© copyright 2003 Michael P. Hamilton, Ph.D.

No Smokey


August 3, 1996:

I awoke with the acrid smell of wood smoke in my nostrils.Glancing over at our campfire, I could see that it was completely out and that the source of the smoke came from somewhere else. Two hundred miles below the Mexican border and 90 miles into the Sierra San Pedro Martir Range, Frank and I were nearly alone in this 200,000 acre national park. Yesterday was the last day of a week of intense thunderstorms caused by a hurricane just south of Acapulco. Heavy rains and a thousand lightning bolts blanketed the region in a spectacular display of Mother Nature's fury.

After preparing breakfast, we filled our day packs with lunch and gear, adjusted our seats and chains, and headed off on mountain bikes in search of natural fire. At more than 8,000 foot elevation, the forests of the Sierra San Pedro Martir are remarkably similar to those within our San Jacinto Mountains. Tall Jeffrey Pine, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar, White Fir and Sierra Lodgepole intermix with Canyon Live Oak, suggesting to me any number of sites I've long studied within our local wilderness. The mountains of Mexico are similar to our local San Jacintos because both are part of the much larger Peninsular Mountain Range, stretching from the north face of San Jacinto Peak, to near the tip of the Baja California Peninsula.


a lightning strike set this sugar pine on fire


Less than one mile from camp I began to smell smoke again and in a short distance a visible grayish haze caused by incomplete combustion of wet wood led us directly to the source. A huge Sugar Pine standing alone in a small meadow had been repeatedly struck by lightning and was still on fire. Many ribbons of inch wide barkless strips spiraled down the 150 foot tall trunk, leading into a large charcoal-lined cavity. A person could easily stand inside the giant "cat-face," if they were inclined to tolerate the smoke and heat. Surrounding the base of the tree a ring of fire was gradually burning outward, consuming the fallen needles and cones produced in the previous year by the solitary giant. Eventually, the fire would reach the end of its fuel supply and burn out, perhaps by late afternoon, without the aid of fire truck or engine crew.


partial panoramic image of forest and chaparral ecotone in the Sierra San Pedro Martir Mountains


What fascinates me about this place is that here is a forest, beautiful in appearance, supporting healthy trees and diverse wildlife, because fire remains a natural part of the ecosystem. The Mexican government, for practical reasons, has not implemented a policy of putting out wild land fires. There is no Smokey the Bear. In contrast, for the past century our fear of fire and desire to protect the forest and our homes has led to a policy to put out every fire that nature or man starts. The task was simple at first, the "Bucket Brigade" fire departments of the turn of the century could handle most wild land fires with a single shovel-carrying hand crew, and a mule to tote water from any nearby stream. Forests in the early 1900's were every bit as similar to the forest I am studying in Mexico...large widely spaced trees with very little understory besides herbs and wildflowers. Between sixty years of logging the big trees, and a highly effective fire protection program, our forests have become ecologically weakened. The once fire-resistant forest is now thick and dense with younger trees and shrubs, and is dangerously overloaded with flammable fuels.

As I pack up my gear and head back home, I wonder what can we learn from these wonderful mountains of Mexico as we begin to face the issue of wild fire in our own backyards. We can start by accepting that what our fire protection policies have done for us in the past may not apply to our forests today. As I try to imagine what the San Jacinto Mountains were like in the year 1900, I merely open my eyes and look around, and notice that there is not a bear in sight!


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