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Scorched earth


I was tooling down the road to Southern Pines when I heard the news about the wildfire on the radio. A controlled burn out West had leapt the fire line and threatened the nuclear town of Los Alamos, N.M. It was the morning of my first class in fire management, and I was suddenly a little more awake.

"How'd they let it get out of control?" I wondered. The gardener in me answered my own question in the next breath: You can't control anything. Nature rules. We're just along for the ride. That lack of control is the source of the humor behind the gardener's T-shirts that say "Grow Dammit!" You can learn a few of Nature's habits, make your best preparations and then, maybe, let a garden grow, or a controlled burn combust. But you can't really control anything. Maybe that's why some pyromantics like the term "prescribed burn" better.

According to reports in the papers, the fire managers near Los Alamos had either missed the weather report or gotten the wrong one. They mistakenly lighted the fire just as conditions took a turn for the worse. I tried to imagine the feeling in the pits of their stomachs as the fire spread into neighborhoods.

What the papers don't explain is that the size of the wildfire itself indicates a large amount of fuel on the ground--dry grasses and brush: conditions that beg for some fire management to keep a lightning strike or wayward campfire from torching the place in the manner to which it's accustomed. With a long dry summer ahead of them, they probably figured it was now or never.

I pulled into Weymouth Woods State Park for my class. I passed a site that had been burned recently, and I could smell it. It was the nostalgic two-parts-sweet, one-part-worrisome smell of winter leaf burning in the town where I grew up. The ground was scorched black. Longleaf pines, tall as a house, were the only trees left alive. The pines' strategy of literally killing the competition by showering the forest floor with flammable pine needles, coating themselves with crusty, fire-resistant bark and then waiting for some agent of nature to turn up the heat worked perfectly well on this site.

Before class I walked into the burned area. The ground was black and cool to the touch. Maybe less than a week had passed since the fire. Some of the native grasses were recovering already. Green spears shot out from singed crowns that looked like bird nests. Their tolerance for fire would allow them to join the pines in reclaiming the area from invading weeds.

It hadn't occurred to me till then, but really, it seemed like somebody was gardening here, too. On a bigger scale. But at least when I garden, I don't have to worry about burning my house down.

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