Monday, April 23, 2012

Wild Fire

On a clear windy day, a little over a week ago, a brush fire started in the tinder-dry pine-oak woods of Eastern Long Island, not far from the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a nuclear physics machine designed to create and observe the hottest matter ever made on Earth, thousands of times hotter that the center of the sun.  The source of the fire remains under investigation.  More likely a careless cigarette butt than an escaped quark-gluon plasma, in my opinion.   

By late afternoon, smoke was visible for miles in all directions. Hundreds of volunteer fire fighters from across Long Island were working to keep the fire contained and away from the clusters of homes as the wind swept the front of the fire line eastward across sparsely populated woodlands.  First thoughts, of course, turn to friends who live downwind, with their organic garden in the woods and small flock of pastured, named chickens who supply us with eggs.  Then to their unknown neighbors, and to the countless volunteer fire fighters, who train and equip for just such occasions,  who enjoy a special camaraderie, the rare opportunity for heroism amid danger, plus a chance to dig in the sand with their expensive toys, and the unending gratitude of their neighbors.

When it is over in the morning, I read that over 1100 woodland acres have been scorched, several homes and businesses destroyed, but mostly astonished relief at how much worse it could have been,  with only a few minor injuries among the fire fighters.  After catching up on  the "where were you when..." stories with friends and acquaintances, it is time to think about mourning for the woods that feel like my own, through which I often walk to work, solitary miles of sandy paths, through pitch pine and scarlet oak, blueberry and cat brier, more likely to encounter white-tailed deer and wild turkey than a fellow walker.

Here, a foggy morning walk through these woods only a few weeks before the fire.  The leaf-litter is decorated with the foiled camouflage of ground webs,  deadly-invisible to unsuspecting insects in dry weather, but now revealed to all in a cloudy dew.   Even the architect is too embarrassed to be seen next to her luminous creation, far too visible to be functional.

The disaster tourist's urge to gawk is restrained by closed roads, continuing fire danger and police investigations for a day or two, but eventually I am drawn to the smoky devastation, to see for myself.

Failed Firebreak

Unnamed sand roads cross in the woods.
Hidden by overgrown pitch pine saplings, stands a street sign
incongruous, once red, now charred and blistered,

East Firebreak and North Firebreak
dividing four quadrants of scorched earth.

What was once pine needles, leaf litter, early spring-dormant underbrush, and a generous tangle of new windfall from last autumn's tropical storm Irene, is now monochrome black and grey, stretching to a more distant horizon, a rolling carpet of lustrous charcoal in the shapes of needles, twigs, and logs.  The standing trees are in shock. Many will survive, but for now, the needles change from unhealthy yellow-green to brown, almost as I watch.  I tell myself, these woods are made for fire.  The pines and the oaks take one more step in their battle for sunlight. And a cleansing burn of the understory is something that in retrospect, we can wish had been done more proactively throughout the pine barrens, to reduce the danger of the truly rampaging wild fire that might one day follow the fuel and wind through an area 10 times or 100 times larger, making us wonder, whose land is this, anyway?    

Our western neighbors, toward "the city", have already cleared and paved their habitat,  leaving a few parks and many lawns, but little wild land or wild fire danger, just as thoroughly as we have exterminated wolves and bears. We need not pave and exterminate, indeed we depend on these wild acres not only for their wildness, but also to recharge our wells with rainwater better than what we drain through our cesspools.  But those of us who choose to intrude on the woods must expect to be part of nature's cycles, like tenants on the fault line, or in the flood plain. 

A week later, and we've finally had a soaking rain. Roots beneath the char push out new growth and the race is on again.  The air is still heavy with damp smoke odors, but alive with territorial bird calls, pronouncing their intent to start over.