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Living with Wildfires

This is part of our continued series, ‘Living with…’  (coyotes and rattlesnakes) which focuses on life in New Mexico.

I grew up in Ohio, the land of green. You simply threw seeds randomly out of your back door and overnight you had a garden. The water table was so high that you had to carefully plan for a basement in your house. It was a world flowing with H2O and was the opposite of where I later moved – Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is really a desert. There’s no two ways about it. You have to spend a lot of time prepping the soil to get it close to fertile. I had some success with herbs and we decided a potted garden was better suited for our little patch of land. (In LA, you can usually jump across your lawn thanks to the high population density.)

When I first came to California, wildfires were completely foreign to me. Tornados were a piece of cake: just listen for the sirens and take shelter. Right after I moved, I heard about a large wildfire near Chatsworth, and rushed to my car. I had to see it! I have no idea why. Maybe it’s genetic?

My grandfather used to pack up the family in the car and take us to see the Ohio River each time it froze. When the entire city of Xenia was sucked up by an F5 tornado we piled into the old Ford. So… off to see the Chatsworth blaze I went.

LA Wildfire
The hills above Los Angeles going up in smoke
I took the 405 north and pulled over when I saw the flames to my left. They were distant from the highway so I felt safe enough to stop and watch. I was mesmerized by how quickly the fire engulfed one hill and headed for the next. The sky was completely orange and white smoke billowed up in a mushroom cloud.

Over my years in Southern California, we got hit again and again with blazes – some started by nature, others by complete jerks. During my first six months, over 32,000 acres went up in smoke. That is the equivalent of two Manhattan islands! (You can see the degree of burning in this photo taken from space.)

Nothing compares to the fires that swept through Southern California in October of 2007. The Santa Ana winds burned 250,000 acres and 1,200 structures. The damage left 500,000 people homeless. By the time we left California, over two million acres had been lost – or, roughly, the state of Rhode Island.

In January 2010 we relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you think California sounds fiery, just wait until you see the damage in our new home state. As I write this, there are four fires burning. (For New Mexico fire info.)

Since our arrival flames have ravaged over 625,000 acres. The Las Conchas Fire, one of the worst in the state’s history, occurred last year. It wasn’t just that the fire consumed so many buildings and so much land, but it also threatened the city of Los Alamos. Yes, the home of the U.S. nuclear program. If the flames touched the lab – well, our goose wasn’t cooked. It was incinerated.

Here’s a video so you can see it for yourself:

On a side note: if you come to New Mexico and throw a lit cigarette butt out of your car window, expect the surrounding cars to screech to a halt and box you in so that you can receive the lecture of your life. Our state is the driest in the country and we’re like a tinderbox. Here, a tossed, lit butt is basically arson.

What do you do in case of a wildfire?

The above links also include suggestions to ensure that your home is protected as much as possible.

I know. You’re shaking your head, thinking, ‘just move.’ But, this is why we live in New Mexico:

New Mexico Sunset
New Mexico sunset — every night

Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.



I’m an Ohian like you, so think thatmaybe some of our storm chasing is ingrained. :) I’ve trekked out to see tornado damages and flooded areas, too.

I am so glad we don’t have wildfires like these. The idea of them scares me to death. I’m in China right now, looking at pictures on the news of smoke-clogged Singapore caused by the fires burning in Indonesia. It looks horrible. They tell me it happens every summer, but that this year the air is the worst since 1997.

I’ll take the tornadoes and floods anyday. I guess it’s whatever’s familiar.
Juliann recently posted..East or West – Which is Best? You Decide.My Profile

The Duo

I think the unfamiliar is the scary part.

Michael Taylor

I remember when I moved from California to Macau about 20 years ago, I was stunned to hear my hometown – Oakland – mentioned on the evening news. “A major section of Oakland, California, is in flames …” I heard to my amazement. On my next trip home, I was stunned by the devastation. Usually things are not as bad as portrayed in the media. This was worse!
Michael Taylor recently posted..Hong Kong: James Gannaban Hosts Global Party and Charity AuctionMy Profile

The Duo

As I look out our back window, the smoke continues to roll by. It’s incredible. Thanks for stopping by.


I lived in Los Angeles for a very short while 20 years ago. I remeber it being so hot and so dry. I’m glad now to be living in a greener, wetter place!
Christopher recently posted..Travel Essay Contest — Entry 20My Profile

The Duo

Los Angeles, as with most cities, is experiencing the effects of global warming. One January it rained so much that the sewers actually backed up. Forget wearing flip flops, we needed hip boots! Then it didn’t rain again for over two years.

The Duo

LOL. Juliet moved from London because she couldn’t take the non-stop grey skies. :)

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