To Hold a Beautiful, Burning Snake, by Caleb Roberts

To Hold a Beautiful, Burning Snake

By Caleb Roberts

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They said the Thompson Ridge wildfire was a good fire. It began on May 31, 2013, at the southern foot of Redondo Peak in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. A dead aspen, black and brown sheaves of bark sloughing off in the droughty summer, fell into a power line and ignited. When the United States Forest Service declared the Thompson Ridge fire 100 percent contained on July 1st, it had burned 23,965 acres of the spruce-fir, ponderosa pine, and grasslands covering Redondo Peak. It left a mosaic of blackened matchsticks and green, unburned forest, creating unique and diverse habitats for an array of species. No one died. No private property was damaged. It was a well-behaved, ecologically-beneficial fire.

A few weeks later, lightning snaked down from the sky and ignited another wildfire in the dry hills near the town of Yarnell, Arizona. Within 24 hours, the Forest Service had scrambled an army of helicopters, fire trucks, and hotshot crews, several of which were pulled from the nearly-contained Thompson Ridge fire. Unlike in the Jemez Mountains, there was valuable real estate in Yarnell to protect, so quick suppression was the goal. In the end, the Yarnell Hill fire burned just 8,400 acres of piñon-juniper woodlands, destroyed 127 buildings in Yarnell, and killed 19 hotshots. Three of the dead hotshots had fought the Thompson Ridge fire.

Wildfire smoke in the Valles Caldera National Presrerve, New Mexico
Wildfire, smoke, and helicopter in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico.
Photo by Jacob Daly.

Fire is controllable and quantifiable. In a laboratory with metal floors, walls, and ceilings, researchers set up tiny wooden slats like dominoes, light the dominoes from the safety of a fire-proof viewing window, and then record and analyze the fire’s behavior as it leaps and twists and coils from slat to slat, becoming an inferno, turning all but its metal cage to ash. There are equations and diagrams that create looping spider webs of logic to predict fire behavior in carefully-controlled microcosms, and there are Forest Service standard computer algorithms that predict the path and toll fires will take by lighting virtual flames across pixelated landscapes. There are also the not-so-mysterious fireplaces and campfires, encircled by concentric rings of stones and people reclining in canvas chairs holding beers in koozies, wearing fleece jackets, watching the flames leap and dance for them.

Fire is beneficial and necessary. Ecologically, it fosters ecosystem resilience and biodiversity. In ponderosa pine forests, fire burns heterogeneously, creating as much new habitat as it destroys. It opens up the canopy and forest floor for meadows of bunchgrasses, scrub oak, and aspen. It leaves some trees untouched for the chickadees and pygmy nuthatches and Audubon’s warblers. It leaves burned-out snags for great-horned owls and pine martens and three-toed woodpeckers to excavate and build dry, safe nests. In prairies, fire cuts out the old, dead grass choking the new, nutrient-rich shoots that cattle seek. It coaxes out leafy forbs like coneflowers and milkweed and prairie phacelia. It halts encroaching woody plants like juniper and mesquite, killing them to make room for dancing prairie chicken leks and the trembling whistles of bobolinks and dickcissels.

But fire is wild too. It’s easy to forget that people burn just like the trees and grass.

Caleb Roberts scans for elk in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico
Caleb Roberts scans for elk in the Valles Caldera.
Photo by Sara Bailey Roberts.

When the Thompson Ridge fire started, I was standing next to my diesel pickup on a gravel road in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Behind me, the forest-covered Redondo Peak loomed. But I was focused on the expanse of grassland in front of me. I was triangulating radio-collared elk in the Valle Grande, part of a research project investigating responses of large mammals to forest thinning and fires. Waving my copper-antennaed yagi in the direction I thought the elk were, I pressed my ear against the receiver, trying to hear the strongest signal and find the most accurate azimuth. I knew they liked to settle near the center of the valle, around the East Fork of the Jemez River during midday, sometimes dipping into the waters when the heat or insects became too much.

When the stream of vehicles began speeding past me, I was annoyed by the dust and noise. I lowered the yagi, thinking I would resume after the trucks passed. But then one of the trucks pulled over, and the preserve foreman leaned out of the driver’s side window. Long, graying beard neat, cowboy hat askew, he informed me that a wildfire had started on the back side of Redondo. He said I needed to get out of the preserve immediately. Whipping around, I saw the white smoke plume rising from behind Redondo, already as high as the clouds. I jumped into my pickup and revved out onto the washboard road, trying to catch up to the last truck in the caravan. The foreman had not waited.

That evening, the hotshots and fire trucks began rolling into Jemez Springs, the village below the preserve where all the researchers and most of the preserve staff live. My coworkers, our field technicians, and a few of the preserve staff had all congregated at Los Ojos, the only bar in town. We sat quietly around a booth, sipping beer, listening to a band of middle-aged, bandana-wearing men cover Johnny Cash. We weren’t sure what the following days would look like, if our research projects, like Redondo, would go up in smoke. The VCNP had declared the Caldera closed until the Thompson Ridge fire was 100 percent contained. We knew it was for people’s safety. I wondered why the fire had to happen now, this year. Why couldn’t it happen in the fall, after I had collected all my data for the season?

We asked one of the guys at the booth, the preserve’s wildlife biologist, what he thought the fire would be like. How big would it get? How long did it take to contain the last fire? Shrugging, he said he had no idea. He said in 2011, the Las Conchas wildfire burned more than 157,000 acres. He said it got so hot that at one point it was burning an acre per second, trees simply exploding, needles and leaves evaporating. You could see the fire’s twisting towers all the way from Santa Fe. It had even begun making its own weather, pushing away rainclouds that would douse it and summoning winds to feed it. He paused, taking a long drink. It was scary, he said, like it had a mind of its own. It wasn’t the fire crews that contained it or put it out, either, he said. It was the monsoons in late July. Something bigger than us or the fire.

That same night, we drove up the mountain, hoping to see the fire for ourselves. Halfway up, we came to a roadblock of orange cones and Forest Service SUVs. We lowered our windows as a ranger approached. She told us to turn around, that they feared the fire might jump the highway tonight. Her jacket was rumpled. She looked tired.

But we still wanted to see the fire. So we turned our vehicle around and parked at the closest pullout we could find, about a quarter mile back. Looking northward, toward Redondo, we could see the red and orange glow of the fire above the trees, fading gently into the black and stars of the sky. No cars passed. A soft wind set the pine boughs swishing. We knew some houses sat back there in the woods, nearer the fiery glow. Was it as calm there?

The next morning the fire crews reopened the highway. People who had cottages tucked into the drought-dried trees near Jemez Springs but worked in Los Alamos needed to get to work. Vehicles were simply cautioned to slow down when smoke crossed the road. I didn’t mind the highway reopening. I still needed to collect behavioral data on the elk.

That evening I drove to a pullout overlooking the Valle Grande. I set up my tripod and spotting scope on the asphalt and scanned the valle. Several elk herds congregated in the narrow strip of green around the East Fork, as if they had not moved since the fire began. They sauntered through the grass, necks bent low, carefully choosing their bites, heedless of the same haze causing my nose to crinkle and eyes to water. A cow elk lay in the tall grass, staring, chewing cud. Her head was turned so that she may have been watching the distant smoke and flames. But she also may have been watching the river flow by, gently rocking the rushes on the banks.

I watched them until the sun sank behind Redondo, smoke turning the sky molten red and pink.

Fiery sunset as the Thompson Ridge wildfire burns in New Mexico
Fiery sunset behind Redondo Peak as the Thompson Ridge wildfire burns.
Photo by Jacob Daly.


I have a friend who studies fire. She used to think she wanted to be a hotshot, to go fight fires out west. But one of the first prescribed fires she helped manage changed her mind.

The fire was planned for 650 acres of a ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Out there, from horizon to horizon, hills like ocean waves sprawl, grassy slopes falling fast to narrow valleys. In recent years, the local ranchers had started using fire to burn out the junipers creeping into their cattle’s range and improve the nutrient content of their pasturage.

The morning of the fire, my friend stood with the other volunteers, the wind tugging at her hair, listening to the burn boss atop a hill. He wore flannel and a cowboy hat. They watched his fingers draw out the plan across the hills and valleys, tracing where they would set the backfire near the top of a ridge and where they would set the frontfire at the valley floor. When he finished, he clapped his hands and told them to get to it. Everyone broke up. Another cowboy, wrinkled, clean-shaven, and smiling, took her to the frontline in his truck. They waited, watching the first billows of smoke signaling the backfire had been lit. Then they got out of the truck, and the cowboy pointed east and told her to light the grass in a straight line until she reached a barbed wire fence, a mile off. Then he handed her a drip torch, showed her how to ignite it, and left her to set the fire.

She tramped through waist-high grass, holding the drip torch perpendicular to her path. It piddled out globs of burning oil from its curlicue spout. She watched each footfall. She did not want to trip on prickly pear or yucca or twist an ankle in a badger hole. All she could hear was the swish and crackle of her steps and the fire. She only paused once to catch her breath. Inhaling deeply, she glanced back at the fire she had lit. It looked like a striped ribbon flowing from her torch, caught in the breeze. Orange strands faded and tore into the blue sky. Brown and black lines of burned earth and grass stretched into the distance.

After what seemed a long time, she met up with another volunteer and traded her drip torch for his fire swatter and a Gatorade. Realizing just then how dry and chalky her throat was, how hot and taut her skin felt, she guzzled the whole thing. Throwing the bottle into her pack, she gazed around. The fire now streamed into the canyons. Smoke plumed white and pillowy into the sky. An echoing whoosh caught her ear. A juniper had exploded, flames slavering 20 feet up for a few seconds, then dying down as the naked pale-silver limbs caught and carried the flames.

She lost herself in the hunt for escaped flames. With the fire swatter, she patted out spark-lit fires that were just waiting for the wind to change and fan them up. She sought smoldering shrub islands inside the fire perimeter that would pulse red like a beating heart into the night and flare at the slightest gust. She climbed up hillsides, her pants blackening from the ash, and slid down hillsides, sand and gravel grinding under her boots.

She came to a hilltop with several other fire tenders. A few roamed about, poking at the ground with their fire swatters. But most stood, leaning folded arms on their fire swatter poles, watching smoke and heat haze rising from the valley. It was like a grill, marinating the valley, preparing it for summer grazing. She stopped to watch too. She felt proud that she had helped start it.

But then the smoke began falling. Like a mouth, the valley began sucking it down. The chain of white smoke linked to the sky broke. The smoke in the valley began to turn, but slowly, like a poorly-greased wheel. My friend looked to the others, but no one spoke or moved. They just watched.

The churning in the valley began to speed up, but the smoke had sunk so low, only tufts were visible. It looked like water frothing at a whirlpool’s edge. A hollow roar, as if from far off, filled the air. Then my friend noticed figures on opposite hill, silent miniatures. They were running up the ridge, away from the valley.

The roar rose, came closer. Her neighbors were backing up, but she did not move. Hair whipped into her eyes, and she pushed it back. She could not take her eyes from the roiling smoke clouds. Across the valley, another cedar burst into flame with the sound of a shotgun fire. The roar came closer.

A pillar of fire rose from the valley. Churning and writhing, it grew, taller than the hills. It looked like a tornado, but upside down and made of bright writhing scales of red and orange. Like a monstrous serpent, it could have swallowed every person on the hilltop in a sweep of its coils. It looked like a beautiful and terrible snake, undulating to the music of the whistling, cracking fire.

My friend could hear only the roar. She took a step back. At the edges of her vision, she saw some of the others turning, running. But she did not take her eyes from the pillar. She told me she had never seen anything like it before or since. She could not look away.

The serpent thrashed from side to side. Anything it touched erupted into new coils of flame. It slammed into a thick, gnarled cottonwood in the valley. The tree’s bark fractured and flaked to the ground. Limbs broke and burned and fell. Whip-cracks of cedar ignitions, swaying grass fires, and smoke, smoke all around, turning, swirling, filling the great snake’s belly and its valley kingdom.

And then the snake died. Its body guttered, exposing its gaseous innards. It swayed. And then it withered and fell, its bright belly and head dissipating to nothing before it met the valley floor.

My friend said it ended just like that. Everyone who had run shuffled back up to the hilltop, laughing loudly, whooping, slapping each other on the back, trying to gloss over the fear that still nestled behind their eyes. The prescribed fire was finished. The fire tornado left nothing but a few embers and glowing stumps. There was nothing else to burn.

After telling me all this, my friend made me promise two things: I was to let anyone who reads this know that the rancher reported huge improvements in his range quality and cattle weight gains. I was also not to name those who ran from the fire they started.

Thompson Ridge wildfire burns through the night
The Thompson Ridge wildfire burns through the night.
Photo by Jacob Daly.

Snakes bite. They hiss and rattle and swell out their necks. If held against their will, they squirm and flail, elusive in the hands, mouths agape, yearning to escape and willing to strike to do so.

But in many cultures, snakes symbolize fertility, renewal, and immortality. Think of a fat scarlet-and-gold striped kingsnake sliding out of its crinkled, white-dead skin, slithering out shiny and sleek, newly glossy eyes peering out at the same old world. Think of the caduceus: two intertwined serpents on a rod, glowing blue or white from hospital signs late at night. The divine staff that could ease people’s death throes. Or bring the dead back to life.

After the fire: the burned landscape of the Valles Caldera
After the fire: the burned mixed-conifer landscape of the Valles Caldera.
Photo by Caleb Roberts.


On July 1, 2013, a month and a day after ignition, the Forest Service fire crew declared the Thompson Ridge fire 100 percent contained, meaning the fire was unlikely to spread further. In fact, the Thompson Ridge fire continued burning for several weeks after containment. On July 2, the VCNP deemed the fire safe enough to for researcher access.

The following evening, I drove into the caldera to attempt a night-long elk behavioral survey. I needed to track down a herd first, so I had attached an omni-directional antenna to my truck to pick up signals from radio-collared elk. Bumping along the windy dirt road at Redondo’s feet, I listened for a strong, consistent beep from the receiver. I passed still-smoking snags, old ponderosas with only their bases charred, and barren hills that had been green with trees a month before. I imagined driving through a war zone. I was hoping to find a herd in an open grassland. That would allow me to stay in the truck all night, use the truck as a blind, and maintain a wide field of view. I would also have maximum light intake for the monocular night-vision goggles I had borrowed from the VCNP.

Thankfully, the radio signals led me to the narrow Valle de Jaramillo. The grasses of the valle met the spruce-fir and ponderosa-covered foothills of Redondo Peak in a patchy, winding boundary to the south and west. I had been noticing that the elk tended to retreat to the forest edge in the middle of the night, so the narrowness of the Jaramillo made me confident that I could accurately record their behaviors, even if they bedded under the trees. So I settled in for the night, ready with my coffee thermos, apple-cinnamon Pop-Tarts, bananas, and audiobooks. I would work until 0800 the following morning.

I watched the elk through my binoculars, my pencil scratching letters and numbers on the clipboard in my lap, until the sun set behind the caldera rim. Bright reds and purples juxtaposed the shadowed mountains, beautiful—though not as beautiful as during the height of the fire. I rolled down the window, donned my night-vision goggles, and continued. My flannel, thick pants, and socks kept me warm, though the night mountain air felt wet and chill on my exposed face and hands. By about midnight, the herd had sauntered out of the grasses, their crepuscular inner-clocks telling them to rest until morning. Through the goggles, the resting elk looked like darker blobs against a dark ground amongst dark tree trunks.

Around 0200, I noticed a pulsing light on the ground near the elk. Through light-amplifying nightvision goggles, anything brighter than moonlight shimmering on the swaying grass looks like a flare gun discharge. And this thing looked like several stars had settled into the valle. But taking off the goggles and squinting, I could only barely see a glow. With my thermos hours-drained, my snacks all eaten, and my eyes drooping no matter how hard I tried to keep them open, it took me a moment to identify that brilliant glow as a remnant of the Thompson Ridge fire, still burning away at remaining duff and felled logs. I estimated less than 50 feet separated the elk from the fire. Unfazed, the elk slept right next to the thing that had until just recently been raging and consuming and changing their mountain refuge. I suppose they just have to accept that they have no control over the where a fire burns and where it doesn’t.

I hate when I anthropomorphize animals. Perhaps they do not accept, only react. Perhaps they simply look at the world with their wide, deep, black eyes and see mountains and valleys blackened by fire one year and covered in grass and new aspen shoots the next. They walk along draws, newly carved by fire and rain. They walk beside boulders, exposed for the first time since the volcanic upheavals formed the mountain. They may tread paths contouring the slopes, never ascending directly, to make their beds on bare ground or spruce needles. Or they may pause here or there to browse, taking the chance to eat the new grass, still wet with dew. But wherever they go, it is with, not against.

The Valles Caldera during the summer monsoon, with elk bones
The Valles Caldera during the summer monsoon.
Photo by Jacob Daly.

I had managed to get above and upwind of them on a ridge. The fire had thinned the canopy enough for me to estimate that there were 17, all bedded down. Hoping to get a better view, I began sidestepping down the ridge, grasping charred saplings to support my slow, deliberate footfalls. I reached the bottom without jarring a single piece of obsidian or pumice. I stood still for a few seconds, controlling my breathing. I always thought that if the elk heard a twig break or pebbles grinding under my boots, a moment’s pause on my part would make them think Oh, it was nothing and go back to chewing their cud. They did not stir when I began slowly moving forward at a crouch. But I wasn’t lucky.

A dusky grouse exploded from the ground a few yards ahead of me. The beating boom of its wings echoed off the charred trees. I nearly fell over in fright.

The elk appeared to feel the same: they jumped up and disappeared over the next ridge. Holding my chest and breathing heavily, I let out a string of whispered curses. I needn’t have bothered whispering. There wouldn’t be any chance of catching those elk, unawares or not. So I started back down the mountain.

I took my time, trying to absorb the beauty of my surroundings, hoping to salvage something from the day. I came upon a steep, narrow draw filled with many burned trees. From where I stood, they looked like a blackened pile of pick-up sticks. House-sized pumice boulders, the yellowish color of bones, jutted from the incised walls of the draw. After hard rains, I had seen boulders that size washed down the mountains and across roads in the valles, blocking my truck’s path. Hard to believe anything, let alone fire, could have budged them.

I veered from the draw and headed down a gently sloping ridgeline. Soon, my path pushed past the surrounding ridgelines, revealing a panorama of the valle and all the eastern rim of the caldera.

In a documentary, this might have been a pan-out moment, perhaps with a helicopter circling above me, shooting a video. The video would slowly pull away from me to show more and more of the mountainside. It would show me on the black ridge weaving in and out of burned trees, shrinking to a speck as I navigated the sharp descent of the ridgeline’s end. Then I would be lost in the trees, and the view would broaden to the ridges and draws, each tinted a slightly different black or green or brown. This patchwork would melt together as the whole of Redondo filled the camera, a mottled giant encircled by grassy valles made green by the early monsoons that year. And as the video faded into the next scene, Redondo would shrink and blend in with its neighbors, each green mound just one vertebra in the spine of the Jemez Mountains.

But of course all I saw was the valle ahead and the slope at my feet. Slivers of obsidian shifted under my feet, so I gripped the trees again to keep from slipping. When the incline lessened, I paused to scrub sooty hands across my brown canvas pants and looked around. Just a few feet away, I saw a skull, sitting upright, teeth sunk into the black earth.

Excited, I hunched down to identify it. I collect skulls, and I hoped this one would be a new species for my collection. It was a beautiful bobcat skull, scraped clean and white. It had all its teeth, and all the bones looked solid, although some of interstitial connections seemed loose. It only lacked the lower jaw, but that was no problem. The joy of such a find in the wild, by myself, was more than enough.

I rocked off the balls of my feet and sat down. Looking around, I saw no other sign of bones, just black earth, black trunks, some twigs, and some newly-sprouted bunchgrasses. Reaching out, I stroked what would have been the nose of the cat. It was rough, and a bit of bone flaked off at my touch. I could tell it was old.

I tried to imagine how it ended up here, sitting out in the open. Before the fire, six inches of needles, half-rotted branches, orange ponderosa bark, and fir cones might have covered it. It would have been the only thing the pillbugs and millipedes could not chew away, and too deep for passing deer mice or voles to gnaw for calcium. When the fire came, it probably only burned the first inch of duff above the skull, like a face peel. Then the fireline would have marched on, toward the hotshots feverishly digging a firebreak at Redondo’s feet while helicopters dropped hundreds of gallons of water to protect one of the few remaining ponderosa groves in the preserve that predated Europeans and their clear-cutting. That night, the remaining litter above the skull would continue smoldering. Smoke would have risen like silent steam from the ground. An occasional gust of wind would have swept near the ground, and in the darkness, the earth would have glowed a deep orange for a long moment, and then would have faded back into the night. Over days, the litter would have burned, crumbled to ash, burned, and crumbled to ash, like water draining from a tub. The skull would have gradually surfaced, baking in the heat waves spiraling from the earth around it, its sutured bones swelling against their seams. And when the rains finally began sizzling against the earth in early July, loose ash would have trickled around the skull and raced downhill. But its teeth would have held firm.

And now it was in front of me, waiting. I just needed to wrap it in a rag, take it home, and put it right on my shelf next to my opossum, beaver, house cat, fox, and badger skulls. Imagining it made me smile.

So I cupped my hand around it and slowly, softly, pulled it away from the ground.

The skull fell apart in my hands, splitting in two at the crest. The mandible disintegrated, leaving the teeth stuck in the ground. My grip was so loose that it all fell back to the earth, like sand through a sieve. But then I noticed something underneath the shards and bone dust: a mound of black earth shaped exactly like the skull, as if the fire, earth, and rain had purposefully cast the skull in black plaster.

I stood up, regarding the mound and shattered skull, and nudged one of the larger pieces of bone with the toe of my boot. I wondered if I still might be able to salvage it, perhaps scoop the pieces and stitch it back together with super glue. But that seemed hollow.

I looked up and around the gutted forest. The deer mice and voles that couldn’t previously reach the skull would appreciate me leaving it. I imagined a little tree or tuft of grass sprouting from the skull-cast mound, a symbol of the mountain’s regeneration.

I laughed at myself. It would never be so simple. Those bones—probably the mound, too—would wash away with the next rain. I left the pieces and continued down the mountain.



Caleb RobertsCaleb Roberts holds an MS in wildlife science from Texas Tech University and is a PhD candidate in applied ecology at the University of Nebraska. Caleb has authored and coauthored scientific publications in journals such as Ecosphere, PLoS ONE, and Landscape Ecology. His current research focuses on the resilience of ecosystems and understanding the legacies fire leaves on landscapes. Caleb is from western Kentucky, but he now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and cat.

Header photo of wildfire in the Valles Caldera by Jacob Daly. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.