Seiad Valley is about 50 road miles from Yreka but only 35 or so as the crow flies. “Downriver” as the locals like to say, meaning west of here along the course of the Klamath on its way to the ocean. It’s ground zero this week in a roughly 9000-acre forest fire that is showering us with a fine gray ashfall. To the residents of places like Horse Creek and Scott Bar it’s a disaster—the sky choked with thick smoke, swaths of forest exploding in flames, structures threatened, roads closed, homes evacuated. We’ve been lucky so far, the long wet winter and spring firming up the snow pack, engorging the streams, and soaking the ground before the summer onslaught of sunshine and arid heat that gives us our fire season. It’s nearly September and this is the first real incident. We had a fire close to town last week but the smoke dissipated rapidly, this one is ten times larger and will probably smother us for at least a few days.
They say it never rains in California and they are mostly right, the rain being confined almost entirely to the months from November to April. Mountainous regions get summer thundershowers some of the time, and the coastal regions get their regular marine fog, but mostly the state is tinder-dry from May through October. Thus the stage is set for conflagrations in the vast wild woodlands of the rural northstate. It is not as populated here as in SoCal and the Bay so the infernos don’t get the media coverage, but they are just as destructive, mostly to sparsely-inhabited places and so not as news-worthy. Still, the sky turns brown and everything smells like a morning-after campfire, and any outside activity is terribly unhealthy as you suck in lungfuls of the smoke and ash. My kitchen skylight looks like I dumped my dustbin on it, my vehicles are filmed in flour-like yuck, and my heart is sinking further as the sun climbs higher. Out my window I can barely make out the hills behind the cemetery that are no more than a half-mile walk from here. Days like this you stay indoors and get cabin fever.
I’m bitching and whining, I know. It’s part of the price for living so close to the wilderness, this fire-and-smoke thing, but I’m safe and cozy in my air-conditioned house. My eyes water when I step out into my hazy back yard and it makes me irritable, but I’m lucky to be here and not a few miles west where some unfortunate folks are fleeing the flames. The Forest Service is in charge of this incident and they tend to have a cautious approach to these things. They don’t like to put their people at risk, and in the narrow canyons and steep gulches that are thickly overgrown with trees and brush a fire crew can be quickly overwhelmed. Access to some spots is particularly tough, and decades of fire suppression and reduced logging has left much of the forest vulnerable to big burns. We are paying the price for failing to understand forest ecology and equally for a feckless approach to the management of forest resources.
But this isn’t about finger-pointing. We have to “let it burn” because we don’t have much choice. Even nature can’t burn enough of the woods to make up for past inaction on the problem. The work that needs to be done will take generations. In the meantime we will have these pockets of forest that will burn like hell and all we’ll be able to do is corral it a bit, get people out, and knock it back enough to keep the highways open. The resources for really putting it out will be used in other places closer to the urban centers. It’s a triage of a sort—assigning degrees of urgency to each incident. Here in the forgotten part of the state they’ll do their best but mostly we’ll be stuck with dry throats, asthma attacks, and a general malaise. And some small but not insignificant number of hardy souls will lose everything and come back to a blackened wasteland to start all over.