What we did when wildfire threatened our family
I am a casualty of the “Indian Fire” that advanced on Prescott, Ariz., May15. The fire failed to consume my house, but it turned me into a butcher.
Flames from the forest fire were three miles away when my wife, Eve, called me home. As I arrived, sunlight suddenly was swamped by smoke roiling overhead. I bolted for my bow saw and stood before the scrub oak ringing our house. For years we’d regarded these thickets as beloved companions. Little matter. I attacked, spilling sap and sweat. Oaks toppled. Chipmunks, a golden-mantled ground squirrel, rufous-sided towhees fled. Three hours later, 200 square feet of native vegetation lay in a heap.
Day two of the Indian fire dawned to 800 acres of Ponderosa pines burning. The fire was now top priority in the nation. A ground army of firefighters was ordered, supported by an air force of slurry bombers and helicopter “waterships.” We were fodder for national media that reported “the whole town could go,”that 2,000 people had been evacuated and several homes lost.
I visited a local hardware store on day three for more gloves and saw blades. An acquaintance spied my arms, lacerated by the oaks. I braced for jokes about trees fighting back, but he said with no trace of irony, “To make your place in the forest, you’ve got to knock it back.”
Strangers in line smiled sympathetically and one held up the front page of that morning’s Arizona Republic. It told a tale of two neighbors in the fire zone. One, whose home burned, said he and his wife loved the long-needled pines growing right up to their door and had been loathe to cut them. The other man swore his home was spared because earlier he hired a bulldozer to create a fat defoliation zone.
That night I looked at bleeding stumps of oak, lemonade sumac, and mountain mahogany below our bedroom window. A Gambel’s quail alarm sounded from surviving oak thickets, a response likely to a fox or coyote searching the chaparral for dinner. The creatures – they were why we had bought this house and its tiny lot on the edge of the pinon-juniper forest. Ever since, we’ve welcomed the wild, from tarantulas to a javelina that birthed twins below our window. From inside we heard their first swallows of mother’s milk.
On day four of the fire, only five homes were reported lost, with no serious injuries. There was no accounting of wildlife losses, of creatures suffocated in burrows, of fledglings roasted alive in trees.
Day five of the fire found most human evacuees back at home. T-shirts sporting the message, “I Survived the Indian Fire,” blossomed on backs across Prescott. Hot shot crews driving back into town that night were treated, rightfully, as heroes. Late that evening, Eve and I stood in our back yard, laying plans for the long fire season ahead.
Light from a crescent moon silvered serrated leaves of scrub oak. Down the canyon, we heard soft belly-drums of javelina making their way to the swatch of habitat we share. We pledged, with our extended family as witness, to maintain a thin defensive perimeter. We could cut more, but a firefighter told us that a fire roaring uphill toward us would generate winds sufficient to breach a fire break even hundreds of feet wide.
Where the oaks fell we will plant native wildflowers to provide food and shelter for pollinators, lizards and seed-eating birds. Our plan is to make a responsible commitment to our human neighbors and to the larger community of life.
We also packed our suitcases with family photos, including those of wild creatures. If fire comes before our summer rains, we will do as all other wild creatures that call this place home. We will flee, knowing that of all possessions, the most precious and portable is life itself.
Terril L. Shorb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (hcn.org). He is co-publisher of Native West Press and directs the Sustainable Community Development program at Prescott (Ariz.) College.
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