May 5, 2023
The weather in central Mexico is hot and dry in March. It is also hot and dry in April. And in May, too. So, when I saw the column of smoke on Wednesday evening, while I first thought the volcano was throwing an eruption party, I soon realised that the smoke was coming from close to my home, because this is the season for fires in the hills.
I was out with my two dogs for a late afternoon woof-and-sniff, and it was close to early evening when we arrived home. I was relieved to find the flames were in a valley next to the one that’s home to my village, and also a little frustrated that I didn’t have a grandstand view. I went out to take a couple of photos from a safe distance, wondered about a couple of friends who live close to where the flames seemed to be, and came home a little after sundown.
While there was a creepy red glow to be seen in the darkness, next morning there were experienced civil protection crews out, and soon, a helicopter dumping giant bags of water. This afternoon, Friday, the helicopter is still at it. And, I assume, the crews creating the fire-breaks and making sure flames don’t spread at ground level. It all made a good item on the local news, but not a lot more.
Two years ago, I was out hiking with a friend and we came to a recently burned area. I turned over some scorched leaves, and looked at a small wisp of smoke rising from them. Intrigued, I checked the underlying burned earth, which was cool on top and – ouch! – red hot an inch or two down. The fire crews had left days before, but the potential for a new flare-up was still present. Like a cigarette in an ashtray, or a stick of incense, the vegetable matter in the soil was not burning in the sense of producing flames, but it was still undergoing combustion. Forest fires look straightforward in video footage, but they are complex and dangerous things in real life.
The most impressive memory I have of fires is from 2012, when hills on two sides of our village were burning in the night. I would watch as a shrub or tree caught alight, then flared up in a blaze lasting some minutes. My friends and I debated when we would have to evacuate, and how to organise the five dogs we had, who weren’t always friendly to each other. We were five hundred yards from a spreading fire, and there was lots of dry, flammable vegetation all around our houses. In the end, the fire never descended into the village, but the threat was there.
This fire is controlled, even if it’s not giving up completely. People here don’t lose sleep over these things, and there are always lots of volunteers if things do look dicey. The rest of us chip in for bottles of water and sandwiches or tacos, and if anything, the enhanced sense of community is the main result.
For me, it isn’t the fact that our homes are under threat that’s concerning, but the sheer power nature exhibits. Fire is part of the renewal process for forests, and a month into the rainy season, most signs of its passing are erased. But a red glow in the night behind a ridge, a column of smoke hundreds of feet high or a tree going up like a torch are still things to make a person pause and remember that the parts of the world we use are really on loan, not things we truly own.