I live in the land of wildfires where neighbors have memories, recent, vivid memories of smoke, evacuation, loss. My husband used to be a wildland firefighter and for years his soot-stained face and worn, chiseled arms bore his Pulaski into the ground. He strategically dug fire lines to secure people and possessions. Their work was done, not in vain, but in spite of the intentions of nature’s reclamation. For a wildfire will control what man cannot.
This year, we commemorated ten years since a massive and devastating ridge fire nearby. You can see the clearings for miles. We hike through the stick forest envisioning what was once a grand scape rapidly reduced to char, smoldering for months afterward. During the sunset of its fury, there was no life to be heard or seen for nearly 100,000 acres. Not the largest wildfire out here, but certainly the closest.
I believe there is no greater stillness on earth than walking on land that has just been burned. A blacked earth seems helpless, lifeless, and empty. And yet, I cannot help but marvel that even on this land devastated by a raging hot wildfire, there are signs of renewal almost immediately. Within days, fireweed and beargrass sprout up on a charred black forest floor. They show an adaptable measure so tough and prolific that no other species can surpass it. I have seen this same thrust in the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree sprouting up on a recent lava flow in Hawai‛i. There, the ancient Hawaiians believed in the significant power of the goddess Pele, known for her ruthlessness, her slow and torturous eruptions of hot, smooth lava. The ancient Hawaiians believed that she reclaimed what is hers and built from it new land, new life. What she does to the land is similar to what we see here in the southwest. And yet, we often look at this bleak, black land as if something has been lost. Wind and heat simply tame the land into a temporary dormancy.
These fires display a magnificent power. We have a record of 100 years of forest mismanagement marred by swift fire suppression wasting might and money. And our forests, our lands have started a rebuttal. They have started to take back the control. Here, the land of the Pinus ponderosa, Pinus contorta, the firs and spruces of the southwest require regular small fires to maintain health and life. They require a regular lightning strike or a hot sun beating down onto a pine needle floor to burn off the underbrush. Every few years they need this in order to renew the nutrients required for the greater ecosystem to thrive. The birds, the elk, the bear know what to do, how far to travel to remain safe. When the smell has died down, when the rains have quelled the smoke, when the rivers and springs have rejuvenated their supply of fresh water, the animals always return. The seeds know what to do when the heat comes as well. In fact, some species even require the intense heat of a fire to survive, enabling their tightly sealed cones to open and spread only during these times. This is a healthy forest.
In our family, we talk about the way that fire helps the land. My young son is learning about the needs of the forest. We want him to think of nature’s health as integral to our own and so we focus on what has returned, or changed, because of a fire. We want him to see the ecosystem as a living organism that is constantly adapting, and to understand how that is similar to ourselves. We witness this reclamation as we wander through a sea of young aspens, cheering them on eye to eye. We peel charred bark from the dead and down, smell its distinct musty burnt scent, and cover our fingers with its blackness. We marvel at the vibrancy of silvery lupine and woods rose on the bed of a pine cemetery subtly providing hope and beauty in this fragile restoration. Our wildfires are terrible, bold, and all encompassing and we need them to survive.
What to Read
There are a handful of children’s nonfiction books about wildfire and forest ecology shelved in every library under 634.9, but I recommend you ask your librarian for the newest releases in nature and ecology subjects. Children’s publishers are getting better at publishing informative, engaging, and well-researched nonfiction for young readers and thankfully they are covering this subject well. If you want to request a specific title, the book by Seymour Simon titled simply Wildfires is the best available. There is also a newer book by Michael Cooper titled Fighting Fire!: Ten of the Deadliest Fires in American History and How We Fought Them which is of interest to the mid-grade readers. Most importantly, get your budding ecologist out on the field to witness, touch, and experience the wilderness. With a field guide in hand, they are sure to be engaged. No book can replace that!