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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

Westward to West Fork #1

By New Mexico, Westward to West Fork

Magic Magdalena

This is the first of several photo essays from my season as a Type II hand-crew wild land firefighter. Let’s start with a disclaimer; I am a complete newbie and have only one season as an entry level crew member under my belt. Compared to so many of the women and men I worked with, I hardly have a toe to stand on. Also, the season I worked, we only had a handful of fires and only one of more epic proportions. But even with such a “slow” season, it was one of the most epic seasons in my life. So, in noting my novice experience, I want to have this blog series to be more creative and expressive of some of my moments or overarching feelings of the life of a wild land firefighter. Please know that I will probably misremember some specifics and that my voice is mine alone. The crew I was a part of was certainly diverse and I’ve no doubt that many of them hold differing views of what I recount. I have mad respect for every single crew member I worked with and I hope none of these writings do a disservice to any of them. I won’t be using names unless they gave me expressed permission. It’s my hope to add my small contribution to the wild land firefighting narrative and expand the reader’s knowledge of daily firefighter work through my novel voice.

Let us saunter down to the wide wilds of Magdalena, New Mexico. Where the alligator junipers rise tall and the shadows they throw always fall short of desire. After coming from the wet, heavy fir shades of the lush northern forest floor, the scorching dry could make you want to hold onto your tears for moisture. The West Fork of the Bitterroot crew had a month-long roll (a length of time when the crew goes off district) ahead of them and anticipation was high. My only previous experience in NM was a childhood train trip on my way to Big Sur with my uncle Gary. While that trip left a subliminal desire to explore the dire environment of the Southwest, I’d forgotten just how much I wanted to encounter the unfamiliar colors and textures of the region. Not even my imaginative childhood memories prepared me for the depth of mystery I felt while living there for a month. As we departed thirty days later, I felt even more curious than the first day. The small town of Magdalena had a magic that felt intensely unique to me. Spoiler Alert! We didn’t fight any fire during our time in NM. If you’re disappointed, believe me, we were more eager and ready for fire than you are to read about it. You’ll just have to wait until the next post, or maybe the fourth one…

The Crew

         How to describe the relationship of a wild land firefighter crew? Think of a Fellowship of the Ring that was trustworthy enough to join Frodo all the way to Mount Doom. But all nerdiness aside, you pretty quickly have to trust them with your life. Yet even more intense is that they are trying to trust you with theirs. While there are many levels of leadership and responsibility, if an error by the newest member goes uncaught, it can have devastating consequences. Sometimes these errors can come from a new type of situation that even seasoned firefighters haven’t seen yet. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many checks and balances (and the amount of training is incredible,) but the gravity of each of your decisions motivates you to be a better team member every day. Let’s not sugarcoat it too much though. You don’t have to be BFFs, but you do have to develop a trust that you don’t often afford someone so new to your life. To be honest, I found it helpful to find some level of joy in each of their presences: for like it or not, they’re going to be by your side more than some spouses. But as this blog develops, you’ll get more snippets of the fire crew bonds.

Scenes from the Datils

There was a dryness there that was so pervasive and intense it would blow sand into my daydreams, unabated by my desire to return to the lush Bitterroot meadows and cool alpine lakes.

Who, What, Where...?

    So let’s just line up a few of the facts from the roll. We were stationed out of a ranger district based in the town of Magdalena, NM, but since the town was so small we were sleeping in Socorro, a 25-min drive away. It was hotel life for the month, and that was new to me. But honestly, it was just awesome to have a soft bed, a cold snack and a cool room after the long sweaty days. Every morning we started with an hour- long workout, both in NM and West Fork. Some days it was as a crew, other days on your own, but always pushing for stronger, healthier selves. How else would I be able to carry around a 40-50 lb pack while hiking intense terrain, digging line or felling trees for different projects? Our work days there consisted of about twenty-two different projects for the district and about six days of splitting the crew into three trucks and roaming the district searching for fire, trees in the road or other potential ways to help out the district. Needless to say, the district was huge and I’m not sure four years there would be enough to see all that the area had to offer! 

     There were many different segments of public land that the district was responsible for and, by extension, we were responsible for, for the month-long visit. One of our favorite areas was a small cluster of  “mountains” called the Datils. I put mountains in quotes because they were different than what I grew up calling mountains. They felt more like canyons and scrubby hills with giant slabs of sandstone to me. But, “what are men to rocks and mountains”? I am hardly the one to turn to for the exact definition of a mountain. Regardless, the landscape had a peach-like orange and pink to the mineral makeup and the Alligator Junipers were massive. Crikey they were tall and wide for the region. Best of all was the sweet relief of shade, not just dinky coverage with patches of sun breaking through, but full unbridled shadow. This was crucial to surviving the scorching heat of the Southwest. After hours of felling, swamping (moving cut logs and brush for the sawyers) and digging line, shade was second to water alone in value on hot days. One thing that I’ll never be able to romanticize is the heat. So dry I could feel my molecules reaching out for moisture of any kind. 

Alligator Juniper

5000 Points to the Datils

Sheds

One amazing treasure we found while out in the Datils was a trove of elk sheds. Sadly I never did find one myself, but the crew overall found what seemed an impossible amount, all on the same day, during a break. I was across a ravine on another ridge and for a solid fifteen minutes I heard  frequent shouts of elation from over the drainage. I was all right with not finding one, though, for in my hunt I found immense beauty and joy at the thrill of combing the land with my eyes in a new way. Even if you’d rather not “hunt” for sheds, I’d encourage you to go out with intention to find something new in nature.

“Thanks for joining this first bout into the creative forays of my season as a wild land firefighter.”

See You Next Time!