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Wildfires Destroyed 'Big Chunks Of My Childhood'

Aug 12, 2013
Originally published on August 12, 2013 8:53 am
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RENE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here in Southern California, fire fighters say the Silver Fire, which forced 1800 people to evacuate is almost contained. That fire injured 10 firefighters and a mountain biker.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's one of several wildfires that have devastated the Western United States this year, including one in Colorado that was the most destructive in that state's history. And there was the Arizona fire that took the lives of 19 elite firefighters. Commentator Craig Childs is a veteran of many wildfires. He says recent fires will leave their mark on the landscape for a long time to come.

CRAIG CHILDS, BYLINE: Enormous fires have rampaged through the West over the last several years, and in them, I've lost big chunks of my childhood. There were misty morning Arizona canyons where I fished with my dad, old barns my mom used to paint sitting at her easel. They've been incinerated, everything around them blackened. Where I live in Colorado now, my children's summers are becoming choked with smoke.

When wildfires are burning, like they are now, we hear about the houses devoured in flames, about evacuations and fire crews. What we don't see are the remote moonscapes afterwards, places scorched beyond repair, where in some cases, it will be years before anything can sprout in the swirling ash. Fires have always been part of the history of the West, but you can see that history changing.

They're burning bigger and hotter, year by year. Excessively warm and dry conditions have caught up with a century of faulty fire management. Last summer, the high county of the Gila River in Southern New Mexico was consumed in a blaze. The so-called super fire caused the evacuation of several small towns. It left the place looking like a lifeless alien planet.

I've walked through those pine woods and shaded valleys in the Upper Gila. I remember the raspberries brambles that grew among boulders. Now, scrubby Junipers and sage will probably move in, a new kind of ecosystem suited to drought rather than abundance. It may be a very long wait till the raspberries come back. Several weeks after that huge fire, I went down to the Gila.

I found creeks whose forest had escaped. They still looked good, in fact downright luscious. Rains had come. Flowers and mushrooms were pushing up through fallen pine needles. It felt just like it's supposed to. But when I crossed the creek, I had to face reality. The water was black. Normally, it would be clear trout stream, but the rains had sent mudslides of fire ash into the water.

Every last fish was dead. The banks were ankle-sucking mud bars, pure black slurry mixed with charcoal. I walked out into the middle of the creek. Around my legs ran a broth of wildfire water, pieces of charcoal tapping my skin. Sometimes the fires aren't this bad and a year later, you'll see the green returning. But these super hot fires are different. Their impact is permanent.

The land is changing. Places I remember are being stripped from me, washing down the creek, past my legs, disappearing.

GREENE: That's commentator Craig Childs. His most recent book is "Apocalypse Planet: Field Guide To The Future of the Earth." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.