My mother has lived in New Mexico for over 20 years. Every summer I get an update on the drought conditions in her state. I know that may seem like a strange topic of conversation over the phone, but she worries about fires. Most of the fires that eat up the wilderness in New Mexico are caused by lightning. A cook fire not properly doused by a camper can also be blamed. I always worry about those folks that smoke throwing their lit cigarettes out of their windows near grassy areas. Then there is the culprit that no one quite understands; the arsonist.
While reading a bit about wildfires I came across a story I had never read before. Perhaps you have heard of the Peshtigo Fire. On the 8th of October, 1871 a forest fire broke out near Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Farmers clearing land to plant by burning the ground is one theory on how it started. On this particular day a cold front blew in from the west causing strong winds to fan the flames into a maelstrom of destruction. It created a firestorm, hotter than any crematorium. When it was over an estimated 1,875 square miles of forest has been consumed, roughly the size of Rhode Island. Twelve communities had been destroyed and an accurate death count could never be determined because the records were also lost. Submerging themselves under the Peshtigo River or in wells, survivors recounted that a tornado of fire threw rail cars and houses into the air. There were also fires in several other places as well that fateful day. You might recall that the “Great Chicago” fire happened on this date as well.
More recently, a devastating fire took place in August of 2011. It is believed that two cousins left a campfire unattended and burned 538,000 acres of national forest in Arizona and Western New Mexico. The Wallow fire cost over $79 million dollars to extinguish and the loss of forest will effect that area for generations. Thousands of crews were sent to battle the blaze. With winds gusting to 50 mph, embers sparked spot fires five to seven miles away from the main fire. Thousands of firefighting crews were dispatched, working in shifts to fight 24/7 until its containment.
In 2013 there were wildfires in Texas, Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, and Washington. Yellowstone National Park suffered a quarter of million acres loss. That’s a lot of scorched earth destroyed by nature, carelessness, or a determined individual. Let’s not leave out the many hardworking people who fight to save our land either on the ground digging fire breaks, or in the air retrieving water to douse the flames and spreading fire retardant chemicals using planes and helicopters.
Here in my own state of Kansas, we have suffered drought conditions for many years. Every spring farmers will burn off old growth from their fields to make it ready for the year’s new planting. Driving through the Flint Hills at night can be an amazing sight as a controlled line of fire slowly makes its way across empty acres of farmland. It can also be just as dangerous as any forest fire when the wind blows just enough to cause concern. We should all pray for gentle life giving rain to help these drought stricken areas, and remind people to be aware of simple fire safely while enjoying the great our of doors.