Don Rogers: A rake to tame the fire
Gary Snyder and Donald Trump agree! Probably should be the headline.
But it’s true. The poet in our hills who blew the Summer of Love into being on a conch shell and the Gotham mogul who became president share views about forest management. A fine grain of intersection, anyway.
Never mind that this came as a talking point for the president, a chance to stick it to California’s smarty pants Democrats, compared to a long life of absorption in nature for the poet and deep thinker, our neighbor on the San Juan Ridge.
They expressed the same thing: We’ve not done the greatest job of managing our wildlands. We can do better, much better.
Make fun as we will of the president’s notions about raking the forest, presuming to speak for a place where he’s never spent much time and doesn’t appear to regard beyond fertile ground for cheap shots.
Still doesn’t make him wrong.
I must live for polar opposites coming together, even the briefest flashes. Here’s where I find hope for our future as a species, as thin a thread as that may be, the weirdest of middle ways.
I realized this the other morning while brushing my teeth, careful to keep the toothpaste off a hardbound “Back on the Fire: Essays,” by Snyder. Nope, can’t even get through the most basic morning routines without a book in hand. My wife, watching, asks, “Is your mind never still?”
“But listen,” I reply, not having done so myself, brimming over with epiphany. Trump made his remarks in Paradise, part of our foothills community. On a bit higher ground, Snyder in this book writes basically the same, just not using so silly a word as “rake.” His metaphors are intentional, carefully so.
The first two chapters are all about wildfire and forest management. Snyder’s words seem prescient, considering he published them in this book a dozen years before the Camp Fire. More so, though, they’re a reminder of how timeless wildfire is in the Sierra, all of California, the West. And of how much our land needs fire, only not so intense as blazes have burned in the past decade, the past couple of years.
Higher annual temperatures and longer fire seasons are only part of the puzzle, and not necessarily the most crucial. Building neighborhoods in the wildland-urban interface is right there, too. California’s population has doubled from 20 million in 1970 to 40 million today, many moving into harm’s way.
And mainly, I think, it’s this wicked irony: 120 years of aggressively putting out wildfires has led directly to … more big wildfires.
Putting out all wildfires soon we can has backed nature into a corner, basically. Fires today grow huge only when we cannot stop them — during the hottest, driest and windiest times. And historically speaking, our wildlands have grown to their most dense, primed to fuel the worst.
The land was better off, at least in terms of vulnerability to infernos, before the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and similar firefighting entities came into being.
Most fires then raked the undergrowth, cleaned out the understory and thereby helped protect the forest from crown fires.
The giant sequoia, one example, depend on regular ground fire for survival. Keeping fires small led to overgrowth that carries flames into the tree tops and prevented cones requiring sufficient heat to open from propagating the species.
Leaders as different as Snyder and Trump at least on some level recognize the underlying problem, and it’s as twisted as a koan. To protect ourselves from wildland fire, well, we need to set a lot more fire.
Chain saws and mechanized thinning won’t get the job done, at least not alone. Indeed we must learn to use fire as rake to keep it from becoming destroyer.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299.