Fire on the Mountain
Leaving Truckee last week I rode through the land burnt by the Dixie fire in northern California. It was recently been put out, and the impact is hard to comprehend. Whole valleys and mountainsides are burnt. The intense patches have little left vertical, just a few sooty wood columns among charred, jack-strawed trunks. Then further on, some ponderosas have a few green needles among the brown and gray ones; then a fully live patch stretches across a hillside like a camouflage pattern of army green, black, and buff.
I don't know this landscape or what it was really like before this fire, but I can guess. But the practical and emotional impact on those who live in this place is surely incalculable. If I imagine my own beloved spaces in Montana transformed this way, my heart catches at the loss. And these same changes are likely coming to many, many beloved landscapes of the West.
My good friend Phil is a prominent Western fire ecologist. He knows, far better than most, how natural and needed fire is for a forest. He often bristles when someone describes a forest or landscape as destroyed, devastated, or obliterated by fire. What's really unnatural and damaging in many cases is the artificial absence of fire. On a bike packing trip last year in Idaho we settled on "refreshed " as a good a general description of how many landscapes seem to feel after a fire.
I tried to keep that in mind as I rode through mile after mile of blackened trees, and saw the enormous logging effort now underway to clear actual and potential dead fall trees onto the highways. The ecological and human logistical scale of this aftermath is staggering, and catastrophic descriptions of fire start to feel unavoidable. On the phone, Phil agreed with me that the landscapes in my photos were far from refreshed, at least not in any short-term sense.
The sense of catastrophe I feel is not so much for any particular fire, but for the longer-term outlook for the West. Nearly half of California's 20 largest fires have happened in the last 2 years. Similar trends apply across the West. As Phil says, "Ecosystems are adjusting to the new climate conditions, and nearly all climate projections suggest we're going to see a lot more fire - and in some cases, that will mean fewer trees and less forests in our future." The data, the logic, and the obvious trends don't lie. But nonetheless, that conclusion is unacceptable to me.
In my life, and in the collective imagination, the West definitely includes big trees in vast forests that stretch over horizons. I celebrate these sentinel beings with our noses deep in ponderosa bark and arms wide to embrace them. I thrill to bear and lion claw marks on aspen and pines, and love to rest heavily in their shade on hot summer afternoons. In many ways this place is populated most meaningfully by trees.
I may come to love a West with fewer trees and more cacti, sagebrush and sharp manzanita; fewer deer and more rabbits and lizards; less trout and more dry arroyos. I may, but I'll always know the difference and mourn the losses. Impermanence, in the beautiful and searing sense of the Buddhists, has come for our forests.
We'll have to find ways to love the altered world that's coming, and work for its "integrity, stability and beauty," as Aldo Leopold advised. Amidst the mourning, there's a lot that needs doing along that path, and those who live in and of this place must take our shares.