I have backpacked in the high wilderness of the Sierra Nevada nearly every summer for 20 years. Often, I have smelled the tang of wildfires burning somewhere to the north or south, and on a few trips, I’ve awakened to dismaying haze cutting the blue morning, and I’ve observed plumes of smoke in the distance. For me, fire has been part of summertime in the High Sierra, as familiar as the sharp granite horizons, afternoon thunderstorms, ice-cold lakes, and mosquitoes swarming at dusk.
During a trip in 2015, a large fire, the so-called Rough Fire, forced hikers on the John Muir Trail to flee in all directions. The friends I had been hiking with were so concerned that they left me in the dust as they hotfooted down the exit trail. That night I camped by a creek alone. But I chortled along with the creek because the wind had shifted and left a clear, starry sky. Unrushed by the ponderous, slow-moving fire, which at 150,000 acres would become the largest in California that year, I hiked out the next day.
Wildfires are not behaving politely in the mountains anymore. No one in the bone-dry Sierra can be complacent if a fire starts nearby. As I write this, thousands of people have evacuated the city of South Lake Tahoe, near the famous lake, because of the Caldor Fire, which by the end of August had blackened 200,000 acres with no sign of stopping. In a piece about Sierra wildfire in the Spring issue of the SCHOLAR, I reported on the extraordinary amount of brush and timber that burned in California in 2020. Topped by the 380,000-acre Creek Fire, some four million acres burned last year, a record by far. A few weeks before the Creek Fire started, I happened to hike and camp along a trail in its eventual path, which provided me a safe perch—back at home—from which to explore the ramifications. But my essay has been overshadowed by fire conditions more ferocious than I knew.
What is going on in the flammable mountains? Echoing the experts, I put most of the blame on the buildup of fuels, which was due to a century-long policy to suppress fire in terrain where fire had once been a natural, cleansing, and generally mild feature. Second in importance was overdevelopment, responding to a yen for sylvan recreation and retreat. Vacation resorts and cabins and many people are at risk, even as the pines and firs have thickened. People also are at fault for the great majority of fires, through accident or arson. Though state and federal agencies have seen the dangers looming, their orders for prophylactic burning, logging, thinning, and clearing of shrubbery from around houses—simple precautions, like vaccinations in an epidemic—have fallen far short of the need.
Isn’t climate change a huge factor too? Yes, our warming climate has certainly contributed to the spate of wildfires, and yet, climate is a tripwire, not a systemic cause. Climate change ranks behind structural factors like too much woody fuel and too much development, and it ranks, as well, behind the recent drought in California and deaths of conifers from insect infestation, making more tinder for fires. Environmentalists may disagree, but the warming climate is, at best, a puppet-master that harnesses the other factors and jerks them malevolently. In deciding how to allocate resources going forward, more progress will be made by treating the forests than by fixing the climate, not that either course will be easy.
We have entered a new regime, the Sierra Anthropocene: its particular conditions have never occurred before. Since the early 1930s, when accurate record-keeping began, 20 wildfires of 175,000 acres or more have taken place in the state. The eight largest of these have erupted in the past four years. As the trend toward ever-bigger fires becomes plain, the rulebook for responding must be rewritten. The timber has never been as dry or thick before; the winds have not been as strong or nighttime temperatures as mild; and, partly as a result, fires did not fling their embers miles ahead of the line of flames, routing the fire crews. For the first time, a wildfire has gone up one flank of the Sierra range, topped the crest, and come down the other side—both the Caldor and Dixie fires have done it, both still burning as I write.
There are caveats to consider too. Four million acres of burned terrain in 2020 is a lot, but according to research by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, equivalent amounts burned in California in most years before white settlement. In “prehistoric” times, Native Americans set fires routinely to abet hunting, and lightning-caused fires meandered freely. The first settlers in California reported that smoky air was common throughout the summer. No doubt those fires were less intense, since regular burning kept the forests in check. Which is to indicate again that the big, hot fires of the past century are an anomaly. That anomaly is going to be corrected “naturally,” that is, by the big fires themselves, aggressively pushing forests back toward a healthier state—or by our mechanical intervention, at some considerable cost. Both may happen at the same time.
On our annual hike earlier this summer, my friends and I went to the beautiful Graveyard Lakes, which are north of the Edison Lake reservoir in the southern Sierra. The peaks in the south of the range are higher than in the north, and wildfires even when they try cannot get up and over the crest. For the first part of the hike, we walked through the upper reaches of last year’s Creek Fire. It made for a spooky scene. Our voices sounded strange and hollow because hardly any vegetation muffled them. Tall, black trunks of Douglas fir were dead where they stood, the bark spotting off them, but at their bases new green shrubs nestled. Wildflowers bloomed beside heat-cracked boulders, and some ants raced about.
After a few miles we climbed into a zone of clear peaks, healthy lodgepole pine, thin air, and happiness. The next morning, we had haze from the distant Dixie Fire, but no smoke, and in the afternoon, thunderclouds swelled over our heads and rinsed the atmosphere clean.
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