In Fire, George R. Stewart closes his pioneering and page-turning novel with optimism. The last sentence in the book beautifully describes the serotinous pines – which only set seeds after a hot fire melts the resin holding the cones closed – and the gentle floating to the ground of the coated seeds thus released – seeds which sit in the nutritious ash from the fires until the heat of a future fire melts the coating so the seeds can germinate.
Here’s another version of events post-fire.
John Lucia, GRS follower, has finished his Volunteer Ranger work on the Caldor Fire at Kyburz in the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of Echo Summit,. . Here is his final report to date, which includes lessons from the experience.
Sunday, September 9, 2021 – The Volunteer Ranger’s Final Report on the Caldor Fire
A welcome rain, early this morning. The air is clean and for the most part, the fire has burned around and not through Kyburz. Three weeks ago, a small burn near Caldor (from the abbreviation, California Door) has now become almost 200,000 acres. Six times the area of the county of San Francisco. It will continue to expand, I am told, for at least another month. Resin-loaded stumps will burn for weeks. What was green and pleasing to the eye, will appear as sepia in an old photo. The forest is exactly the same size and shape, but now only brown, dead, brittle and lifeless. During the three months of winter, most will lose all their needles. The beautiful gown that once was, will transform from exquisite to skeletal. Heads will turn wanting to ignore and put out of their brain, what was imprinted for so long, as a way it always would be. Like something beautiful slowly aging and dying, this is but instantaneous and more lasting. Restoration of a forest, with good luck, takes 40 years or more.
Children, family, friends less than a month before came into this cathedral of nature taking it all for granted. Enjoying the cooling of the shade, the ultra-green hues close and distant, the fragrance of life to be enjoyed with every breath. Now the forest will try to heal itself. This fire fortunately was mostly slow and was not too hot around Kyburz. Soon, the north facing slopes will show the first indication of life. Countless evergreen and deciduous trees, millions of seed laden plants and flowers sprouting in the warmth of next spring. Fighting to survive all competing for the one required resource, water.
If God is kind, the winter will be hard, the snows heavy, the road closed more than usual, the spring late, dogwoods flowering into June. Maybe even remnant snowbanks over the summit on the three days associated with labor. Nature fighting to keep us all out as long, as possible. Allowing us back only when the days are long. Telling us it needs to be alone. It needs to heal. Wounding nature was easy. It was always vulnerable, it was always there for you, just as you assumed it would be. We say how much we enjoy our wooded surroundings, but we became complacent, lazy, and failed to protect. As in any relationship, words are fine, but they alone cannot prove fidelity. It matters not what you think or feel, actions always speak loudest. You cannot possibly love this land if you don’t at least notice it fighting to survive.
If our forests could speak, it might say, “your abusive, selfish desires may seal my fate”. Thousands of Keep Tahoe Blue stickers, on countless Tundra’s, Sequoia’s, Yukon’s and Tahoe’s do little to maintain the Azul. What are we really willing to give up to save our relationship with our only home? We constantly utter words of admiration, but rarely support them with proper actions. Do we really love to be in nature? When did camping become a 24-foot-long house dragged along by an F250 diesel? How can one honestly justify dish tv on their time of being one with nature? The guaranteed fact is those days and nights in that carbon heavy assault will be quickly forgotten. The hot shower, the comfortable bed, 140 channels, the climate/bug control, the aluminum ceiling blocking the stars, the frozen food and ice cream, the real half and half for the Starbuck’s coffee and all that makes us believe we are happy. There was a time, a few short years ago, when tents were only used in time of rain. Most campers said, it just wasn’t camping inside a tent, and now those in tent’s are “roughing it”.
This is just one of several wildfires burning in the Sierra right now. The Caldor, with 3000 firefighters, at least 1000 direct support members, I guess 700-800 law enforcement officers make up the human component. I estimate a ton of line lunches and five tons of bottled water every day. Over 1500 trucks of all shapes and sizes, a few dozen attack planes and helicopters, around 50 earth movers and with all that, the one thing that can never be supplied, is luck. If all goes well, the winds are normal we could still be wrestling this burn into October. Today’s fires start in the spring and continue through Halloween. Success or failure is measured on structure loss. I will be forever grateful all our neighbor’s homes were saved. Over 500 families have lost their home, and many will never rebuild. A house can be replaced in a few months, but how many will have the desire or ability to wait thirty years to experience the same views from their porch and windows? Most forests on the Pacific slope just never fully recover. I have witnessed four major fires on the 50 Corridor. Some leave a small scar, but most expose a sterile landscape, even after 50 years. People are impatient. We will bring a house to a forest but are not willing or able to wait for the forest to surround the house.
I don’t know the answer or solution to this problem that affects us all. I now believe slow moving, control burns done in late fall or early winter may be one of the only ways to bring our forest closer to a natural cycle. Are we, as a society, capable of budgeting more dollars to action than reaction?
We live in the new age. The age of the super fire. Like it or not, we are forced to deal with it.
I’d like to share some thoughts about the Caldor fire and these big, mega fires in general. I’ve been thinking about this now for some time.
We have been told over and over that these terrible fires are the direct result of climate change. That is a very logical conclusion to draw, however that scenario has never actually been proven. The droughts in the West might be caused by climate change or perhaps something else or perhaps even climate change combined with other factors.
It’s possible that the West goes through some kind of long-range, wet-dry cycle with or without anthropogenic-induced climate change. George R. Stewart alluded to this in “Fire”. He suggested that much of California’s forests had evolved in an era where California was wetter.
“Indeed, some said pessimistically that the forests of California had established themselves in some wetter cycle of centuries and that brush, once rooted, would remain until some wetter cycle returned”. – George R. Stewart from “Fire”.
However, another contributing factor to these big fires has to do with the total exclusion of fire from the natural environment. Before European settlers arrived on the scene, lightning-induced ground fires would go through the forests every few years, reduce the fuel loads and expose mineral soil that’s beneficial to new seedlings.
Pine trees, especially ponderosa and Jeffrey pine, are very fire tolerant and fire adapted. The lingering residue from turpentine and other related volatile hydrocarbons in dead pine needles and twigs allows them to burn when they are damp. The result is what we might call a “cool” fire that spreads across the forest floor doing little or no damage to the established pines but kills young hardwood saplings that would otherwise compete with the pines.
GRS was well aware of this. In the novel “Fire”, The Supervisor felt sorry for Bart because he took the Spitcat Fire so hard and told him, “…where there are pine trees, there’s fire, because if there’s no dry season, you’ll have a hardwood forest. You might say if there weren’t fire, there wouldn’t be pines”. – GRS from “Fire”
The human-caused, unnatural exclusion of fire during the 20th Century allowed the forests to grow very thick. So thick, in fact, that in a dry year there is simply insufficient moisture to support that kind of dense growth.
If you can, try and look at this Google Earth “Street View” near Grizzly Flats before the fire:
Some of that stuff is so dense that it’s what’s called in some circles a “dog hair thicket”. I read online somewhere where much of the forest in the Caldor Fire had not burned since the 1930s – nor had any thinning taken place.
Complicating the issue still further is the fact that in the past, bad logging practices and general forest mismanagement have also come into play.
“The western forests were no longer primeval woodlands of big trees through which a fire could sweep and do little damage. On the contrary, because of logging and man-caused fires, the forest consisted mostly of thick and highly inflammable second-growth, made all the worse by slash piles and brush fields”. – GRS from “Earth Abides”.
But there is yet another factor in these large fires. Congress has for years kept the U.S. Forest Service on a very tight, nearly starvation budget. There is simply insufficient staff to jump on and stamp out a small fire when a “red flag day” is in the forecast.
For example, crews were stretched so thin fighting the massive Dixie Fire that they allowed the Tamarack Fire to go since it was burning in a highly inaccessible area anyways. Well, it exploded and burned 68,637 acres before it was finally contained.
I don’t know, but that might also be the case with the Caldor Fire. Perhaps they could’ve jumped on it and contained it the first day *IF* they’d had the personnel.
Although the situation appears both bleak and depressing, there is hope and cause for some GRS-style optimism. I can share a personal experience I had.
When we moved to our seven-acre lot in Indiana back in 1990, there were NO trees nearby. I mean none! The wind whipping our house was so bad that one day it just about ripped my screen door off. I resolved to do something about this.
So, I planted evergreens around our house. White pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, white fir and spruce. Some of the seedlings I planted were no more than two inches tall. My father looked at them in amazement and remarked, “Oh my! Those ARE tiny! You must be quite an optimist!”
Well, at 20 years, they were as high as our two-story house! Now at 30 years they are much higher than the house. Indeed, I unfortunately had to have some removed because I was afraid they might fall ON the house.
My point is, that these trees, once they get a good start, actually grow faster than a lot of people assume. You hear remarks like, “After the The Fire, things will NEVER look the same again.” Or, “It’ll take centuries”, etc.
Well, 30 years after the fire it might not look exactly like it did before the fire, but once those seedlings get started and begin reaching for the sky, it will look somewhat like a forest again. In 50-60 years, perhaps, only a trained forester will recognize that there had been an old fire there.
In 2002 the 468,638-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire destroyed much of the ponderosa pine forest along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. Now today, much of that forest is regenerating nicely. Does it look like it did before the fire? No. But much of area is starting to look rather nice again.
Google Earth “Street View” showing pinus ponderosa regenerating near Arizona’s Mogollon Rim:
Mother Nature has a powerful ability to heal herself and to heal her forests quite possibly even in spite of climate change. “Moist and clean, the northwest wind from the ocean blew steadily across the long ridges, and from high-swinging cones, opened by the fiery heat, the winged seeds drifted downward to the earth”. – GRS concluding sentence from “Fire”.
Thank you, Professor Stewart, for writing “Fire”, “Storm” and “Earth Abides”.
Times will change and new problems and crises will come to pass, “but Earth Abides”.
Fred M. Cain,
Excellent, and in the best spirit of GRS. I forwarded it to the GRS, NPS, and NASA commun ities.