren’t great at learning from the past. But, wow. When did we become the trout?