The Burning Season

From Mount Charleston to Arizona, scenes from a scorched Southwest

Idling in traffic one afternoon, I watched a guy toss his lit cigarette butt out of a Dodge Ram. It lay on the hot pavement, smoke curling, throughout the red light. My mind wandered?I thought about the firefighters killed recently in a wildfire near Prescott, Arizona, and the fire that has burned more than 15,000 acres at Mount Charleston. The West is burning at twice the rate it did 40 years ago, for a slew of reasons: higher, drier temperatures, earlier snow melts, and precarious collisions of civilization and nature? like cigarettes being flicked out of cars. The light changed; I drove on. Both sides of the road were teeming with dry weeds, the kind of brush that would burn in an instant, and spread.

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They?re baby-faced men, just recruits, Clark County Fire Department trainees who have not yet been called to fight fires. Still, it?s 106 degrees outside at their training facility, and they?re sliding into 60 pounds of uniform, plus a hood and a helmet and a tank of compressed air strapped to their backs. They attack an imaginary fire atop a three-story structure. It?s scorching outside. When they get into a real fire?say, a burning house, or apartment, or wildfire?temperatures will be 300 to 1,200 degrees.

This class of recruits is set to graduate August 23. Several have already dropped out, Capt. Mario Romo says. Firefighting requires more than physical work. Fires are mental, emotional, wild.

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On a Sunday morning in mid-June, 85 firefighters responded to a three-story fire at Encantada Apartments, near Eastern and U.S. 95. More than 90 residents were displaced, and it took 85 firefighters to knock the fire out. It was, apparently, arson?a 50-year-old man who has since been charged with attempted murder.

Shortly thereafter, another man lit his church on fire. And across town, an unexplained grass fire burned down a house near McCarran. And on and on, something, or someone, causes a flame.

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When anyone is displaced by a fire in Las Vegas, at least one volunteer from the Southern Nevada chapter of the American Red Cross will be there.

On average, there?s a fire in the Valley every 23 hours. So day and night, well-trained volunteers respond to the call, drop what they?re doing and show up at smoldering apartments and houses. They meet with the displaced?people who?ve escaped, but nonetheless have watched their homes go up in smoke. The Red Cross provides victims with on-the-spot checks for hotels, clothes, food, toiletries, prescription medications, eyeglasses?whatever has been lost and is critical for moving on.

What volunteers will tell you?after they tell you about the scared, sad, shocked faces they?ve seen on old and young, on people who never expected this to happen?is that the smell of burning stucco, wood, fabric, plastic, electronics, of people?s day-to-day scenes, never leaves them. It?s a sickening, sweet odor that gets deeply woven into their clothes and hair. Remnants of other people?s misfortune come home with them.

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Nineteen firefighters died battling the wildfire in Arizona, trying to protect people?s homes. Not long before that, more than 350 homes were lost to wildfires near Colorado Springs. Recent wildfires burned in California and Northern Nevada and now Mount Charleston?some caused by lightning, others by humans, summer?s dry weeds and sunscorched trees lying in wait for the next spark.

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I get an email from Clark County?s Air Quality Department. Our air is tainted by all of the West?s fires?not just the Mount Charleston blaze, but wildfires as far away as Colorado. ?Smoke,? the message reads, ?is made of small dust particles and other pollutants that can aggravate respiratory diseases.? We?re advised to stay indoors, to avoid the remnants of tragedies near and far.

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Ecologists will tell you that fire is, in some circumstances, nature?s way of renewing certain ecosystems, churning nutrients and diversifying habitats. It?s hard to understand from our civilized context, where none of it makes sense.But several types of pine don?t shed their seeds without fire?their pine cones are covered in resin that relies on the extreme temperature of fire to melt. Only then will the cone open and distribute seeds in the wind, regenerating the forest.

That is, despite burn after burn, the species is designed to survive.