A Tale of Two Fires

Note: Stay tuned for a long overdue Wildfire Media Roundup as well as a report from my visit to the Association for Fire Ecology’s Fire Congress in San Antonio. In the meantime, here is a piece I wrote for a campus publication recently about fire and outreach. 

I’d been keeping an eye on the Cal Fire maps all summer, looking for fires in the vicinity of my field sites. It was a hot, dry summer, and I was setting up seed traps in dense, flammable chaparral stands up and down the state. But I didn’t find out about the first fire near one of my sites from the internet. It was the blanket of smoke that sat on the horizon, visible from my front yard in West Davis. This was the 8,051-acre Wragg Fire, which started in late July 2015 and burned through Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. A week later, the 69,438-acre Rocky Fire burned large sections of Lake County, including much of McLaughlin Reserve. Not long afterward, the Jerusalem Fire burned up to the edge of the Rocky Fire, forming one large burn area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two fire events recently (considering the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires together)—how their similarities and differences reflect the complexity involved in fire ecology and management at large. Both reserves are dominated by chaparral and oak woodland. Both have steeply sloped terrain and lie within California’s Northern Coast Ranges. The fires would have burned hot and spread quickly through shrublands. Both places are characterized by vegetation that is well-adapted to fire and will likely recover without much difficulty or prodding. And though both reserves are intended for research and teaching, they sit within broader landscapes and communities. It is this last part that reveals why these fires are different. Though my own field sites were unaffected by the reserve fires, I have been involved with two reserve-based outreach programs over the past few years: the California Phenology Project at Stebbins, a citizen science program, and the Kids Into Discovering Science program for 5th grade students in Lake County schools. Both programs rely heavily on one of the reserves that burned, and both would be affected to some extent by the changed landscape in those reserves.

Though Stebbins is a UC Reserve, it is mostly used as a local hiking spot. It is part of our home, broadly speaking, but not many people live in the area affected by the Wragg Fire. The Wragg Fire caused little to no damage to infrastructure or human life. When our citizen science volunteers headed out to explore the reserve post-fire, the atmosphere was largely one of excitement: look at how this place we have been observing has changed! At Stebbins, we are free to think about fire as an ecological force, to enjoy the wildflowers, to use the opportunity to educate people about fire ecology. Our volunteers are also a self-selecting bunch—mostly adults, with strong backgrounds in science.

Talking to the Lake County kids about the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires this coming winter will be a very different story. Despite the similar landscapes, these fires were different from the Wragg Fire in important ways: 49 residences were destroyed in the two fires that burned McLaughlin, and the nearby Valley Fire destroyed over a thousand structures. These fires occurred on or quite close to the landscapes where many of these kids live. For them, wildfire doesn’t mean chamise skeletons and wildflowers. It means danger, evacuation, expensive repairs, and people displaced from their homes.

The narratives we can pull from my descriptions of these two fire events are the same two stories that are often told about fire in the media. Most often, we see the danger narrative from the Lake County fires. Numbers dominate the headlines: evacuees, firefighters, structures destroyed. Then, months or years later, we might see a story with the ecology narrative, usually a story about regeneration on the burned landscape. Rarely are these narratives put together. Yet so much of our modern understanding of fire science lies at the junction of the human story and the ecology story—climate change, fire management, invasive species, erosion—these are ecological issues and human issues.

As the CPP Stebbins at Kids Into Discovering Science programs continue into their post-fire lives, we’ll need to consider how we talk about wildfire. The fires at the two reserves are different. The audiences are different. Should the narratives we provide as teachers be different, too? Or is there a way to bridge the gap, and discuss what it means to live in a fire-prone ecosystem? The UC Reserves are places for both ecological research and for teaching, and the fires of 2015 will serve as a case study for both.

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