In the last two years, the state of California, where I live, has been ravaged by fires so unprecedented that a once rare term has now become routine: megafire.
A megafire is a fire that consumes more than 100,000 acres.
A few months ago, in an area near Yosemite National Park, the Ferguson fire raged through the Sierra Nevada mountains, burning 86,000 acres of forest before jumping Highway 41 into the park and scorching another 11,000 acres within its boundaries — not technically a megafire, but just shy of it.
Three thousand people from around the world were dispatched to help fight the blaze, which choked the valley in an impenetrable wall of smoke; two firefighters died. For three weeks during peak season, one of the most popular national parks in the country was closed to the public.
A friend of mine went camping in Yosemite a few weeks after the park reopened. During the day, she and her husband and children passed controlled burns and set up camp amid the stunning autumn colors of Tuolumne Meadows. She awoke in the middle of the night to strangely warm, high winds whipping her family’s tent, and felt something she hadn’t felt before: fear.
“Is this what it is to camp in California in the 21st century?” she asked me.
In early October, I went to experience the tactile reality of Yosemite after the fires for myself.
At the edge of Glacier Point’s 3,200-foot cliff, one of the most iconic places in Yosemite, the absurd daylight grandeur of Half Dome and the forested slopes exert their solemn gravity.
In the face of this holy beauty, your jadedness falls away. You look and look, and look some more. You find you cannot look enough. Wait another quiet moment or two, and you see that this cliff is, in fact, a place of pilgrimage. You see people from all over the world; you listen to them speak a dozen different languages; you watch them gently touch a gnarled tree, a wall of granite. Something like grace remains.
This is where my friend Lynsay and I began our day hike on the sun-dappled Panorama Trail toward Nevada Fall, a round-trip, 10.5-mile hike that would take us a little over five hours to complete. We chose this trail for its larger, longer view on what fire means to a place like Yosemite — not just the most recent fire, but the constant, successive waves of fire that play a vital role in shaping and maintaining the health of a forest.
The drive up the switchbacked, 16-mile road leading to the Glacier Point trailhead, off Highway 41 out of the more-visited Yosemite Valley, is itself a kind of reverse visual timeline of the park’s recent fire history.
Near the Glacier Point turnoff, we passed coal-black trees lined up like scarecrows on the side of the road, arms raised in supplication, and dark umber burn scars so fresh from the Ferguson fire that they still smelled of smoke, even through the car windows. Hastily chopped trees betrayed firefighting efforts to create fire breaks in the middle of the night. Climbing higher in elevation, we left Ferguson’s burn footprint behind, but as we passed Mono Meadow, we spotted healthy fir trees with lightly charred lower trunks — signs of a fast-moving brush fire that had left the canopies intact. These swaths of forest were burned by 2017’s Empire fire, caused by a lightning strike, and several other blazes over the last decade.
As we hitched up our day packs and headed down the first mile of the Panorama Trail on foot, we admired the fall palette of cinnamon, rust, citron and lime. Newly attuned to the little clues that the forest offers, we saw evidence of other, older fires almost immediately. Tree trunks were blistered and split from intense heat — the mottled pattern reminiscent of Dutch crunch bread — but there they were, still standing, with a lush carpet of verdant shrubs and other undergrowth filling in around their feet.
After crossing a wooden bridge over Illilouette Creek and a steep climb — 700 feet in elevation over 1.5 miles — to an exposed ridgeline, we descended again, and the microclimate shifted to upper montane forest: cooler, shadier and greener, with red fir, pine and juniper trees, some of them furry with electric-green moss. We began to see the patchwork way that fire ideally works in a big forest — different areas burn at different times, using up available fuels. In effect, this helps contain flames when subsequent fires do come through, giving older burned areas time to recover. Think of a farmer rotating crops.
A mile before the 594-foot Nevada Fall, we began to hear the audible rush of water, and glimpsed Half Dome and Liberty Cap through the canopy. Here, too, were fire scars. As scars do on our own bodies, these tell a story of destruction, and renewal.
Yosemite became a national park 128 years ago. “For the people who manage the park, the impacts of climate change are ongoing,” Scott Gediman, a veteran ranger and public affairs officer who has been working in Yosemite for more than two decades, told me. After a century of fire suppression, during which forests got denser and accumulated woody debris led to hotter, more catastrophic infernos, fire chiefs in Yosemite and elsewhere have come to embrace periodic burns as good wilderness management.
“The Ferguson fire, from where it started and moved toward the park, it was slow moving. When it actually entered the park, a lot of areas had had previously prescribed fires, so it didn’t burn as hot, and it wasn’t as devastating as it could have been,” Mr. Gediman said. “That’s ultimately what we want.”
At the completion of the day’s hike, after our return to Glacier Point, Lynsay and I drove back to Highway 41 and headed south toward Fish Camp. By now, we’d seen plenty of fire traces around the park — in the burn piles in the valley, in the signs saying “Entering Burn Area, Watch Out For Rock Fall.” But this is where we would see the most dramatic views of all: vast tracts of blackened forest on the downhill side of 41, remnants of red fire retardant still lingering on trees on the uphill side, the road having served as a fire break for embattled firefighters struggling to contain the flames below.
We pulled over at one turnoff and walked down into the woods for a closer examination. Rustling leaves, felled trees, the faint scent of smoke, the burned and broken remains of a curious glass bottle stamped with the word “CONTENTS.” And, in the middle of this devastation, bright little shoots sprouting up, doing what grass does — grow, of course, cheerfully and obliviously.
The next morning, Lynsay and I hiked the new trails at Mariposa Grove, a huge cathedral of giant sequoias 250 to 300 feet high, with some trees as old as 3,000 years. In June, the grove reopened to the public after three years of restoration work. Giant sequoias are fire-resistant, which helps explain their longevity, and depend on fire to reproduce: the fire clears away undergrowth and helps to disperse seed cones into mineral-rich soil. Within the park, prescribed fire is one part of maintaining the health of these ancient giants.
The grove’s restoration — as well as the current fire management plan for Yosemite — was designed in consultation with affiliated American Indian tribes and Native American groups. In the centuries long before European visitors arrived, native populations in Yosemite Valley used controlled burning and other tools to manage the living landscape on which they depended.
Trees, it turns out, have a heartbeat. I read this in a scientific journal, in an article about a new study showing that trees exhibit a periodic pulse, a result of their pumping water throughout the day and night. They do it so slowly that it is virtually undetectable to the human eye.
It’s an intriguing, romantic bit of poetry, more literary conceit than literal fact. But it got me thinking about our complex and emotional human relationship with the wilderness.
This summer, soon after the evacuation order for Yosemite was lifted, an anonymous ranger posted a heartfelt reflection on the park’s website. The writer spoke of feeling separation anxiety from the park, a yearning to return, and expressed a surprisingly poignant view of being a park ranger: “A spark emits from a visitor, a moment when one transcends the physical elements of a place and makes an emotional, sometimes spiritual, connection to place. As an interpreter, I am constantly chasing that moment and, regardless of the fire, I couldn’t give up the opportunity to facilitate the formation of those sparks. I wasn’t willing to let my relationship with Yosemite fade away.”
Is it weird that I have a framed photo of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt hanging in my bedroom?
Taken in 1903, it is a quintessential image of the two men at Glacier Point during a three-day wilderness trip into Yosemite. The first night, they camped at Mariposa Grove.
“No temple made with human hands can compete with Yosemite,” wrote Muir. His advocacy is what led to the creation of this national park in 1890.
Roosevelt himself said this in a 1915 appreciation of Muir: “He was a great factor in influencing the thought of California and the thought of the entire country so as to secure the preservation of those great natural phenomena — wonderful canyons, giant trees, slopes of flower-spangled hillsides.”
Our national parks are bearing a disproportionate burden of climate change. By virtue of location — high-altitude, high-latitude regions warm more quickly, and arid areas across the West have been seeing record low rainfall — national parklands are getting hotter and drier twice as fast as the rest of the country, according to a new study by climate scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.
The truth is that the Yosemite Valley of today is not the same place it was a century ago. One hundred years from now, because of increased warming trends, it may well be unrecognizable.
After all, the way we use the park is changing, too. My friend Sarah told me recently about something called the firefall, a massive bonfire of burning logs shoveled off Glacier Point’s ledge into the inky nighttime darkness, a stupendously popular tradition that began in 1872.
Her family has been in California for generations, and she grew up backpacking in Yosemite. She recalls her dad’s tales of the nightly spectacle with wonder and skepticism. Real fire! Shoveled off a cliff into the wilderness! What would Smokey Bear say? We Google “Yosemite” and “fire” and “cliff,” and, in short order, we find ourselves exclaiming over a blurry archival video from the 1960s.
It is astounding to think that they did this and the whole place didn’t go up in flames. The National Park Service finally banned the practice in 1968, and a few years later, people noticed that a waterfall on the eastern side of El Capitan created the same fiery effect for a few weeks in February, when the winter light hit the font of melting snowpack just right. The fame of this illusory firefall has since eclipsed that of the old one, but I can’t stop thinking of the original firefall — the one made out of real fire.
Here’s another definition of firefall, this time from Merriam-Webster: “a tree whose fall is caused by the partial destruction of its roots in a ground fire.”
The one hits uncomfortably close to home. Attitudes toward fire and fire dangers are evolving, but we are still cavalier in our own ways. As we build lives deeper and deeper into every corner of the wild, we are increasingly vulnerable to fire’s fiercely destructive power, the way it behaves in ways we don’t completely understand. It is a given that fire management in these places will become ever more challenging, with a human cost.
For now, nature continues to endure. What did we see, post-fire? That resilience and rebirth can still be found. In the tiny green ferns shyly unfurling in the enriched earth. In the naturalization ceremony held at Glacier Point for 43 of the country’s newest citizens, just a month after the park reopened. In the multiagency crews working diligently to clear remaining fire hazards, and to seed and shore up eroding hillsides. In the rangers welcoming returning visitors, in the full campgrounds, in the climbers walking along the trails in the glorious late-afternoon light, their carabiners clinking a musical accompaniment on the approach to the great walls of granite.
Bonnie Tsui is a writer based in Berkeley, Calif. Her next book, “Why We Swim,” will be published by Algonquin Books in March 2020.
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