What’s “so sad” about a local wildfire? Responses to the Wragg Fire

Here in Davis, skies were wild on Wednesday evening, with the setting sun glowing bright red behind a blanket of smoke. The internet provided an explanation: a fast moving wildfire just south of Lake Berryessa, now dubbed the Wragg Fire. The fire spread rapidly in the first 24 hours, over steep, chaparral covered slopes, and through Cold Canyon, a popular hiking area–rough terrain for fire fighting. Nearby residents and hikers were evacuated and highway 128 was closed off.

Meanwhile, #WraggFire was trending on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Links to CalFire updates, Capital Public Radio articles, and a cool map using MODIS hotspots. My friends and acquaintances shared images of the smoky skies and pieces of ash falling into their gardens. I was able to watch a stunning time lapse video of the fire. The Wragg Fire is one that we were able to see and feel, to actually experience, even if from a distance. It’s also noteworthy because its location is near to Lake Berryessa, a popular recreation site, and the fire itself burned through Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, a UC Davis Reserve that is open to the public and has one of the closest, most popular hiking trails around. Stebbins also happens to be the site of a citizen science project that I helped found and run. In short, the area is near and dear to many of us in the Davis community.

Photo by Drew Tuma, ABC7, with markup identifying trails by Jens Stevens.

Now, I have an unusually high concentration of ecologists (and fire ecologists) in my friend group, so the tone of most of these posts was pretty matter-of-fact: there is a big, interesting event happening close by that will shape part of our local environment. But I also saw a handful of reactions like this:

“So sad.”

“So sad, what a loss.”

“This fire f**in sucks.”

[sad face]

As of 11:45 am Friday, the fire was at 6,900 acres and 20% contained. Winds had died down, making the fire easier to contain. Highway 128 was reopened to traffic. Many evacuees were allowed to return home. One tent-trailer and one outbuilding were destroyed, and one other structure was damaged.

So what is so sad about the Wragg Fire? What was the great loss? Most of these folks are not talking about the tent trailer.

One of the most interesting things about this fire, I’ve observed, is the fact that everybody is talking about it. Why is this surprising? The fire is, after all, close by. We could see the smoke.

Here’s the strange thing: there was another fire in almost the exact same area just over a year ago. In fact, the Wragg Fire has likely reburned parts of the 2014 Monticello Fire. The Monticello Fire was only a few hundred acres smaller than the Wragg Fire. I followed the CalFire updates for that fire like I did this one–but that fire got far less attention. Nobody said that one was sad–most people didn’t even know it happened. Why is this one getting so much attention?

For those who like to walk and play and live outdoors, local trails and parks are meaningful. These places can serve as constants for people with busy, messy lives. We return to places like Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve to hike the same trail, along the same creek, to see the same view of the same lake. When one of these places burns, there’s a sense that something is lost–that the forest, the canyon, the chaparral-covered hillside are destroyed when they burn.

Yet much of what’s amazing about natural places is how we can observe change by visiting the same place again and again–the dry creek and low lake levels in the midst of a major drought or the muddy trails after a downpour. Our citizen science volunteers monitor the phenology of several plants at Stebbins: when do we see the first new leaves on the buckeye trees? when do the toyon berries appear?

Fire, too, is a change that we can observe in the places we visit again and again. First abrupt, then gradual, as the ecosystem regenerates itself. What’s the difference between seasonal changes and events that occur on a decadal scale? How about disturbances that happen quickly, like fire, versus those that are slower, like drought? How should we think about semi-natural processes like fire, which have been shaped by humans for millennia?

These aren’t simple questions, in my opinion, but we are eager to draw lines and assign value judgments to the changes we observe: leaves falling, berries growing = good. Fire, drought, insect outbreaks = bad. Usually, anthropogenic changes are categorized as bad. Though the ignition source of the Wragg Fire is formally under investigation, it was almost certainly human-caused, and for many people, that makes it bad. Still, I have trouble thinking of the Wragg Fire as “sad.” Instead, I think it’s fascinating. It makes me think. It’s an opportunity to learn both about plants and about the human relationship wildfire.

When Stebbins opens to hikers in the wake of the Wragg Fire,  I’ll be excited to see the newly changed landscape, from the eerily beautiful skeletons of chaparral shrubs to the new green sprouts come next winter and spring. I’m excited about having a burn site with lots of research potential only 30 minutes from home and on a UC reserve, a place intended for research. I’m excited about taking our citizen science volunteers out to assess our phenology trail and adapt our monitoring project to the post-fire landscape.


One thought on “What’s “so sad” about a local wildfire? Responses to the Wragg Fire

  1. Nice perspective. Fire is a natural part of California’s ecosystem, an inconvenient fact as California’s population grows and expands into fire-habitat. Cold Canyon burned extensively about 20 years ago. Far from the scorched earth landscape I expected on my first visit after that fire, I found a complex and fascinating habitat mosaic of scorched, partially -burned, and relatively untouched areas. The unburned areas provided seed sources, the fire-adapted brush readily resprouted, and the wildflowers the following year were spectacular. New visitors to the Canyon in recent years probably don’t even notice the field marks of this previous burn.


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