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Fire Season

April 13, 2021

The late spring of 2012 offered the most memorable fire season that I can recall. That year, the various blazes in the hills around our village came right to the edge of it, and on the worst night, I kept thinking of Hieronymus Bosch’ painting of Hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights. My own photos didn’t do it justice, but my friends and I spent two hours anxiously going over our contingency plans to make a run for it with five dogs. Thankfully, we didn’t need to do this, but the flames hung around for two more days to keep us on edge and wreck our sleep.

Hieronymus’ view of the infernal fires – not a blaze-dousing chopper in sight.

This year’s fires have come early; it’s a full two months till our rains start, and there’s a fear they’ll be on the meagre side, like last year.

They’ll be enough to stop the fires, but our current problem is a water shortage. Using helicopters to put out fires on steep hillsides works brilliantly, but it needs a lot of water that we don’t have to spare. This area has been in a partial drought for several years, and if we get more fires in the rest of April and in May, we’re in trouble.

Everyone loves watching the choppers. They make enough noise, and they get close enough to the flames before dropping their loads of water and fire retardant, that they’re impressively efficient looking. And, watching them tackle the spread-out blazes above the town of Tepoztlan this afternoon, I noticed that after 40 minutes, several of the lesser fires were gone. 

They’re effective, and we enjoy the sight of the pilots becoming heroes. Flying a helicopter close to a steep cliff, into the updraft of a blaze, is a lot riskier than it sounds, and you need to know this if you fly one.

A Mexican Air Force helicopter doing a water-bombing run this morning.

Mexicans accept natural disaster as a part of life, far better than other places. Communities pull together, governments reach beyond their frequent ineptitude, and those who can’t go into the hills to beat out flames at least buy water and food for the young men who do.

Yesterday, we had four separate areas ablaze, but this evening, only one is still active, and its range is declining. But it’s a part of the yearly cycle, not an exception to it, and no-one is screaming in terror. Most of us are careful not to go too close, but otherwise, we trust the smoke tomorrow will be diminished or contained.

Various things cause the fires. A few are from humans who are too stupid not to start campfires when everything around them is bone dry, or are farmers burning off last year’s crops at a time of day when the winds can spring up. Others are caused by discarded glass bottles acting as a lens for the hot sun: today, which was very sunny, we hit 31 degrees C. Spontaneous combustion, I learned today, usually happens in tightly packed, damp vegetable material, not things like the loose piles of dry leaves all over the hills, so it might not be a factor here.

Smoke rises from various locations on the hilly ridges north of Tepoztlan.

Fire has long been one of nature’s means of renewal as much as destruction, and the fires are not necessarily tragic for this reason. Some wildlife, alas, will be lost, but the vegetated areas on the hills grow back in a year, or two at most. I’m told, by old-timers, that nobody heeded the fires much in years past, though the growth of the towns and villages means there’s more of a threat today of outlying areas of housing being destroyed. As a result, fire-fighting has become a necessary skill.

Stoicism is necessary, though. As I noted, we’re a couple of months away from full-on rains, and we don’t have an alternative right now to being patient. When you choose to come and live closer to nature, you have to accept that nature doesn’t withdraw because just you’ve arrived. Rather, nature, in all its forms, is going to come closer to you.

Featured

Fire Season

February 26, 2021

The rains were restrained last summer. I scarcely recall any of the massive downpours of other years that, the morning after the storm, would leave the village streets still running with water. Thankfully, the maize crop around here was abundant despite the lower rainfall, but now we’re facing a problem with the water table.

The first clear sign emerged a couple of weeks ago when, sitting on the combi into town, I noticed a high plume of what first looked like cumulus cloud on the hills behind the village. I quickly realised the column of smoke was swirling in motion, indicating a blazing fire. Local teams had it put out by the next day, though on the day after that, a baby version came back for an hour or two.

A photo I took in April 2012, when fires came to the edge of the village. The flames at this point, while
not visible in the photo, were less than 500 meters from the houses at the time.

Normally, forest fires round here are a risk in April or May, but the season has started early, presumably because of the dryness. 

Today, the local town declared a partial emergency, announcing that “The City Council of Tepoztlán in coordination with the forestry civic groups, citizen brigades and environmental cultural promoters of the municipality, jointly made the decision to suspend any tourist activity in the Tepozteco Natural Protected Area.” In other words, they don’t want people hiking in the hills, for fear they will light cooking fires, discard cigarettes or drop bottles that might act as lenses for sunlight.

There’s also the problem that if a fire starts, either as a result of spontaneous combustion or from a farmer burning off his fields, hikers or simple bucolic wanderers might be cut off by rapidly advancing flames and smoke, and they’ll need a rescue. This assumes, of course, that anyone knows where they are, or even if they’re missing.

These are issues that anyone who lives here soon understands. although some farmers don’t seem to learn about burning a field with the proper safeguards. People often own fields well up into the hills, some distance from habitation, and if things get out of hand, there’s no-one around to help them. I’ve often wondered if there’s any safe way to burn fields in the dry season, but the practice continues, and most farmers never start a blaze that spreads. A key thing seems to be doing it early in the morning, when there’s a little condensation on the ground, not much wind, and the heat hasn’t built up in the atmosphere. This does mean people like myself find small bits of burned maize stalks have drifted in on the wind, and are all over the patio in the late morning. Still, a broom is a powerful tool in the hands of the determined.

There’s not a great deal we can do in advance, since this is a heavily wooded area, with a great deal of dry underbrush. And fires are one of natures tools for renewing woodlands. 

Fires are, however, a fact of life here, like the occasional small earthquake. And they remind us that our ownership of land is at the mercy of nature’s whims.

Waiting on Water

May 16, 2019

This evening, it’s raining a little. Not hard enough, and maybe not long enough, but it’s a promise of the rains to come.

By August, I’ll hate the daily downpours. They make it impossible to dry washed clothes outside, they turn the hillside paths to mud-swamps and run streams down the village’s main street, and they breed bugs. But right now a real downpour would be welcome.

Fires start in the forests at this time of year from lightning strikes, from broken glass that concentrates sunlight onto dry leaves, or simply from spontaneous combustion. Outside, I can smell the smoke, and on a couple of nights, I’ve gone to bed with the choking scent of it in my room.

Tlayacapan 2019 copy.jpg

Fire burning on a hillside near Tlayacapan, May 11, 2019.

Many farmers, too, are burning their fields to clear them for planting, which makes the hills on the other side of the village sometimes invisible. In Mexico City today, the air quality was so bad they told kids to stay home from school. I don’t know if that does much, since they’re still breathing the smoky air at home, but the authorities don’t want kids running around in a playground in this. The city, remember is in a series of valleys, with forest-land to the east, and no easy exit for bad air. Several friends of mine who have asthma or other breathing problems are sounding scared.

Rains in central Mexico usually start at the beginning of June, and terminate in October. That’s not an absolute rule, and sometimes the torrents come down by late May, or hang around, as they did last year, until the end of November. But this cycle means the second half of May is a fraught time, since there have only been a few rare showers since before Christmas.

We’ve not had a terrible year for forest fires in Amatlan, like 2011, when we were planning evacuation and there were flames on the cliffs all around us. However, other communities have had to recruit teams of volunteers to put them out when they become too big, or get too close to houses. Last weekend, while visiting a friend in a nearby town, I counted eight or nine blazes on the hillsides, some of which burned out, but a few of which had to be contained.

In a couple of weeks, three or four at most, we’ll see actual rains. They’ll cool off our 28-degrees C days, remove the threat of fires and eliminate the smoke, and re-start the annual growth cycle here. But the rain that I mentioned when I began this piece has already stopped, and the evening sky is clearing. The real thing isn’t here yet.

So, we wait.