Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What do you see?

(Click to enlarge)
Death or life?  Destruction or regeneration?  All of the above?
This hillside along CA-101 north of San Luis Obispo burned recently.  I don't know the story of how it started (thrown cigarette, lightening strike, playing with matches, etc.) and I don't know how it stopped.

I do know that fire, both fires started by lightening and by people, were instrumental in the regeneration, health and productivity of oaks in California.  Indigenous people would burn the grass and brush around certain oaks to increase their production of acorns - and to make it far easier and faster to harvest those acorns.  And I know that fire suppression is one of the causes of the recent lack of oak regeneration in many regions of California.

As Aldo Leopold pointed out, oaks and grass are mortal enemies.  Grass out competes oaks for soil water and nutrients.  Oaks' resistance to fire gives them a respite from grass competition and gives them the foothold they need to get started.  Once they get going they can deploy their greatest weapon in the war against grass competition:  shade.  Their roots can draw sustenance from a geometrically increasing radius.

I write this as the Rim Fire rages in and around Yosemite, now thankfully 70% contained.  I always have mixed emotions when watching, reading or listening to coverage of wildland fires in the media.  I used to go apoplectic because it was common for reporters to cite the number of acres "destroyed."  Acres are a unit of measure, and cannot be destroyed.  An acre of land cannot be destroyed by fire.  Vegetation is destroyed, but only temporarily.  I think the sea change in media coverage and terminology regarding fires came after the Yellowstone fires when the country at large witnessed how rapidly these "destroyed" acres spring back with abundant life.  The word these days is "scorched" - as in 156,000 acres have been scorched by the fire.  That's progress I think.  Scorched is a temporary condition.  Scorched heals.

But the issue of fire is complex.  Fires today are worse than ever, mostly because the longer we suppress them the worse they are when they finally - and inevitably - occur.  But who of us would let fires rage through mountain communities, and who would risk controlled burns (oxymoron?) near dwellings, schools and towns?  And who of us isn't touched to our soul by the loss of the heroes that battle these blazes in an effort to protect life and home?

The west is a tinderbox right now, in the middle of the worst and most expensive fire season in history.  I find myself dividing in my own mind "good" fires - those started by lightening - from "bad" fires - those started by human stupidity - or worse.  We live in a landscape that was formed and managed to a degree we have only just begun to understand by millenia of human started fires; to me those are "good" fires by virtue of the fact that the intent was regeneration. But I am equally sure that not all indigenous use of fire was benign.

Smoky Bear (contrary to popular usage, there is no intervening "the") was created to protect commercially valuable timber from wanton carelessness and stupidity.  But Smoky also gave people the impression that all fire is bad and destructive.

Like all natural resource issues, the truth is a lot more complicated, and a lot more gray.

But unlike I'm sure the majority of motorists whizzing by this scorched hillside, I see life and regeneration.  I see more oaks given a chance, a foothold, a start.

And that is good.

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