It’s high summer here in the Eastern Sierra, and, like the rest of the western US, fire season is in full swing. Aside from a lot of smoke from a fire in Fresno a month ago, fire still seemed like a distant problem here in Bishop—that is, until this week. Monday we received word of a fire in our field office, which is the first since I’ve been here. It was interesting to see who was called out to the fire—the BLM doesn’t simply send fire crews, they also send resource specialists (like my boss) to assist in things like deciding where to send the bulldozer to create fire breaks. Even though Bishop and most of the areas that we work in were too far away to see the blaze itself, the noticeably reduced population in the office itself was enough to remind us of the fire on a daily basis.
That particular fire is the only one actually in our field office, but it isn’t the only one burning nearby. We’ve been getting continuous updates on a large fire near Lake Tahoe thanks to our local NPR station that broadcasts out of Reno. But the fire that really made me pause is the one currently burning in the Stanislaus National Forest, clear on the other side of the mountains. From the Bodie Hills (part of a chain to the east of the Sierra Nevada), the plume looked more like a volcanic eruption than smoke from a wildfire, appearing to stretch for miles—perhaps all the way to Reno.
I’m not used to worrying about fires. I’ve always lived in places where flooding is a bigger concern than fire, and what I knew about fire management centered more around the problems with historical fire suppression than working to protect communities from danger. The sheer size of the fire burning in Stanislaus, along with the knowledge that it is both barely under control and threatening the homes of at least two of my friends, has taken living in a wildfire zone out of the abstract for me and really given me a new appreciation for what goes into managing and containing wildfires. Physically, the fires are still a long way off—but their impacts have begun to hit closer to home.
Last August, there was a fire in the hills to the east of Mono Lake. Walk along the burned areas nearest the lake this year, and you will encounter patches where the fire burned so hot that there is nothing left but sand and the charred remains of bitterbrush stumps. But if you keep walking, you begin to notice clumps of Tiquilia nuttallii here and there, small patches of green against the white sand. Farther up in the hills there are areas where entire plateaus appear pink due to a carpet of Phacelia bicolor that has sprung up in a single growing season. Rabbitbrush and other shrubs that can produce new sprouts from existing root systems dot the landscape, and here and there tiny bitterbrush sprouts quietly begin to re-establish themselves. This job has made me more aware than ever of what it means to live in an area where fire is a very real danger year in and year out—but it has also provided me with the opportunity to witness firsthand (and survey in detail) the various stages of succession that come after a disturbance that wipes the physical landscape almost clean.