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Westward to West Fork #2

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New Mexico’s Plantlife

One of the many reasons I pursued a job in wild land firefighting was my immense love for the natural world. I especially enjoy the tiny details and patterns I find in the flora and other natural micro elements. Now I am not a policy level conservationist or scientist and cannot say for sure that every decision they make is best for environment and I doubt anyone can ever be 100% sure. But I do believe that many Forest Service employees are fully dedicated to the long term protection of the public lands they are responsible for. I felt like I played a small part in protecting the land through firefighting. The saying “cannot see the forest for the trees” is an interesting one, where one focuses on details too much to see the overall picture…personally, I hope you see the forest for more than the trees alone (despite their obvious immense importance). I hope you take the time to notice the tiniest details that makeup the complexities and the relationships between elements within the natural world, be they mountainous or minuscule.

Here are just a few of the plants I encountered over the course of the month.

Cholla Cactus

4

Water Sources Seen in NM

16

Bowls/Cups/Spoons Carved

87

Miles Run in NM

357

Approx # Trees I Cut in NM

Digging Line

Thankfully we didn’t have to dig as much line as in later in the season, but when we did dig we sure did work our new-to-NM butts off.

Time Spent Photographing

Even though I brought my camera most days, the work didn’t allow for a lot of time to photograph. I was grateful for the ones I was able to get. Sadly I cannot show you how difficult the work was, since safely operating a chainsaw and camera at the same time is impossible.

Dumbstruck at seeing a Mountain Lion

Even though it was a brief sighting and my camera was buried in the back of the truck, I was in total awe at its size and immediately had a wave of fear creep through me, despite being safe in a two ton truck.

Hard Work!

    Lest you believe that working for the Forest Service is a piece of cake, let me illustrate a few of the backbreaking and painstaking projects we completed in NM. Yes it’s true we didn’t have a  fire to fight while there, but we didn’t know that at the time. Even after long project days we knew we had to be prepared for multi-day, grueling firefighting that might last for weeks. To start off, I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in a single day as I did while working in NM. The sweat wasn’t marked by how much it dripped but rather the lack of dripping: by the salty, crusty feeling of sweat on sweat, dried and caking your whole body. I had minor shoulder and back rashes from where my pack would rub on the salty residue of sweat. Also it was June, and it wasn’t even the heat of the summer in NM, I can’t even imagine the hotter months! It was a packed month though, with about five projects that I can remember. We had fuel samples to collect from a specific part of the Cibola NF to keep the fire hazard data current, two control burn projects to prep, a fence to tear down and construct with freshly hewn aspens, roads to clear and consistent patrolling between and during each project. Let’s also not forget that almost all of this is being done with a 35-55lb pack on.

    One burn project involved cutting specific types and sizes of trees within a hundred yards of a road and then over a hill off-road. We used the road as a existing fire line for a few miles but once we went off road we had to dig our own line. I remember the hand dug line to be between 3-6 miles. Digging line can be relatively easy (like when all you need is a Mcleod to rake up super shallow rooted plants) or it can be like trying to knock down a brick wall with a spoon (like when you have miles of attacking beastly beargrass roots that run deep and bounce sharp axes away like they are nothing). We spent a good twelve days on just that one project, making sure that all the prescriptions of the burn plan were perfectly executed and ready for the local crew to burn in after monsoon season when it was safe.

There are many different types of burn projects and the makeup of their specific prescriptions is way above my pay grade. Yet, for every project we had to go over the prescription daily and emphatically. This is a super simplistic version of the prescriptions but some of the detailed themes were as follows:

  • Size and area of the project + special exceptions.
  • Roles of everyone involved: team and individual roles.
  • Evacuation plan and transportation plan.

Trees to fell:

    • By type/species:
    • By diameter:
    • By living or dead
    • By hazard level

Felled material dispersal:

  • How thick to cut each section.
  • Whether stacking in burn piles or spreading out.
  • Dimensions of burn piles if not dispersing material

Sawyer Work

I spent a lot of my time in NM practicing my sawyer skills. The importance of knowing how to fell a tree quickly but most importantly, safely, is paramount to wild land  firefighting work. Also, when done properly, felling trees (especially big ones) is super gratifying.

Time Spent Dreaming of Pie Town

No matter what I was doing, the prospect of visiting Pie Town was always a vivid daydream. Although we only went twice our whole time there, it was heavenly and scrumptious.

Amount of Group Workouts

Though I usually enjoy working out alone, running the trails with crew members was a great time to push my limits. Summiting the mountain above Magdalena was my favorite route and there were several loops, one which took you through a cattle pasture.

Same Mountain | Different Day

Standing atop a monolith of sandstone, I felt as lonely yet kingly as a island in the ocean. The irony being that I was in a desert. Even though these junipers stood five times taller than those in Montana, they seemed little more than ripples in a tsunami from my high perch. I thought I knew “Big Sky” coming from MT, but this was something entirely new. Distant sandstone giant formations seemed too smooth and ethereal, I couldn’t help but anthropomorphize them. They seemed like surreal sculptures created by juvenile potters with play-dough.

Pie Town, NM

Pie Town is a great little stop for anyone who loves a good pie, which let’s be honest, should be everyone. This town was on the edge of our district though so we were only able to make it out there twice. If you’re a fan of spicy food, or want to pay homage to the local flare, you’ve got to try the apple + chile pepper pie. Do yourself a flavor and stop in!

Fire Lookouts: Epic Community

One amazing element of my season as a firefighter was meeting the intense yet immensely kind community of fire lookouts. A subculture in their own rite, they have an incredible closeness despite their remoteness from one another. I will do a much longer piece on the fire lookouts of our home district. Yet we did get to meet the lookout on Mount Withington NM, and he only further confirmed my belief that lookouts have a deep sense of community and care for people, despite their hermit-like tendencies and lifestyle. The patience he had with what must have been his 400th visiting crew was immense. He made you feel as if you were the first and most important visitor he had ever had. Despite the simplicity of his lodging, you could tell that every single object had an important role and place. Everything fulfilled an intentional part of his life atop this remote mountain. While you could drive to this lookout, it took hours to get to the closest store and leaving was a special event. Visitors are welcome, so go visit with the lookout and see what it’s like to live on top of the world in New Mexico.

The Very Large Array is one of the most impressive scientific facilities I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. The VLA is the most versatile, widely-used radio telescope in the world. It maps large-scale structures of gas and molecular clouds and pinpoints ejections of plasma from supermassive black holes. It is the world’s first color camera for radio astronomy. VLA has 27 active antenna dishes, every one of the 230 ton antennas can be moved to different locations by transporter. This lets astronomers place them in several configurations. They can be clustered together within 0.6 miles wide, or spread across a diameter of 22 miles. Each antenna is 82′ in diameter. Through its use, scientists have made many major discoveries.

Horned Lizard

These special little Horned lizards (or often called toads) were found all over the district and I was impressed by their camouflage and agility. Though I never saw it, one of their notable defense mechanisms is to squirt a slightly venomous blood concoction at their predators. Coming out of their eyes and reaching up to 5 ft away, I for one am glad I didn’t witness this bloody defense. Despite Federal protection efforts, all 22 species of Horned Lizards are dying off at up to 10,000 times their historic extinction rate, greatly due to human influences.

Cibola Chapter's End

In the end, our roll down to the Cibola National Forest was an amazing opportunity to learn how different districts operated and how much camaraderie there is across the country. Our district had developed a relationship with theirs over the last 5+ years and I saw firsthand how important that relationship was to the growth and abilities of both our districts.

After weeks of working in and exploring NM, I have the utmost respect for the farmers, ranchers and others working with such a wild and dry land. Even without asking about their sustainability practices, I can only imagine that with such sparse resources, anyone hoping to be successful must seek sustainability. And beyond modern agriculture, it goes well beyond my understanding to comprehend how the native tribes lived in such a harsh environment (or what seems harsh to me).

Just from personal observations, I learned to appreciate the diverse and delicate ecosystem of the Southwest. Not until the end of this trip did I fully appreciated the unique properties of each section in the desert and island ranges of the Cibola NF. Then I begin to truly see the nuanced but often stark differences. What seemed like just a subtle change in mineral formations or forest and flora makeup, was actually paramount in its difference to the seamless function of these fragile yet equally resilient environments. Next time I come back, I hope to have read more on the local ecosystems and how people are sustainably managing their lands, whether farmer or forest firefighter.

The Classic "Parking Lot Watermelon Vendor Hat"

See You Next Time!
On the West Fork Ranger District, Montana