Don Rogers: Spring buds with a bit of dread

On Sunday, we enjoyed our porch and sunset light on the lawn and woods, marveling at the close of a perfect foothills day.

Look how the last rays bathe that pine, that oak, the ol’ apple tree and soft yellow-green carpet of grass everywhere. Green atop green, the air full of the calls of quail, chirpy frogs, a couple of geese on commute just overhead. Could there be a better start to spring?

So of course we got to talking about fire. How winter has been too dry, so many pleasant days banking up dread.

Summer is coming.


Or maybe it’s this book I’m reading: “The Big Burn,” by Timothy Egan. A solid candidate for worst wildfire ever in America torched 3 million acres in two days in 1910 between western Montana and eastern Washington, and on up into British Columbia. A horrific Palouse wind kicked up at just the wrong time and romped through the parched forests, balling up little fires into one great inferno.

The Dixie Fire to our north, California’s second-largest in history, burned almost a million acres over two long months. The Caldor Fire to our south hardly counts by the measure of acres and time, taking a month to cross the Sierra divide and eat up a paltry 220,000 acres while giving South Lake Tahoe a good scare.

The fires took out about a thousand structures each, whole neighborhoods and in Dixie’s case, the town of Greenville, big enough for a weekly newspaper whose editor I once supervised.

If sweeping, they also were largely healthy for an ecosystem that relies on cleansing flames. It’s not the land’s fault so many humans decided to build homes in the way and for over a century have tried to stop nearly every blaze at the outset.

But I go back to 3 million acres of forest in two days in August 1910. Can you imagine? Three Dixies in a finger snap. Towns fell. Eighty-seven deaths were recorded, mostly firefighters. Miraculous there weren’t more, true, but the region was sparsely populated for all the logging camps, mining claims and rail towns.

The legend of Ed Pulaski herding 50 firefighters into a mine tunnel at the last moment and holding them there with his pistol comes from this fire.

Winter and spring were way too pleasant that year, and the nascent Forest Service and new settlers too confident about wildfire. No one realized this was cyclic in these forests, and arrogantly, of course, none thought to ask the indigenous people who did know.

Then came the lightning storms. Then the wind.


I always get a kick out of today’s Republicans claiming Teddy Roosevelt as one of their own. Teddy was progressive to the marrow, as far from conservatism as could be got. The great and small titans of business hated him, especially when he set aside millions and millions of acres in the West as public land, and started the Forest Service in 1905 with his friend Gifford Pinchot.

One of the strengths of “The Big Burn” is the historic backdrop to the fire. Egan devoted almost as many pages of context before and after the fire as he gave to the horror and fury, the last stands, heroism, folly and fatal choices in the face of the blowtorch winds, flames and falling trees.

Immigration peaked in this period, and various Robber Barons fattened on their monopolies and fought child labor laws along with everything else in their way, like national lands where there was timber to harvest, railroads to run and the great metals to mine.

Racism was casual and often brutal. Italians, Jews and Slavs were not considered white, and if the Irish did happen to be “white,” well, they still were hated. The wonder today shouldn’t be why Black and indigenous people are still so angry, but rather how they could be so forgiving.

Maybe Egan’s book would be banned as so much CRT by the Tucker Carlson set for plainspoken scholarship concerning life then in America, in D.C. as well as the north woods.

But the book’s snapshot of that era also serves as a marker for the halting yet substantial progress since then in how we treat people and land, if not so much with wildfire, interestingly enough.

I can say “interestingly” only from comfort of spring, though, everything green and every promise of storms yet to come before summer and that season’s dread sets in again.

This evening, a chill set in and we turned on the patio heater as the bats came out to play, flying out to neighboring land where that green carpet fills in a still-recent fire’s long scars.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at or 530-477-4299

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