Feel the burn

Nature’s burn ward.

Nature’s burn ward.

Photo By Jeff McCrory

Inhale deeply. Try to smell the fall season: the whisper of snow, decaying leaves, the mineral tang of mud—scents that should be in the air on a drizzly Sunday in the Sierras.

Instead, all I smell is last summer.

This was the summer of the great wildfires. There were more than 2,700 of them throughout California. “Government Springs/Westville” is the name somebody gave the blaze that affected the section of the Tahoe National Forest where my brother Josh and I are descending the steep Beacroft Trail. Its smoke poured into the valley below, stewed and made Sacramento stink like a giant ashtray for days on end.

“Does it smell like ash everywhere up here?” I ask.

“Pretty much,” my brother says. He marks trees for the Forest Service so that logging companies can cut them down. It’s the kind of job a degree in environmental studies will get you.

We take a breather on a ridge overlooking a narrow valley. It’s a long trough of fog. The muffled plink of light rain reminds me to look up into the bleached sky. I like the sensation of raindrops splashing on my face.

Josh points out the multitude of exposed rocks. The fire burnt away all the understory, so the ground looks bald. The rocks are scorched black, as are most of the trees. Insects and the weight of the winter snow will bring down many of the sugar pines and white firs standing around us like a thicket of spears. The firs in particular are abundant: Years of fire suppression gave them a foothold that a natural fire cycle wouldn’t have permitted.

We trudge on. Josh notices a strip of plastic tied around a tree and says its color signifies that an archaeological site is nearby. We soon find a pile of handmade nails on the ground. They probably held up some kind of mining structure in the early part of the 20th century. The archaeologists, who conduct research on behalf of the federal government, only mark sites at least 50 years old. Josh says that they will return to replant bushes on the site to hide it from day-trippers like us.

“The government protecting itself from the people,” he wryly notes.

The rain begins to fall in earnest, so we turn back. It is uphill most of the way, and I have to stop frequently. My beard gets soaked despite a rain hood.

The snow likely will wash away the charcoal smell by next spring. I hope so, anyway. But the general desolation that the fire left behind will take much longer to heal.