helicopter over a wildfire

The Survivalist

Voices from the Future | Peter Bigfoot Busnack

The Survivalist

The Event: On June 8, 2019, a wildfire erupted a few miles northwest of Superior, Arizona. It came to be known as the Woodbury fire, and it would consume nearly 113,000 acres of land in the Superstition Mountains before being extinguished. Fueled by tall grass, brush and chaparral, the Woodbury fire ranks as the sixth largest in the state’s history. The cause is unknown, but human origin is suspected.

A week after the fire erupted, Peter “Bigfoot” Busnack was visiting his son in North Carolina. Busnack’s partner telephoned him to say that the Woodbury fire was coming closer to their home in the Superstitions, where they run the Reevis Mountain School of Self Reliance. Authorities urged her to evacuate the area.

Busnack immediately headed for the airport and returned to Arizona around midnight to begin working alongside firefighters. “I slept for an hour and got out my chainsaw to try to clear the brush,” he says.

Busnack, 77, is a survivalist. And the land he lives on and lives off of was a place he says he dreamed about since childhood. “I was looking for it ever since I was about five years old,” he says. “It took me 38 years to find it.”

The fire burned quite a bit of the property, but he and the firefighters saved most of the important buildings. Still, much of his land burned, and his water supply was interrupted. “We get our water from a spring about three-quarters of a mile upstream,” he says. “All of that pipe burned up, so we had to replace it. That was a big job.”

He says that fires in the desert are becoming more frequent and more severe, thanks to a lack of rain. “I don’t think it used to be this way, but in the last 10 years, there have been so many fires. Things are getting burned to the ground,” he says.

Busnack also suspects that forest-service policy is not helping matters when it comes to the frequency and intensity of fires in Arizona.

“One of the things that bothers me is that the forest service has adopted this policy of extinguishing fires,” he explains. “They’ll try backburning it, but they don’t really do a good job of putting them out because they want to burn underbrush; so, when it burns again, it won’t be a catastrophic fire and won’t get up into the tops of the timber. I think the government wants to have a one-size-fits-all attitude about things. But when you have a fire in the desert, it’s a totally different deal than if there’s a fire in a big, tall pine forest. I’m not happy about that at all, so I think the forest service needs to change its policy.”

In fact, Busnack says, he has little trust in what humans do, especially when it comes to nature.  “I trust nature a whole lot more than what people do.”

And what people do, he says, is multiply and continuously consume, and that has the New Jersey native worried.

“I think about that a lot,” he says. “There’s no sense in talking about the environment, or rescuing the planet, or anything like that, unless we do something about the population. There are too many of us on the planet at once. So, I’d say the only remedy for that is reproduction reduction. There are so many millions of people, and they’re all consumers. Me, too. We’re consumers. That’s what people do. They consume. Every environmental problem there is, I can point right to overpopulation.”

More people bring more laws and regulations, more and bigger housing developments, and less solitude, he says.  “We’re doomed if we don’t do something about the population,” says Busnack, who came to Arizona in the winter of 1963.

“I wanted to live off the land,” explains Busnack. “I envied the freedom of wild animals. They don’t have any stuff. They’re wild and free, and I thought, that’s the way to be. Wild and free.”

Busnack discovered his current home nearly 40 years ago while hiking in the Superstitions. But things have changed since then.

“It seems like around here, there’s been a drying trend since around ’94,” he says. “We get less rain. That I’m concerned about. I may have to leave if the well dried up and the creek dried up. I might not have any choice but to leave; otherwise, I expect to spend another 100 years here or until I get bored, which isn’t very likely.”

Once in a while Busnack says he thinks about where he would go if he didn’t stay in Arizona. “I haven’t come up with any good answers. Things just sort of happen. We get an inspiration and we go for it. I’ve been here for 39 years, and I love every minute of it. I call it my paradise prison. It’s everything I ever wanted, but I can’t leave.”

— Robin Tricoles