After the fire

The drive on Interstate 80 between Reno and Truckee is a vastly different experience now than it was before Father’s Day. What were once green, fairly lush mountains are now brown and charred, marked with dead trees and the occasional puff of smoke rising from a lingering hot spot.

If you haven’t yet made the drive, be prepared for a shock when you do. Until I went to San Francisco last weekend, all the Martis Fire meant to me was stunning news footage, containment percentages, millions of dollars spent in firefighting efforts (an estimated $16.9 million at last check) and a week of breathing nasty, smoky air.

Now, the fire has a more personal meaning to me. It means a trip I’ve taken dozens of times will never again be the same as long as I am alive. It feels like something has been lost. It seems like such a shame.

However, when you stop and think about things, was the Martis Fire really a bad thing? Yes, it is undeniably bad that a small handful of structures and vehicles were destroyed (although many, many more structures—and lives—could easily have been lost, which just goes to show how amazing the firefighters and their efforts are).

But fires are a part of nature, and they should happen. They used to happen a lot more before European settlers showed up and saw blazes as a threat. Fires used to be a lot smaller, too, because they were more frequent. There is a reason that so many fires are gargantuan these days—we keep suppressing them, and when one finally gets going, there is a lot of fuel to burn. According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than seven million acres of public land burned during the summer of 2000. That makes the 14,500 acres burned by the Martis Fire seem trivial.

While fires hundreds of years ago did not start as a result of campfires at marijuana-growing sites (as the Martis Fire possibly did), lightning starts them all the time. That’s because blazes are part of the natural cycle. There will be more fires like this one. Only, if current trends continue, they’ll actually be worse.

It’s time to give a compliment where I am not normally complimentary: The Reno Gazette-Journal has done a wonderful job covering the Martis Fire and its aftermath. From start to finish, the paper has been on top of things with phenomenal photos, intriguing articles and even updated midday coverage on its Web site. I especially liked Don Cox’s July 2 article on Larry Andresen, the owner of the partially constructed cabin near Floriston that is visible from Interstate 80. (By the way, after seeing the devastation that occurred around Andresen’s cabin, I have no clue how Andresen and the firefighters were able to save it. It’s amazing.)

The paper’s fire coverage, as fine as it’s been, also leads to a point of frustration. Obviously, as the Martis Fire’s coverage has shown, the paper possesses the talent and the resources to be a consistently good newspaper. But it isn’t. I have no idea why this is so. Reno deserves and needs a good, strong daily newspaper.

Let’s hope the Gazette-Journal looks at its Martis coverage and learns something from itself. However, something tells me that down at Gannett Central that won’t happen. The paper will win some awards for its coverage of this big event, tout the awards like crazy and let its sub-par coverage of the town’s day-to-day news continue. God forbid they lower that 40-plus-percent profit margin a percentage point or two.