Staring into the Fire

Lone Fir  installed in Pacific Science Center’s central courtyard

Lone Fir installed in Pacific Science Center’s central courtyard

Earlier this summer, in Pacific Science Center’s central courtyard, a crane swung a burnt Douglas fir 60 feet in the air, past the admission gates, and landed it gingerly on a stainless steel frame. This tree, an art piece entitled Lone Fir, sits there today. I brought it there as part of a larger project called The Smoke Season that was designed to help introduce Seattle to its new neighbor: wildfire. 

After Lone Fir landed, I departed down Interstate 5 into Oregon and California. I’d seen a lot of forest fire damage in my home state of Washington, having visited the ruins of the Jolly Mountain fire in the Cascades. That was the 2017 blaze that burned over 35,000 acres of the Wenatchee National Forest and created a smoke cloud that blanketed Seattle. From that devastated forest I selected Lone Fir for the Pacific Science Center and other burned trees for the Smoke Season exhibit across the grounds of the Seattle Center. Now I wanted to learn more about wildfires. Over two weeks, I made a loop like a noose through towns including Paradise and Santa Rosa and wild places like Yosemite and the Redwoods bordering the Pacific Coast to see how other areas withstand and recover from flames. 

Here are some of the things I saw. 

The Roadside Fuelbreak and Its Limits

In forestry and firefighting, a fuelbreak is a strip of forest where underbrush has been removed, stands of trees have been thinned and the lower branches of larger trees have been delimbed. The resulting lack of combustible fuel makes it difficult for wildfires to spread. During active wildfires, firefighters build fuelbreaks in hopes of setting a limit to where flames may travel. Foresters will do the same by identifying points on a landscape where thinning trees can ensure that one patch of forest will be safe even if its neighbor is burning.

Roads act as fuelbreaks, as well. A four-lane freeway or a single-lane dirt road can stop wildfire. But, as I drove south, it became clear that people believed a line of pavement was not always enough. In Oregon and Northern California, trees had been culled from the roadside. Some lay on the ground waiting to be collected; others were already removed, and only the stumps remained. Beneath Mount Shasta, trees closest to the roads were marked with white blazes, waiting to be felled. 

It was late June, and I could already feel the heat that would only increase during the summer months. Winding through the mountains outside of Redding, CA, I made out a ridgeline with burnt trees stretching into the distance. As I glided around a curve, the former fire revealed the extent of its appetite. To my left, on the far side of the Interstate, everything had burned. The earth was ash gray and punctuated by the blackened exclamation points of dead evergreens. The four lanes of freeway and 80 feet of median--what one might imagine as the World’s Greatest Fuelbreak--had done nothing to stop this fire. The conflagration to the left side of the road had nonchalantly crossed traffic and marched across to the right. The entire valley and surrounding mountains had burned. I kept moving through this wasteland, waiting for it to become a memory in my rearview mirror. 

Paradise No More

Trailer park. Paradise, CA.

Trailer park. Paradise, CA.

Some hours later, I was sitting at a picnic table on the western edge of Paradise, California drinking a soda at a taco truck. Around me, hard-working Americans in steel-toed boots and yellow safety vests ate burritos and discussed the day’s activities in Spanish and English. The cars gleamed red and silver in the sunshine. Previously, the town was home to over 25,000 residents, but it burned to the ground in the course of one short morning in November of 2018. 

Colleagues had been to Paradise earlier in the year, and I’d asked them to film the aftermath of the fire. The footage they’d sent was difficult to comprehend. I knew that a forest fire and a fire in a city are two different things. A city fire burns hotter. Chemicals--stored in a garage or housed in a car engine--combust ferociously and reach temperatures in excess of 1000 °F. When a wildfire burns a tree, its blackened trunk remains. A living fir and a burnt fir somehow remain linked. But when a house burns, another kind of transformation takes place, and it is no longer recognizable as a home. 

In fact, urban fires burn so hot that most things you think you would recognize have been vaporized or turned to ash. A glass vase will puddle on the ground, and a plastic hose to water your lawn or a bookshelf filled with novels will leave no trace. Mostly what remains is oxidized metal, flecked in oranges and grays. 

After finishing my drink, I drove up Paradise’s main road beneath a patchy canopy of burnt evergreens where two out of three retail establishments had been reduced to rubble. I turned into the remains of a trailer park. Workers wearing respirators and white jumpsuits were either removing debris or hosing the site down to ensure that toxic dust wouldn’t spread. The trailers were all gone. What remained was metal and brick: Husks of dishwashers, warped cast iron fences, a van sitting on its axles with its tires melted away. The community that once lived within this forest had been turned into climate refugees and were scattered who knew where.

I stopped beneath a temporary awning and chatted with a woman named Kristen. She had a pollution monitor attached to her lapel that crackled like a Geiger counter as we spoke. Everyone had become extremely conscious about worker safety in the wake of health complaints from the clean-up after 9/11; hence, the respirators, the booties, the monitors and protocols. All the waste on the sites was being piled into dump trucks and sealed beneath tarps. From there, it would be carted to the dump. 

Kristen explained that parts of the trailer park had been “remediated”. The ground had been raked clean of all debris, and wooden dowels had been staked in the ground, their tops painted in green or red to define if the surrounding land was safe to enter. As we spoke, we were surrounded by the busy sounds of people at work--the scrape of a backhoe, the beeping of a vehicle backing up. The possessions and memories of 26,000 people had burned on the land that surrounded us. 

I couldn’t help but ask: “Are people really going to move back in here?”

With an optimism that bellied the surroundings, Kristen responded: “That’s the plan.”

Santa Rosa Rebuild

Date Palm. Santa Rosa, CA.

Date Palm. Santa Rosa, CA.

Days later, driving north on I-101, I came into Santa Rosa. In October of 2017, the Tubbs fire swept through this city, killing 22 and burning neighborhoods to the ground. The steadying, synthetic voice of my navigation suggested I exit the freeway and led me, I assumed, into a neighborhood that would have the same aura of destruction as Paradise.

Instead, I found something entirely different. An ersatz subdivision of tract houses rose up with dirt lots in front and pine fences hiding back yards. Further in, the houses were half-complete, revealing plastic sheeting or plywood walls. Porta Potties and work trucks lined the curbs. Here, pollution monitors and hazmat suits were replaced by people working more recognizable, comforting trades (contractors, carpenters, and electricians). There was nothing burnt in sight. 

I wound my way further in until I saw a single date palm, perhaps 40 feet tall. It sat snuggly between the foundations of two new buildings. Its fronds were green and lush, but its long trunk was carbonized black. In this entire community, this was the only remnant the fire had left. Hundreds of lives had been upended by the conflagration and millions of dollars spent to rebuild, but the palm lived on. A new community was being constructed by its side, right where the last one had burnt to the ground.  

Redwoods and Resilience

Burnt Redwood. Humboldt County, CA.

Burnt Redwood. Humboldt County, CA.

Late in the trip, when June had turned to July, in Humboldt county California, I came upon a family of four in the parking lot of The Garden Club of America Redwood Grove. A branch from one of the trees that towered above had fallen on the hood of their car. Coulant leaked onto the pavement. The boy in the family explained that everything was OK, while his dad called for a tow. 

I’d spent the trip studying what different ecosystems look like when they have burned in the recent past, but I hadn’t seen how a forest appeared years or decades after a fire. I didn’t know if I’d find old fire here, but it seemed like a logical place to start. The wind whipped overhead, and the branches groaned as they scraped each other in the canopy. Within fifty feet of leaving the parking lot, I found what I was searching for. A Redwood, perhaps fifty feet in circumference stood in the distance, a black ring around its trunk. Smaller unburnt Redwoods grew up around this singular tree. 

As I approached, I glanced toward the tree’s crown, and watched it sway with its companions. Was it struck by lightning? Or had a fire come through decades ago before the other trees sprouted from pinecones? I couldn’t tell. But like the date palm in Santa Rosa, it was still standing, still living. What more could it ask for? 

I left the Redwood and returned to the parking lot. The family was still there, the tow truck some two hours away. I offered to give them a ride to their campsite, and they clambered into my car. We drove slowly beneath the trees with the windows down. The children offered up anecdotes of their vacation and expressed wonder at National Parks and the natural beauty that surrounded them. When I left them a few miles further up the road, I felt some happiness knowing they wouldn’t be stranded. Just like so many of the people I’d met or watched work in the previous weeks, I was trying to help, even if just a little. 

Hours later, crossing into Oregon and closing the loop I had begun the month before, my throat tightened as I thought of how much seemed to have burned in California. In the landscapes I’d traversed, huge efforts were underway to prepare for fire or to rebuild after its passage. I could see the logic of reducing the risks of uncontrolled wildfire. I could also appreciate the resilience of communities that worked to rebuild after a conflagration. But it also seemed that if a wildfire could burn a town to the ground once, it would be hard to stop it from returning again.