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Listening to Fire

Rene Romero has spent his career fighting forest fires. And now, as Fuels Manager for the Taos Pueblo, it’s his job to make sure that this irreplaceable historic site is protected for the long haul. To hear him tell it, it sure seems like that job is getting more difficult: “It’s getting more extreme in every sense,” he says, when describing the impacts of climate change -- and he’s not one for hyperbole.

We met Rene on a Tuesday afternoon in his office at the World Heritage Taos Pueblo. On one wall hangs a US Marine Corps flag, signed by Air Depot battalion members he trained to fight fires. Radios sit on his desk, ready to call him into action at a moment’s notice. Given the setting, it’s surprising to hear him say that he “plays for a living.” But, he explains, that’s because he “plays with energy.”

Rene is part of on a long history of Taos firefighters -- in fact, the iconic Smokey The Bear was rescued from a wildfire in 1950 by a group of Hopi and Taos firefighters in Capitan, NM. (And Rene himself was asked to sit as a model for a painting commemorating that rescue!)

For 16 years, Rene worked as a Smokejumper, parachuting out of airplanes in the wilderness to fight fires with a backpack, ax, and shovel. In his words, he became an expert at the job when he “learned to listen.” The sound a fire makes -- telling a story about the wind, amount of fuel, dryness in the air -- tells a firefighter what to do to keep a fire from “going project size”. But “in the late 80’s, early 90’s, things started to sound different.”

Rene recalls one fire where he really noticed a change: he and his crew started hearing explosions that sounded like ordnance, or 55 gallon drums of fuel. Worried, veteran firefighter Rod Dowe caught Rene’s eye and asked, “you hear it too?” A moment later, both of them realized they were hearing the sound of trees exploding. Another member of the team, Jay Wattenbarger, yelled, “let’s get the hell out of here!” They ran through the black smoke, but even the already-burned areas were reigniting. Jay’s pack burned right off his back, but somehow, they all made it to safety. When Rene’s crew regrouped, they each knew: “you should be dead.”

Rene isn’t the only one who’s noticed that the fires are getting more dangerous. Foresters and scientists have seen a big increase in wildfires in the west just since the 1990’s. (You can learn more about wildfires and climate change in our stories from Krista Bonfantine and Joe Kenmore.)

The new intensity of fires creates a particular challenge for Rene in his current job for the Taos Pueblo. Rene is “trying to set things up for the next 100 years, 1,000 years, not the now.” This mostly-indigenous community is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited places in North America -- and with roots that go back a millennium, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It lies in the basin of the Taos Mountain, upon which sits Blue Lake where the Taos People originated. The Taos People are one of the only native peoples who still live on their traditional lands. That’s why Rene takes his job -- to protect this site from fire -- so seriously.

Climate change is making that job more difficult. Fire management poses enough challenges as it is: coordinating with federal agencies for fuel management, implementing prescribed burns, preparing for worst case scenarios. But as seasons get drier, hotter, and longer, the unimaginable becomes a real threat. And it’s not just about risk of burning: trees and other vegetation are crucial to keeping soil in place. One “project scale” fire could turn the Taos Mountain into a funnel aiming floods and mudslides at the Pueblo below. It’s painful to imagine, but a similar fire and flood event occurred when the Silver Fire burned 300,000 acres in 2012 and the Glenwood Catwalk, an old mining site turned tourist destination, was destroyed -- not by the flames, but by the flood. It cost $4.6 million to rebuild the Catwalk.

No amount of money could rebuild the Taos Pueblo. That’s what motivates Rene Romero to take the threats from climate change so seriously.

Written by Peter Sargent

Photography by Virginia Sargent


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