I’m getting a slow start on this warm day, burdened by the awful news of 19 Hotshots killed in Arizona near a place I love and visit throughout the wintertime. The startling report is heavy on almost anyone’s mind who pays attention to the news and to the many, many fires burning throughout the West.
Yarnell Hill isn’t a commonly known geographic feature in these parts, but when I heard a CNN radio reporter mention the area while I was driving home Sunday evening, my ears perked in attention, not only at the place familiarity but at the horrific news of the lives lost.
Yarnell Hill and Glenwood Springs have a couple of similarities. They each have well-engineered highways that provide transportation routes through rough and beautiful landscapes. And now they each are locations where wildland firefighters have lost their lives in astoundingly tragic numbers. When I drive through Glenwood, I don’t think of the hot springs, the mining history, or the fancy ski resorts just around the bend. I think of the 14 courageous people who died on Storm King Mountain 19 years ago trying to protect the city below. And now I will think the same thoughts the next time I drive the back way from Prescott to Wickenburg, Ariz., where I spend a few weeks each winter.
Yarnell Hill provides a geographic step from the very hot desert floor that is a portion of the Sonoran Desert. At the bottom, saguaro, cholla and enormous prickly pear are among the colorful range of cacti that accompany palo verde and creosote brush that provide a green tinge to the drab desert. As the road climbs the hill, the landscape gives way to grasses that provide range for Arizona’s legendary cattle ranches. Temperatures drop substantially, and the hilltop provides a respite from the oppressive elements.
But Yarnell is anything but a respite right now. Homes burned. Thousands of acres torched. This is a dry land that bespeaks the state’s name: arid zone. Utah’s given name is of Native American origin, but it is an arid zone, too, at risk of inferno as much as any place in the Intermountain West. In neighboring Colorado, property losses to fire are breaking records. Our weather conditions and our forecast are a hot drought.
The flitting, floating tamarisk beetles bring my mind back to my little backyard, where a bird bath provides drinks for finches, ravens, camp robbers and ground squirrels. Sometimes lizards and bull snakes too. The flying beetles will swarm for a few weeks, devouring the pesky, thirsty riverside shrubs until the trees look dead. But the bugs will go dormant and disappear in late summer with just enough of the growing season left for the mighty tamarisk to green up again before frost.
There’s a lot of dead, dying and dry fuel along the waterways in and around Moab; certainly enough to devastate our community if it caught fire. It’s lightning and fireworks season this month, with the Fourth of July, 24th of July (Utah’s Pioneer Day) and the monsoons poised to create sparks in the air. I will hope, as I do every year, that nothing catches fire around here. And I will watch the news with a heavy heart for the devastation that is being wrought all around us.