Wildfire Will Transform The Gila
Rázik MaJean (left) and Sara Irving (right) are the two longest-serving forest fire lookouts on duty in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
June 12, 2012

MIMBRES, N.M. -- A massive fire in New Mexico is changing the landscape of one of the wildest forests in the country. The Whitewater-Baldy fire in the Gila Wilderness is the biggest in New Mexico history and currently the largest wildfire in the nation.

Nearly a month after its ignition the fire is almost 40 percent contained and has burned close to 300,000 acres.

Perhaps no one alive today knows the Gila Wilderness better than fire lookouts Rázik MaJean and Sara Irving. On a recent afternoon they stood below tall Ponderosa pines, the signature tree of the Gila. Above them a soft wind made a sound not unlike a seashell makes against your ear.

The Gila is the largest most remote wilderness in the southwest. To get to work, these women must hike 12 miles both ways to reach their lookout tower on Mogollon-Baldy, the third-tallest peak in the Gila. For four months out of the year, the two take turns watching over the forest. Each works eight-day shifts in utter isolation.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Firefighters in the tiny town of Mogollon, N.M take a break from fighting the Whitewater-Baldy fire in the Gila Wilderness.

Irving is the longest-serving lookout on duty, climbing the Gila mountains for the past 30 years. She fell in love with the wilderness while hiking the Continental Divide Trail in her late 20s. Her brother is the famous novelist John Irving.

"I love being up there, it just feels like home to me," Irving said. "We have a wonderful view of course, because it's a tower on a mountain that has a grassy bald. And, on clear days, we can see 100 miles easily in every direction."

Below, the Gila extends for 3.3 million acres, a mongrel landscape that spans from cacti to spruce fir. It’s the first designated wilderness in the nation. Bear, elk, javelinas and other beasts roam practically undisturbed. Nothing mechanized is allowed with the Gila's boundaries: no cars, no roads, no chainsaws. Humans are rare sight.

"I can go backpacking on my days off and I can see no one," Irving said. "The real feeling of the wilderness is you have to be alone and let the sounds and the smells and just the light sink into you."

Every summer 10 lookouts are dispatched deep into the Gila where they watch for the first sign of fire. Its initial appearance is not quite as dramatic as some would imagine.

"You see this little smoke, these little teeny smoke going, 'Eeeee,' like a cigarette butt," said MaJean.

MaJean is an engineer who turned to forest work in her late 40s. She is now 70. She has a nose ring set below deep green eyes and wispy gray hair.

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Smokes rises from the Whitewater-Baldy wildfire burning in the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico.

The current fire consuming the heart of the Gila started off as two fires, both sparked by lightning. The two merged into one monstrous blaze late last month which will likely smolder through late summer. In a way this fire is clearing out decades of overgrowth which resulted from a old policy of fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service.

"We have created the problem by over-suppressing, which has allowed for the huge stand replacement fires rather than smaller fires that would not be quite as devastating," Irving said.

The forest service has since changed strategies and allows some fires to burn naturally. Those fires are good for the forest. But for MaJean, the emotional connection to rugged land she knows and loves is hard to let go.

"You learn the mountains, you learn the canyons," she said. "You hike in them. They become part of your geography … but you know even best case scenario there's a lot of woods that we've hiked through that you know are going to be so different for a very long time."

What's burning now makes up less than 10 percent of the Gila, so there's still much to enjoy. But full regeneration of the current damage will likely take between 80 and 200 years.