Las Conchas Loses its Record but not its Significance


A firefighter burns away fuel from the perimeter in the struggle to contain New Mexico’s largest wildfire ever, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, May 31, 2012. Photo by Jakob Schiller


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Las Conchas “mushroom cloud” smoke column near Los Alamos, July 6, 2011. Photo by John Fowler (upload by PDTillman).

The record-setting 2011 Las Conchas fire reigned as the largest in New Mexico history for less than a year, being surpassed on May 29/30, 2012 by the Whitewater-Baldy Complex, a massive fire currently blazing through the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico. Whitewater-Baldy is engulfing an area larger than Las Conchas, but there are more interesting facts to consider about these fires than the quantum of acreage that makes it into the history books. Both are products of the interactive processes of climate systems and human resource use, particularly forest exploitation and management in the U.S. era and the expansive consumption of hydrocarbon fuels over the past two centuries. But the Whitewater-Baldy fire did not send up smoke that looked eerily reminiscent of an atomic mushroom-cloud within a few miles of Los Alamos National Laboratories.

Although Las Conchas has lost its title to Whitewater-Baldy, it still reigns as the fire that struck at the heart of its symptom.  These fires are symptoms of a system.  Contrary to the position espoused by Harrison Schmitt (Susana Martinez’s first choice to head the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department) the system that lies at their core is not an unruly natural climate standing on the other side of a gulf from all human activities. Climate effects are intertwined with the hydrocarbon fueled global production that took place under U.S military dominance and political-economic hegemony following the events of 1945. Twelve years ago, Paul Crutzen (Nobel Prize-winning chemist), suggested that the world had entered a new geological epoch due to transformative human activities, which he dubbed the “anthropocene” (Greek for “recent age of man”).  While scientific communities are still debating the point, it has long been espoused in other forms. Since its inception, the U.S. has regarded itself as a chosen nation playing a leading transformative role in the world—an exceptional human force. U.S. settlers who colonized the newly conquered territories ascribed to the expert knowledge that “rain follows the plow”, believing that their activities would be graced by divine hydration.

Fire and police officers confer as the Las Conchas fire nears Los Alamos, June 29, 2011. Photo by Jakob Schiller

Divine rains never did follow U.S. settler’s plowing of New Mexican fields but that did not hinder the expropriation of Pueblo, Navajo, Ute, Comanche, Apache and Hispano lands and resources under the claims of capitalist progress and improvement. LANL— established on stolen Pueblo lands— invigorated New Mexico’s participation in securing and spreading the capitalist world system during the twentieth century. And when the Las Conchas fire threatened LANL the coordinated mobilization of firefighting resources established and held a precise line of defense for Los Alamos while Santa Clara Pueblo’s watershed was devastated by unchecked flames. Under the given conditions there was simply no alternative. The political rationality that governs the Lab—which is the rationality through which the U.S. maintains the global reach of its national security state—could make no other calculated decision.

While the vast majority of coverage of the Las Conchas fire told a story of exceptional protection of LANL, the “national treasure”, the damage to Pueblo lands was cast as an unfortunate loss which was somehow reconciled by the salvation of the labs and the neighborly efforts of local residents to help Santa Clara deal with the consequences of the fire. The press coverage was unsurprisingly committed to telling the story of Las Conchas in ways that normalized the presence, essence, and effects of Los Alamos on northern New Mexico’s lands and peoples. Moreover, the coverage of the fire made no effort to highlight the connections between the conditions of industrial capitalism that have produced climate change, the role LANL plays in undergirding U.S. empire, and the ways that communities of color are regularly the communities most negatively affected by the the military-industrial complex (the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, uranium mining on Diné lands, and the Las Conchas fire’s scorching of Santa Clara’s watershed, to name but a few instances).

News trucks in the town of Los Alamos “cover” the Las Conchas fire while vital impacts to nearby Santa Clara Pueblo’s watershed received only passing mention. Photo by Jakob Schiller

A few days after the flames died down, the local women’s activist collective Las Mujeres Hablan used public radio station KUNM to tell a different story of the Las Conchas fire and how it should be understood and remembered. In the struggle to resist the overwhelming normalization of these preventable injuries in media accounts Kathy Sanchez, founding member of Tewa Women United and citizen of the Santa Clara Tribe, connected the presence of the Lab to the general conditions of material and spiritual violence and impoverishment that accrue from the practices of genocide that have been visited upon indigenous peoples for the past 500 years. Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety highlighted the lack of accountability and care for the health and well-being of laborers and lands that surround and sustain LANL and the U.S. nuclear complex. While the rest of the media recited soothing reports to assure us that the “disaster” had passed, Las Mujeres Hablan pointed out that the way the fire mattered was shaped by structural conditions, which remain in force.

As a new record-breaking fire roars through the forests of New Mexico, we would do well to follow the example of Las Mujeres Hablan and use our energies to push beyond the collective block on thought and action that exacerbates the devastating effects of climate change and of U.S. imperialism. Climate change is big business. Not only in the sense that it was produced in large part through industrial capitalism, but also in that its effects are being construed as a new field of capital investment.  New, more intense, and more frequent disasters require innovative solutions: Hurricane Katrina and Haiti’s earthquake became prime opportunities for renewed private profiteering schemes in disaster relief services, real estate investment, and the expansion of “charitable aid.” The U.S. national security state has certainly taken notice of climate change, but like its capitalist compatriots, its thinkers are more concerned with the opportunities for innovative technological containment than with addressing the fundamental sources of the conditions climate change is exacerbating. These conditions are the living legacies of Euro-American imperialism and capitalist production.

In a recent brochure publicizing a handful of Sandia National Laboratories research and development projects, the profile “The Oil of the 21st Century: Global Water-Security Initiatives” is followed by a profile on low-carbon solid-state lighting, and  “Neutralizing National Security Threats: Earth Penetrators and Sensors for Hard and Deeply Buried Targets”. The report’s interest in addressing climate change, water scarcity etc., is expressed in language that thinly veils interest in “strategic resources” (read military dominance and security) with terms like “sustainability” and its symbolic but severely limited “community-based projects.” It is telling that the profile on Earth Penetrators concludes, “Sandia has proposed similar technological approaches for NASA missions probing lunar and Martian landscapes in pursuit of improved geological understanding (and a search for water and minerals for potential colonization) of our nearest astronomical neighbors.”

Apparently sustainable use of resources involves colonizing the rest of the solar system.

Do the massive fires in New Mexico presage our planet’s future? No. This is the present. The future is now. Photo by Jakob Schiller

To be clear, it is not that the security state is somehow insincere about its interests in technological and scientific capabilities. Rather, it is that its interests are extremely limited in its capacity to substantively address global concerns. Fires, droughts, hurricanes, and energy, food, and water security are serious matters that deserve serious consideration. These are not just technical problems—there are profound political, social, and ethical questions bound up in them. The conditions of climate change emerge out of centuries of imperial resource exploitation and increasing disparity in material well-being. Without determined efforts to transform these conditions countless future generations will live in the devastated horizons of Euro-American hubris. As the overlapping crises of our time intensify, the collective possibilities for affirming human dignity and creating desirable and just forms of development will only become more deeply necessary.



  1. Sam….I think destructive management is a little harsh and government agencies are not totally at fault here. The forests are totally locked down on NEPA and small diameter wood harvesting by environmental groups. It is virtually impossible to adequately thin the forest that would prevent catastrophic fire if you cannot cut trees larger than 16”. Until the forests are allowed to thin based on a market approach (and not by grant funds only) these symptoms will remain until the ponderosa has been cleaned out and grass stands prevail again. There is no funding mechanism available that can tackle this huge problem and achieve a desired condition that can be maintained by low intensity fire.
    Realization that climate change is creating more fires in a fire climax system will not present an answer nor a solution to the problem. To adequately treat the forest in good climate or bad, it will take capitalism to accomplish this. We have to create or find a value for the wood before it’s consumed by fire.

  2. Mike, thanks for the comment, you raise some important points. Just to clarify my position a little: the terms “destructive management” and “government agencies” were from the editor’s intro, and although they do convey aspects of my critique I would replace them with “forest exploitation and management” (paragraph 1) which always involves a mix of public and private actors. It is misleading to point to governmental agencies alone, and we should be paying attention to how “non-governmental” (non-profit) agencies- such as the environmental groups you mention- are playing a very governmental role in how these forests are managed.

    As far as using a market-based approach to thin the forests goes it may well be more efficient/effective than grant-based approaches. But to appeal to capitalism as the solution to this problem assumes that these forests are somehow outside of capitalism. I would argue that these forests are valued within a capitalist framework, but it is as a recreational resource that has certain management implications. If it were not for the way that global capitalism allows timber resources from across the world to be used as building materials in regional/local productive activities then maybe these forests still would be valued as energy/building material and not as recreational/natural sites. In fact, many local communities do in fact value these forests as firewood, building material, etc., but because of economic and political conditions internal to capitalism they find themselves unable to utilize these traditional resources (or they can only utilize them in very limited ways). So it seems to me that we are already involved in a wager that is internal to capitalism and just appealing to capitalism does not get us very far.

    And while I agree with you that a focus on how to get people back into these forests productively harvesting trees (larger than 16″) is important, I was trying to point to how global capitalism is largely responsible for creating the conditions of climate change that are now driving these fires. By panning out to such a broad perspective I was gesturing to the immense questions that transect spatial scales and link struggles over these forests to broader global struggles over resource use and distribution.

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting. Disagreement and debate are very welcome!

  3. Unfortunately, Mike, its “capitalism” that drove a century of forest management resulting in current conditions. Ecology needs to dictate management and capitalism can adapt and result in business appropriately scaled. Government (in this case land management agencies) has been too easily co-opted by capitalism and the dominant paradigms that Sam eloquently describes.

    • I have to partially agree with Bryan here. Mike, check out La Jicarita’s archives on the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit on the El Rito District of the Carson Nat’l Forest (more extended, and scholarly versions, of those essays are available on my website ( The “market” was precisely what the USFS tried to harness to resolve “poverty” and “overgrazing” on the forest. The history of clear cutting and and exploitation of local communities should forever give us pause when the many headed hydra of “the market” rears its ugly head. I only disagree with Bryan with the idea that capitalism can “adapt” in a way that serves the interest of local communities and ecologies–profits, not people, are all that count.

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