Saturday, September 28, 2013


A mid-September inch-and-a-half of rain to the high country was considered early this year, but not early enough.  Back in mid-July a wild land fire roared up from the depths of the Middle Fork of the American River.  For a time, the community of Foresthill was threatened.  But as the winds shifted, most of the fire’s activity worked its way east.

Earlier this month, before that storm, I decided to ride up Foresthill Divide and check out the changes in the environment up there.  At a junction in a still-green section of cedar and fir, a Forest Service Security Officer – all the way from Minnesota – stopped me.  “Fire’s still active.”  (It had been at least six weeks.) “They’re still doing water drops on hot spots with helicopters.” 

I’d seen a distant plume from a clearing back down the road and was a bit surprised by its robust nature this late in the game.  “Did it get as far as Robinson Flat?” I asked.  “Is the old guard station okay?”

“You know, I don’t know.  Ever’body who comes up this way seems to want to know about Robinson’s Flat.  I’ve never been there.  This is as far as I’m supposed to go.”

I counseled him to get up that way if he got the chance.

“Not the first time I’ve heard that,” he said with a casual grin.

Curiosity and time arc on separate trajectories.  Yesterday, mine crossed.  I straddled the Breva and headed up the Divide to tour the aftermath.

That first good soaking quelled the fire.  The security stop was gone but the area immediately around it was still a verdant green.  A map of road closures was posted there.  It indicated that Foresthill Road was open all the way to Robinson Flat and beyond, but every offshoot from Foresthill Road was closed.
A half-mile up the road, the fire’s effects were fully realized.

Blackened trees, devoid of leaves or needles stood naked against an innocent, blue sky. 

Manzanita ground cover was stripped of leaves in some areas; reduced to ash in others.
The pavement of Foresthill Road provided enough fuellessness to break the torrent from crossing and descending into the North Fork drainage.

Huge sugar pines had been expertly felled by the side of the road in an effort to push fuel back into the fire’s path.  I could imagine the heroic efforts of the firefighters wielding chainsaws in choking, hot conditions.
Foresthill Road, six weeks hence, was open, clear and free of debris, although the air was tinted with a stale ashtray aroma emanating from the moist and musty remnants of charred duff.
Three or four miles in, I came to a sign recounting the story of the last major fire in the area, one from 2008.  Conflagrations are not unknown in these parts.  Not even rare.

The drama of the American Fire was eclipsed by an explosion called “the Rim Fire” down on the Stanislaus, about 80 miles south.  In that episode, tens of thousands of acres were scorched and thousands of folks battled to save forested lands and properties.  Beyond the monetary costs and human-view losses, an unfortunate aftermath of both of these fires has been finger pointing and blamesmanship.

Some say if we’d allowed timber harvest to continue as it had in the 60s, there would not have been the fuels available for such a broad swath.  Others suggest that the government mishandled clearing of the understory.  Still others say the urban-forest interface locates people in places where protection of private property is too expensive and is accomplished at the expense of the rest of the forest.  Many, in each of these camps, are absolute in their assurance that it is the other guy’s fault, whether the other guy is the environmentalist, the government or the developer.

Some things seem fairly simple, however. 

The devastation of a forestland fire is awful to look at, but simply part of a regenerative process.  Prior to our meddling in the natural situation, fire rolled through forests cleaning underbrush, reducing fuels and enriching soils for seeds to sprout and the cycle to continue.  Then we came along with plans to improve on the circumstance.

We are all responsible for maintaining healthy forests.  We can do this through moderation in our efforts to harvest, develop and groom our wild lands.  Too much of any one puts things out of balance.  And we see the results.

Individual visitors to the forest must be careful with fire.  It has always been the case that our southwestern forests live in an arid climate.  Folks leaving campfires unattended, carelessly discarding smoking refuse, using fireworks, or especially deliberately setting fires deserve jail time salted with some time on a crew cutting line.

And this I learned from a whiskered Forest Service fire boss while hauling groceries to the huge Skinner’s Mill fire camp on the Mendocino outside of Corning, CA back in the 70s:  "We don’t put wild fires out," he said.  "They go out."

With that inch-and-a-half of rain recently, that’s what happened on the Foresthill Divide.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press