Sunday evening I stood on the second-story portal of my house in Santa Fe and looked west toward Los Alamos where smoke billowed like a mushroom cloud from the Las Conchas fire. Hours later in the darkness, the glow of the flames was so bright it looked as though the sun had got stuck on its way below the horizon. I remembered the Cerro Grande fire, 11 years ago, and something I wrote for the Week in Review of the New York Times: Chaos Theory; Harness Fire? Mother Nature Begs to Differ. Reading it again after all these years, I see that my theme was the illusion of control.
Las Conchas, where the fire is said to have begun — the specifics have been maddeningly imprecise — is near the trailhead for the East Fork of the Jemez River, a cool, shady meadowland where two friends and I had gone hiking just the week before. We had planned to hike that day to Nambe Lake in the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the opposite side of Santa Fe. But the forest there had just been closed because another fire, called the Pacheco because it was mistakenly reported to have begun in Pacheco Canyon, was burning out of control. I can see its plume from the east side of my house. I feel surrounded.
Late in the afternoon the smoke from both fires filters the light and gives everything an eerie orange cast. Doomsday, it seems, would look like this. I try not to imagine what is happening now to so many of my favorite places: The high meadows of Rancho Viejo where the Rio Capulin flows on its way to meet the Nambe. The Upper Crossing of Frijoles Canyon, one of the only places in New Mexico where I’ve seen fireflies at night. All of that appears to be burning and there is nothing I, or really anyone, can do about it.
A neighbor, fearing fallout from the fire near Los Alamos, is flying with her child to Denver and what she feels instintively is safer ground. The odds of a radioactive release appear to be vanishingly small. It is probably more likely, God forbid, that her plane would crash. As with Cerro Grande the great threat is not from a nuclear reaction but a chemical one: oxidation. It starts as an innocent spark. Fueled by the trees we love and the air we breath it consumes mountainsides and memories.