This post will probably surprise some of my readers because it’s actually topical (Even I have to admit that trail reports and random musings aren’t always cutting news!) and it contains photos and links, rather than just straight text, which, I suppose, makes this my “bloggiest” post ever. But in any case, that’s not really important. What is important is the Angora Fire. Like everyone else with a TV, access to the internet, or a newspaper subscription, I learned about the fire shortly after it started and was able to view the devastation that it has caused. And, probably like everyone else, I didn’t give the story my full attention. But, when I started to hear the names of the places that were affected by the fire, Tahoe Mountain and Fallen Leaf Lake, I listened to the story intently because it was another place I knew that had been fundamentally changed.
I grew up in San Diego, and enjoyed the mildly forested areas of the backcountry as a child. I can still remember the distinct smells of the trails running through Cuyamaca State Park – a mixture of dry, dusty dirt, and sprouting growth. That smell, and a large percentage of the forest in the area disappeared in the 2003 Cedar Fire, along with thousands of homes and other backcountry areas. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedar_Fire). Four years later, the forest returns slowly, but the smell is currently gone – replaced by one of smoke and ash. In 2002, when I was climbing mountains for a non-profit, I was in Colorado for the Hayman Fire, and watched waves of heat and smoke burn the sky from the fire’s progression. (See http://www.wilderness.org/Library/Documents/WildfireSummary_Hayman.cfm ). Before that, I worked for the National Park Service, and like any seasonal employee in my division, had wilderness firefighting training. From my training I learned that the professionals and seasonal employees that fight these fires have one of the most difficult – and dangerous jobs around, despite being some of the most dedicated individuals around.
The point about all of the above is that, sadly, I know a lot about wilderness fires. I’ve been to many areas pre-burn; and many areas during a fire; and many areas post-burn. It is worth noting at this point that many wilderness fires are unpreventable – meaning, that they are acts of nature. A lightning strike can ignite dry brush, and away the flames spread. But equally, it’s also worth noting that many fires are the work of people. The main point about all of this is to remember what we as people lose with wilderness fires. There’s the certain costs – the destruction of people’s homes and property which carries a hard mathematical number. More importantly, there’s the uncertain costs – the emotional stresses on people who are in the line of encroaching fires; the stresses on firefighters and other first responders; and the despair of people who lose property; and in some tragic cases, lose lives.
Beyond that, there are the intangible costs. While fire is a part of the natural process, it can – and does severely damage habitats and areas for an extended period of time. Moreover, it also places an added strain on ecosystems in an age where wilderness is increasingly sparse. Last, it also deprives the public of beautiful and scenic areas. It is a fact that people will fight to preserve things that they can see and appreciate. Conversely, it is very difficult to get people to conserve something that they cannot see or that has already been destroyed. With the Angora fire, I know we’ve lost – and are losing a lot of wilderness that will not be restored for a long time, if ever.
What have we lost in this? We’ve lost more than I can remember. I remember in 2002, when I was in Tahoe to climb Mt. Tallac, I parked at the Fallen Lake Leaf trailhead, and started to hike up the trail. The soil had that earthy, mountain forest smell. The trees rustled in the hot summer winds, brushing leaves against each other to try and cool off. At some point, my hiking partner and I stopped at one of the lakes midway up the mountain and watched a mother duck shepherd her young around the lake. Back behind us, the forest stretched off to the lake and South Lake Tahoe city.
A couple years before that, I was looking for a place to cross country ski away from the masses at the many resorts encircling the basin. I had stumbled across the area on a Wednesday, and soon found myself alone in utter silence. All I could hear was the crunching snow from my skies and the odd sounds of a lonely bird. It was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle that is ski season in Tahoe. I imagine those recollections are just the tip of what has been lost. I’m sure the ducks have moved on easily, having wings, but left at the mercy of the Angora Fire are hundreds of other animals who have had to flee the best they could from the destruction. The green expanse in the second picture is no doubt gone - most likely replaced by an ugly black scar. When winter comes, the snow will fall on the ghostly remnants of trees. Unfortunately, the area will now live up to its name – “the Desolation Wilderness”. Before, the name reflected the pristine beauty of the lodgepole and red fir trees. Now, it will be a grim reflection of the destruction that this fire has brought.
The tough thing about this fire – and others is that there is no easy solution. As noted above, wilderness fires are a part of the natural process. But, just because a solution is not easy to come by, does not mean that we should not work for a solution. George Skelton, of the Capitol Journal suggests that homeowners should take more responsibility with regard to their property, and strive to clear dry brush. (http://www.latimes.com/news/columnists/la-me-cap28jun28,0,7113779,full.column?coll=la-home-center ). This is clearly a start. Another idea would be to enact stricter laws regarding the setting of wildfires. While arson is a felony in California and most states, perhaps a stricter penalty would serve as more of a deterrent to prevent individuals from committing such atrocities. (Such a crime, could potentially be called “Habitat Destruction” or something along those lines. As noted above, at this point, it is unknown how exactly this fire started.) Other ideas could include a larger budget for firefighting and wilderness preservation agencies. These funds could provide more jobs to prevent fires, and mitigate the extent and severity of such fires.
Last, changes could come about from working to slow the progression of climate change. There is probably an argument to be made that without the global change in temperature and climate patterns, this area of California would not be experiencing as severe of a drought as it currently is. Without such a severe drought, this fire would probably not be as large as it currently is. This, however, is all speculation. The point is that each and every one of us needs to work on enacting change to protect our environment, because otherwise all we will have left is our memories and several handfuls of ash.