By Rob Samuelsen
Back in the day of cave man and cave woman, the world changed the day that Neanderthal discovered that brontosaurus steak tasted better cooked than raw! Mankind has been trying to tame flame ever since. Today we use highly controlled fire all day long to warm our water, cook our food, heat our homes, and run our engines. The most tangible of visible mysteries to man is fire.
Humans have been hugely successful in harnessing fire with one paradoxical exception: forest fires are more severe and more numerous than ever before. In fact, humans cause 84% of forest fires because of runaway debris burning, arson, equipment use (aka hot mufflers, bullet ricochets, etc.), abandoned campfires, discarded cigarettes, and playing with matches. In fact, between 1992 and 2012, Americans experienced a stunning 1.5 million blazes in the United States, 1.2 million of them human caused. And freedom comes at a cost – Independence Day is notoriously the fieriest day of the year!
Forest fires aren’t all bad. As part of the natural process, lightning strikes have burned forests since the beginning of time thinning the forest floor, releasing nutrients to the soil, and germinating seedlings. Unfortunately, though, our recent habitat expansion has led us to excessive fire suppression policies and an unnatural buildup of fuels resulting in hotter and more dangerous fires. Lest we forget, man is part of the natural process too.
Sitting around a smoldering fire roasting marshmallows, telling ghost stories, and singing kumbaya is as American as ice cream and apple pie. Yet, as tranquil as it seems, many years ago I watched sparks from my blaze consume a nylon tent in about 30 seconds. Another time as a mischievous adolescent, I poured gasoline across the road, hid behind a bush, and ignited the fuel so I could see a car go through a wall of flame. (Not my best moment!) And as an adult, I responded to my neighbor’s urgent pleas by racing over and putting out his house fire with my fire extinguishers. In a few short minutes, a tame clinker can turn into a massive firestorm consuming all within its path!
While rafting Desolation Canyon, I watched a booming thunderbolt strike the mountainside just across the river from our beach campsite. For the next several hours I cautiously watched the fire expand as it creeped upslope from the strike point. Fortunately, by bedtime it had consumed its fuel leaving us with a smoke free view of the heavens. In the case of the Bighorn fire, the lightning-ignited cinder ignited the grass, kindling, brush, and trees which ultimately expanded to become the largest fire in Mt. Lemmon’s recorded history with over 119,000 acres being burned. Without the intervention of 1,100 hotshot firefighters, the Bighorn could have spread to the Rincons, Galiuros, and Pinalenos. One hundred years of fire suppression evaporated in six painful weeks!