Those of us fortunate enough to have a home to return to after the Caldor Fire awoke to an ordinary, and yet extraordinary, morning this week. It was raining. The skies overcast with billowy white clouds edged in grey, skating across the sky and showering on our thirsty forests. We opened windows and breathed deeply, taking in the almost herbal smell of rain on layers of duff beneath tall pines. We called spouses and children to come - share a moment that felt like hope.
For many weeks we’d been oppressed by threat, worn down with worry, vigilant, and checking fire news throughout the day. It was natural we forgot what everyday life up here was like before fire season and been euphoric when nature delivered a gentle overnight rain, cleaning the air, feeding the soil, and lifting our spirits.
Yes, we still know that our most dangerous season is not over – September through December are California's high-fire months, and we still have to remain on alert, ready to grab pre-packed bags of food and clothes and say farewell to our earthly possessions. That one day of blessed rain let us think ahead and feel some optimism. But then, our attention shifted south, where treasures that belong to everyone face a fire like none before in living history.
In the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, an angry and determined fire is threatening Sequoia trees that have been growing centuries before the birth of Christ. One of the oldest is also known as the largest on Earth – The General Sherman Sequoia - 2,200 to 2,700 years old. It’s also the world’s largest remaining Sequoia at 275 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter. In the distant past, the Mono, Paiute, and Western Shoshone people were stewards of thousands of Sequoia trees. And in recent decades, millions of tourists have come to stand beneath this giant in awe of its majesty and its ancient lifeline. Today, it sits vulnerable, wrapped in swaths of fire-resistant foil material that firefighters hope will be its salvation.
The Sequoia Grove reigned over the land when California’s first horticulturists gathered food and medicinal plants. Indigenous people were then the caretakers of forestlands, wetlands, and grasslands. There is no evidence of mega wildfires under their stewardship because, using available technology and innate knowledge of the natural world that sustained them, they became the state’s first fire managers. Low-intensity fires that happen naturally were seasonal events, and Native People understood low burns would clean the forest floor and revitalize the earth for the growing season. Some of California’s first people even created controlled fires toward this goal. Catastrophic fires were not an annual event, as they became under our Smokey-the-Bear fire suppression approach.
I remember when fire in forestlands became a hot political issue – it was under the broad category of “environmentalism” that started in the 1970s and grew over decades. Young people became social icons, sitting in trees to prevent logging operations. The Sierra Club jumped on board as a well-funded political force. The logging industry was decimated, and California’s forestlands grew into dense stands of kindling just waiting for a lightning strike or a tossed cigarette.
Over recent decades, forest managers have embraced a ‘middle way.’ The California Department of Parks and Recreation acknowledges the natural role that fire plays in California’s forestlands. The intense heat of wildfires cleans debris and smaller plants from around the roots of trees, giving seeds a chance to grow throughout another season. Research and decades of fire suppression led to this educated conclusion – a reality already owned by the region’s indigenous people for many centuries.
Unfortunately, it’s a little too late in a state with 33 million acres of forestlands. We now must struggle to repair decades of neglect. We are surrounded by evidence of our failure to manage forests – swaths of land cloaked in deep, dry duff; dead, fallen trees waiting to spread flames.
And yes, many of us choose to live in this environment – a reality that raises calls for nature dwellers to go back to the city where they belong. Too many people living too close to fire danger, the critics claim. But we who prefer to live with and in Mother nature are not the cause of conditions that lead to catastrophic wildfires. It’s overgrown and neglected forests and untended private lands that create the perfect firestorm.
I admit, driving up the hill to our home after the evacuation lifted, I did wonder about the wisdom of reclaiming our mountain home. We all know that it’s not if another fire will burn, but when. Nonetheless, it took only one night in the valley to be reassured. We’d met a friend for dinner at an outdoor restaurant. A guy with a guitar and a big speaker was crooning loudly on the patio. He never took a break. With the chatter of people and clatter of plates, it was a cacophony that defeated quiet conversation. The company and the food were, however, welcome after so much isolation.
Walking back to the parking garage, I spotted a sliver of moon in the sky – a soft pastel hue, barely noticeable. Within a half-hour, we’d turned off the freeway and up the winding two-lane road to our home. Black silhouettes of pine trees hugged the turns, and soon we pulled into our driveway, shut off the truck lights, and stepped outside to look skyward. Enveloping quiet fell, and we were wrapped in inky darkness that slowly revealed shadows of cedar and dogwood trees. We look up at a night sky alive with bright stars and a shimmering Milky Way. The crescent moon radiated a rich amber glow. And this is why we will stay, accepting both the bounties offered by our natural environment and the risks we’ll face with each dry season and angry wind.
FIRE UPDATE 9/22: The Caldor Fire is 76% contained. It’s burned 219,578. Gusty winds and warm dry weather added to flare-ups in high elevations. Additional resources being called in – 10 fire engines and 5 more Hot Shot Crews.
Thanks to you all for journeying with me through this month-long experience. Truly, it will never be over, but I hope to soon share other thoughts with you as the smoke lifts and skies clear. Thanks to so many of you who have emailed and shared your thoughts and experiences with me. Also - the hotbed issue of environmental activists and the logging tradition are central to my mystery book - The Song of Jackass Creek. Please check it out on Amazon!
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