Before I moved to New Mexico, I saw it first in Iraq, where the Euphrates River winds its way across a desert, spreading just enough moisture to create a green over-line of trees, shrubs, even crops, on either bank of the stream.
In New Mexico, that greenery is known as the Bosque, Spanish for “woods”, and it’s a narrow but continuous line that wraps rivers and streams, most notably the Rio Grande. Water is scarce in the Land of Enchantment, and so is foliage and forest land like the Bosque.
Over the weekend before we recorded this conversation, a wildfire burned 98 acres of the Bosque south of Albuquerque. All it took, say fire officials, was a fool and a flame – a match or cigarette or incompletely doused campfire, and that 200-mile green line from north of Taos to south of Las Cruces now has a black hole punched in it, as obvious as a missing tooth.
2020 has been a hot, dry year across New Mexico and the American Southwest, leading climatologists to start talking again about droughts and mega-droughts. Leading wildfire-fighters are talking about tinder, about the dry brush that quickly caught and spread the heat of fire in the Bosque, or the one called Jackrabbit in Arizona which was 20 times as big. They suspect there’s a lot of tinder this year and they expect a busy season. Unlike any other. Because 2020’s fire season is part of the year of the coronavirus pandemic, of the deadly respiratory disease Covid-19.
The pandemic has been bad for almost everyone, but for the people who fight wildfires, the disease is a contrarian nightmare that complicates almost everything they do. Which means, preparations for fire season in the West have involved a re-thinking, and sometimes re-ordering of both basic fire-line tactics and fire-fighting strategies.
Elizabeth Miller is a New Mexico-based freelance journalist who writes frequently for NM in Depth. She describes her work as “writing about environmental issues, outdoor sports, and whatever other rabbit holes on science, art, and public health I fall into.”
Miller’s work has won Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies awards for environment, science, and arts reporting and Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awards for investigative and beat reporting. She received a “Next Generation Professional” grant from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and fellowships through the National Press Foundation and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Elizabeth Miller is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.