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Staring into The Fire
by Ted Youngs, Founder, Big Power Project
Editor’s note: Ted Youngs is the artist whose work is now on display at Pacific Science Center. His thoughts shared here are his own.
Earlier this summer, in Pacific Science Center’s central courtyard, a crane swung a burnt Douglas fir 60 feet in the air and landed it gingerly on a stainless steel frame. This tree, an art piece entitled Lone Fir, sits there today. I brought it here as part of a larger project called The Smoke Season, designed to remind Seattle of its neighbor: wildfire.
After Lone Fir landed, I departed down Interstate 5 into Oregon and California. I’d seen a lot of fire in my home state of Washington, or a lot of what I thought a place would look like after it had burned. Over two weeks, I traveled down the West Coast to see how other areas withstand and recover from flames.
Here are some of the things I saw.
The Roadside Fuelbreak and Its Limits
In forestry and firefighting, a fuelbreak is a strip of forest where underbrush has been removed, stands of trees have been thinned and the lower branches of larger trees have been delimbed. The resulting lack of combustible fuel makes it difficult for wildfires to spread. During active wildfires, firefighters build fuelbreaks in hopes of setting a limit to where flames may travel. Foresters will do the same by identifying points on a landscape where thinning trees may keep one patch of forest safe even if its neighbor is burning.
Winding through the mountains outside of Redding, California, I made out a ridgeline with burnt trees stretching into the distance. As I glided around a curve, the former fire revealed the extent of its appetite. To my left, on the far side of the Interstate, everything had burned. The earth was ash gray and punctuated by the blackened exclamation points of dead evergreens. The four lanes of freeway and 80 feet of median–what one might imagine as the World’s Greatest Fuelbreak—could not stop this fire. The conflagration to the left side of the road had nonchalantly crossed traffic and marched across to the right. The entire valley and surrounding mountains had burned.
Paradise No More: Cleaning up after wildfire
Some hours later, I was sitting at a picnic table on the western edge of Paradise, California drinking a soda at a taco truck. Around me, workers in steel-toed boots and yellow safety vests ate burritos and discussed the day’s activities. Previously, the town was home to over 25,000 residents, but it burned to the ground in the course of one short morning in November of 2018.
My colleagues had been to Paradise earlier in the year to film the aftermath of the fire. The footage they sent was difficult to comprehend. I knew that a forest fire and a city fire are two different things. A city fire burns hotter. Chemicals–stored in a garage or housed in a car engine–combust ferociously and reach temperatures in excess of 1000°F. When a wildfire burns a tree, its blackened trunk remains. But when a house burns, another kind of transformation takes place, and it is no longer recognizable as a home.
Urban fires burn so hot that most things you think you would recognize have been vaporized or turned to ash. A glass vase will puddle on the ground, and a plastic hose to water your lawn or a bookshelf filled with novels will leave no meaningful trace. Mostly what remains is oxidized metal, flecked in oranges and grays.
After finishing my soda at the taco truck, I drove up Paradise’s main road beneath a patchy canopy of burnt evergreens where two out of three retail establishments had been reduced to rubble. I pulled into the remains of a trailer park. Workers wearing respirators and white jumpsuits were either removing debris or hosing the site down to ensure that toxic dust wouldn’t spread. The trailers were all gone. What remained was metal and brick: husks of dishwashers, warped cast iron fences, a van sitting on its axles with its tires melted away. The community that once lived within this forest had been turned into climate refugees and were scattered who knows where.
I stopped beneath a temporary awning and chatted with a woman named Kristen. She had a pollution monitor attached to her lapel that crackled like a Geiger counter as we spoke. Everyone had become extremely conscious about worker safety in the wake of health complaints from the clean-up after 9/11; hence, the respirators, booties, monitors and protocols. All the waste on the sites was being piled into dump trucks and sealed beneath tarps. From there, it would be carted to the dump.
Kristen explained that parts of the trailer park had been “remediated.” The ground had been raked clean of all debris, and wooden dowels had been staked in the ground, their tops painted green or red to signify if the surrounding land was safe to enter. As we spoke, we were surrounded by the busy sounds of people at work–the scrape of a backhoe, the beeping of a vehicle backing up. The possessions and memories of over 25,000 people had burned on the land that surrounded us.
I couldn’t help but ask: “Are people really going to move back in here?”
With an optimism that belied the surroundings, Kristen responded: “That’s the plan.”
Santa Rosa: Rebuilding after wildfire
Days later, driving north on I-101, I came into Santa Rosa. In October of 2017, the Tubbs fire swept through this city, killing 22 and burning neighborhoods to the ground. The steadying, synthetic voice of my navigation suggested I exit the freeway and led me, I assumed, into a neighborhood that would have the same aura of destruction as Paradise.
Instead, I found something entirely different. An ersatz subdivision of tract houses rose up with dirt lots in front and pine fences hiding backyards. Further in, the houses were half-complete, revealing plastic sheeting or plywood walls. Porta Potties and work trucks lined the curbs. Here, pollution monitors and hazmat suits were replaced by people working more familiar, comforting trades (contractors, carpenters, and electricians). There was nothing burnt in sight.
I wound my way further in until I saw a single date palm, perhaps 40 feet tall. It sat snugly between the foundations of two new buildings. Its fronds were green and lush, but its long trunk was carbonized black. In the entire community, this was the only remnant the fire had left. Hundreds of lives were upended by the conflagration and millions of dollars were spent to rebuild, but the palm lived on. A new community was being constructed by its side, right where the last one had burned to the ground.
Redwoods and Resilience
In Humboldt County, California, I came upon a family of four in the parking lot of The Garden Club of America Redwood Grove. A branch from one of the trees that towered above had fallen on the hood of their car. Coolant leaked onto the pavement. The son explained that everything was OK while his dad called for a tow.
I’d spent the trip exploring what different ecosystems look like when they have burned in the recent past, but I hadn’t seen what a forest looked like years or decades after a fire. Within 50 feet of the parking lot, I found what I was searching for. A redwood, perhaps 50 feet in circumference, stood in the distance with a black ring around its trunk. Smaller, unburnt redwoods grew up around this singular tree.
As I approached, I looked toward the tree’s crown, and watched it sway with its companions. Was it struck by lightning? Or had a fire come through decades ago before the other trees sprouted? I couldn’t tell. But like the date palm in Santa Rosa, it was still standing, still living. What more could it ask for?