Topic: Wildfire Type: Essay

Impressions from Fire Seasons Past


I grew up, and still live, in a rural town in the middle of a frequent-fire forest in northern California. Wildfire has always been part of the backdrop to my life—a component of the community narrative about who we are and where we live. My personal understanding and knowledge of the role of fire as a necessary part of this ecosystem has evolved over the years, and it is my privilege to learn about and work on shaping the social, ecological and economic dimensions of fire in our community today.  As the 2014 fire season in California begins, I find myself reflecting on fire seasons past and the impressions they’ve left on me.

1989 – My dad hands me a blue tee-shirt with a helicopter and the outline of a fire perimeter that says “I was Hayforked to the Lymedyke Complex.” It is my souvenir from his job interview at the high school in a little town in the mountains that would become our home. It is 1989 and the only souvenirs available in town are from the 1987 Lymedyke Complex fires. Those fires are still the biggest news in town two years after they were extinguished.

2001 – I am standing in my neighbor’s cold living room holding an orange crate. My mom has sent me next door to collect some of Bonnie’s things since she is out of town and everyone expects an evacuation notice to be issued for our neighborhood.  I struggle to choose pictures from her mantel–considering which ones might be sentimental—realizing they probably all are, I fill the box.

2008 – My neighbor Cliff cracks open another can of cheap beer without shifting his gaze from the ridge to our west. He is reclining in a plastic lawn chair in his front yard. He has a front row seat to this year’s fire. It is making its way toward town and is gaining momentum. If that last line they put in along the old Lucky Jeep Trail doesn’t hold, there really isn’t anything between the fire and the most densely populated neighborhoods in town, just a few fields of bone-dry star thistle.

2012 – At night it’s easier to see the flames. We drive to the edge of town where everyone is parked in the big lot by Frontier Village. From there we can watch the fire creep around the mountain side. Our eyes adjust to the dim red/orange glow from the fire to the east and we can make out the faces of friends from town, co-workers and acquaintances. We’re all sitting on the hoods of our cars in the September night watching quietly, together.

Share fire season experiences that have shaped your understanding of the role of fire in your community and ecosystem in the comments below.

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