A CATSKILLS WILDFIRE?
In over 30 years writing about our wonderful corner of the Catskills, I’ve danced around this topic numerous times, sometimes feeling like “a voice in the wilderness”. Well, that wilderness is about to either dry up and blow away or burn everything right to the ground. Due to someone’s ill-placed cigarette, poorly-managed campfire or a misplaced catalytic converter, I suspect it will be the latter - and possibly any day now. I much prefer the idea of writing positive things about this incredible region, but the truth is that we are in grave danger. Not “just” the forest, but everything many people have worked their whole lives to build. Even if somehow we do get enough rain soon to ameliorate this devastating drought (though only “moderate”, officially) and stave off disaster, we will only be putting off the inevitable for another time, I believe, unless we take appropriate action.
As this drought continues, I notice that it has changed the way that I look at some things. I used to enjoy a breeze in the summer-time. Not anymore since I know it is only drying out the land even more. Also, having fought brush-fires, I know that nothing spreads fires faster. On the other hand, it used to be that a large, grey cloud could ruin an otherwise sunny day. Now I look at it thirstily, hoping it brings rain. I love the woods and the meadows, but I hate seeing them as they are now - yellow, dead or dying, withering (some of our streams and small reservoirs have mats of algae growing in them). They are all suffering and the forest is afraid - as I am afraid for it - of its only true enemy, its nemesis - forest fire. I believe the forest is an ancient, sentient entity made up of many parts, yet all intertwined - from tree-top to its deepest roots. It has probably felt this disaster coming, in its long, long, deep awareness of its surroundings that us humans can only barely comprehend. This is unlike some people who simply continue to not recognize that we have created conditions that may (will?) cause major destruction to the forest - and possibly ourselves.
Our great danger stems (ha!) from a combination of factors (excuse me while I get to the root of the problem). The historically oldest factor here is the rampant and incredible overgrowth of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifola). Long held in check by native peoples - and settlers later on - who all burnt it back to encourage blueberries, Laurel now dominates many local mountain tops and well down their sides. People love to have this native rhododendron growing nearby and enjoy their flowers. The problem, though, is that Mountain Laurel is extremely flammable, especially when dry. Its flammability directly compares to Mesquite in the west, also a notable fuel for wildfires. Ideally, over the past decades, Laurel should have been burnt back in controlled burns, but it wasn’t and - coupled with the other main factor here - phenomenal amounts of underbrush that have built up after numerous hurricanes and other storms - we have allowed the makings for a worst-case scenario - a forest-fire. By letting the laurel go, and by letting underbrush build up in the forest, we have created a perfect “ladder” for fire to reach our forest-canopy. A major forest-fire is possible here now, I believe - and it could have been prevented. I understand that controlled burns are not always successful and can get out of control due to wind-shift. This is what happened at Mohonk a couple years ago. Everybody there was very fortunate that this burn missed dwellings. As dangerous as they can be, we must try to do them more if we want to reduce the chances of an even greater catastrophe. Other contributing factors are White Pines and flammable roof-shingles. I see so many houses with highly-flammable pines (veritable torches) overhead or nearby. I think we must all encourage our Towns, Counties and the State to organize an Emergency Task Force and start getting crews in the woods to clear out the underbrush that can’t be burned (too close to dwellings, for example). I fear it is too late. Unless we receive huge amounts of precipitation very soon that will soak deep into the soil and then plenty of rain that will keep leaves wet after they fall in the coming season, this disaster could well be upon us and, if so, it could be right out of our greatest nightmares, with hundreds of homes and businesses burning and whole towns and villages in great danger. The same images we’ve watched in Northern California and other places CAN - and may - happen here, fire sweeping up and over mountains, burning everything in their paths, including wildlife. I’ve never hoped so much that I was wrong, but I don’t think so.
Some of the suburbs of L.A. that had bad fires changed their zoning to require fire-proof roofing, a 100-foot-clear buffer around a house and no mesquite or grasses next to a building. Maybe that is one solution for us, though I suspect - like there - nothing will happen here until after disaster strikes. Let’s see if we can learn from other peoples mistakes.
Yes, the Catskills used to burn on a regular basis - lightning-strikes, sparks from trains, etc. - but there is a difference now. In the old days the authorities would let some fires - if remote - burn themselves out. We can’t do that with all the new homes in the woods. Also, I think there are more trees in towns and villages now, putting them at risk, as well. Fire-crews will have to try to put out more fires - and also just like out west - will end up putting themselves in great danger. Our firetowers were built because of this history and became defunct once airplanes were used to spot fires. Unfortunately, even with planes spotting from the air, as we’ve all watched out west, wildfires can move incredibly fast. We have a lot of work to do to avoid this scenario if we can. In the meanwhile, let’s make sure nobody accidentally starts any fires. Please - I ask you all, the forest and the meadows ask you, all the animals and birds ask you - let’s not let this scenario play out. Can we all please learn from ours and others mistakes and work hard to make our woods healthier, to make the Southeast Catskills truly an example of how people and nature can not only coexist, but thrive together? I think we can.
Thank you, Dave Holden / (845)594-4863 / firstname.lastname@example.org