It is summer moving into the fall of 2020 and California has been burning for almost four months, over three million acres incinerated by mid-September and more on the horizon. Thousands of fires, many beginning small and some merging to form bigger ones. A record year in a period of climate disruption when records are made only to be broken, frequently before people have recovered from earlier calamities. For some, recurrent evacuations are becoming the norm.
I had been wanting to camp at Lava Beds National Monument for the past six months but the coronavirus kept it closed until a few months ago, and before I could arrange to travel north, wildfire set in and closed it again. Fire burned 70% of the Monument, meaning over 32,000 acres; I don’t know how much burned outside its boundaries. A few weeks ago, like a battered boxer up against the ropes, it gathered itself to try once more and reopened. I am pleased it did and am now camped here.
Fire burned completely around the perimeter of the campground and in places leapt in and took out trees, brush, signs, and picnic tables but left it about three fourths intact, due apparently to a fortuitous combination of light wind, the encircling roadway, and valiant firefighting. I bow in gratitude to both humans and Nature on the assumption it was a collaboration to preserve this green island in the dark sea surrounding it. I’ve found a fine little campsite and recognize the flipside of fiery tragedy is that it keeps the crowds down. I practically have the place to myself.
I have been here a week and plan to stay at least one more. The trails are closed (“protecting the resource” is what it’s called—an unholy phrase that is too often used about natural things. I’d like to scour it from the tongues of “resource professionals” as thoroughly as the fire did the ground; “resource” degrades whatever piece of Nature it refers to), but with the roadways barely traveled I can walk them to observe, take pictures, and experience the aftermath of what fire does to a landscape. Pre-fire what you saw here was rolling country to the north with remnant volcanoes and other hills and buttes separated by flatland covered mostly in bunchgrass, sagebrush, and rabbitbrush. The middle third where I am retained most of the grass and shrubs and added juniper, which is said to have flourished during the decades of fire suppression. I’ve never lived anyplace where juniper was appreciated—it is the pigeon of the plant world—but the wildlife and I like it, especially the species around here that grows upward rather than just outward (as the Ashe Juniper in Texas where I once lived did) and makes finely shaped trees, though not nearly as tall as the few ponderosa pines found well-spaced among them. They are migrants, or remnants, from the southern side of the Monument, which is more elevated and thus favorable to the pines.
Many areas are still almost exclusively lava field with only occasional plant growth, although it always surprises me to see large trees and bushes that found a way to root and flourish within lava’s gnarly midst, seemingly against the odds in this arid country. Ironically, the lava that flowed out of the volcanoes sporadically for over 100,000 years in molten luminosity has once again been burned and newly blackened even if not liquefied. Born in fire below, it easily endures it here on the surface. I wonder how long it will take for the lava to break down and become part of the soil.
Since junipers were the predominant tree, their dark deaths are most apparent. I say deaths but can’t help wondering if there’s a chance some could come back. I see on the trunks of those that were chain-sawed that the fire damage was only superficial, barely penetrating, and sometimes only scorching the bark. On those still standing, the leaves on most are all burned away and on others roasted in place. Grab a handful and it turns to organic dust. Could new growth return next year for any of these? I’ve seen flowering trees bud early in the spring only to be crushed by a late freeze and still come back. Can these junipers perform similar magic? Doubtful, I imagine; their foliage and high oil content make them too thoroughly burnable even when heartwood appears sound.
I see many shrubs where new growth is already emerging from the roots. As a source of inspiration, the sprigs of green foliage arising from blackened, burnt roots and standing beside the dead limbs of their forebears can hardly be matched. I was surprised by the first ones and then suddenly I saw them everywhere. I will be interested over coming years to see how it all comes back, the stages and sequences and species. If it does come back. Reality impels us to realize that many ecosystems around California will not return to their pre-fire condition, that forests will become grasslands, for example, owing to climate changes that have altered for the foreseeable future rain and temperature patterns that were the historical environment in which forests prospered. This Lava Beds land was already arid so what happens when it becomes more so? The answer for many of the natives is probably that the collection of plants and animals that flourished here were able to do so only conditionally and the terms were narrow and may now have been exceeded. Hot and dry was fine; hotter and dryer may ask too much.
A burnt landscape is invariably grim, black, and death-filled, abundant visible evidence of loss and mental stimulus for imagined losses. How did the snakes and lizards manage hiding underground? How many mule deer were brought down by smoke and then incinerated? Coyotes and rabbits and ground squirrels? It seems quiet—have the birds mostly left for food and safety? No, some are still around. The only specific news I’ve heard was from a ranger who said the rattlesnakes had become quite active, which I surmise is out of desperation. Presumably, rodents also managed to hide underground but what happens to the predatorial dance when there’s no cover? What are the rodents eating while waiting to be eaten themselves? Who, if any, benefit from the fire while all await new growth? I picture a lot of death and adjustment over the interim. Even so, I saw a hefty bobcat scurry into a rocky depression as I walked this morning and am reasonably sure that during the night coyotes yipped. Animals are resourceful creatures and know more than we about what it will take to resume their normal lives.
Knowing that most ecosystems have incorporated periodic fire into their repertoire since their time began consoles and reassures me that no matter how ravaged it appears now, it will return surprisingly quickly even if altered. But future promise does not negate present loss. I love the characteristic look and smell of this landscape, especially when the rains have come, and now I look out from my roadside walks and it is gone. Yet I also notice that each day I am less affronted by its grim visage and become more comfortable with its new format. Bare skeletal branches weave shapes that weren’t visible before, graceful sometimes eerie lines reaching black wands toward blue sky. First impressions of end time desolation begin to give me the sense of transition rather than mere ending, of landscape pausing to draw new breath with hints of things to come in the hopeful green sprouts.
It is one thing, of course, to understand fire as normal and that new green growth will return, life and time will march forward. But we may never be able to think that way again; for now and centuries to come we will live under a weather regime that will dance to the tune of an increasingly disrupted climate—more heat, drought, flood; more extremity and unpredictability; more species losses and forever altered ecosystems; more calamities of water and food shortage. After each catastrophic event we will wonder if and what it would have been like if we had had the sense to do what was necessary to preserve the climatic way things were. That loss, and the guilt that accompanies it, is an analogue for the grief I feel amidst the relatively emptied landscape before me.
Perhaps it’s just my fading memory but I don’t recall being struck before by the land being so thoroughly scoured of life and organic detritus by fire. Because so much that grows in aridity isn’t even head-high and visibility thus extends to the horizon, it is easy to forget how much grows here. But because most of its growth is low it burns readily and once gone leaves a peculiarly mottled gravelly patina, desolate to the eye. Apocalyptic may be the word. It reminds me of battlefields after trench warfare or of Hiroshima after the bomb.
There are more fires to the west, I hear. For most days over the last week smoke has dominated the sky. The morning sun can be looked at almost directly and is a beautiful deep orange circle painted by smoke. I can barely smell it but don’t have the most acute olfactory so it may be stronger than I realize; my eyes however tell me that if it gets much thicker it will be time to leave. The horizon is obscured and the buttes little more than outlines themselves. Paternalistic as the rangers often are, this is one time they say we’re on our own to decide. They don’t measure air quality and it’s up to us to determine when it is no longer acceptable.
After twelve days I am forced to leave; the smoke has grown heavier and I don’t want to subject my lungs to further assault. The experience of being here after fire has been different than when I’ve been here before, but I am sorry to leave. I have adjusted to the changes and can even sense that the fire was cleansing and has opened space for renewal in new combinations of arid lands flora. Park Service employees had periodically, here-and-there, thinned the juniper during recent years, which means their jobs become easier as, instead of that, they can monitor new growth and eradicate saplings where they return too eagerly, too prolifically. I don’t know enough about the natural history of this place, and how much of a genuine problem the juniper is, to judge but I hope they will follow a light touch regime. Decisions about what should and shouldn’t be allowed to make their place within a landscape ought never be done without careful thought, for considerations of both ethics and ecosystem dynamics.
Leaving I think about how I am drawn to volcanic regions. Here in Lava Beds there are none of the more energetic signs of subterranean unrest as there are south of here in Lassen Volcanic National Park: the boiling, vaporous mudpots and springs, steaming fumaroles, and sulfurous ponds. Here there are only the signs of what once was: lava tube caves, remnants of cinder cone volcanoes, and ground sprinkled and often immersed in the rough dark lava of congealed basaltic flows. At Lassen there is a spot on the east side of Boiling Springs Lake where I always spend time for my imagination to be stirred by the odorous, turquoise colored two to three-acre pond where steam rises from fissures along its banks. What is happening below, I wonder, and does the pond wash away in snowmelt floods and refill, slowly to resume its sultry, quirky presence surrounded by pine and fir forest? The toxic brew will not permit trees or other plants to grow along its shore, but I’ve never noticed floral damage along its summer-dry downstream bed.
Here in the less dramatic, superficially quiescent region of Lava Beds it is primarily the sage-juniper landscape with its lava intrusions that hold my attention. As my predilections have changed with age, I am drawn more to places like this where I can see the horizon. The lava speaks decisively of change and a violent history and the near certainty of eventual renewal of volcanic disturbances. Volcanic regions remind me of transience, which is always well to remember. Today’s smoky atmosphere seems to strike a fitting note as I drive away.