Valerie Brooke, MD
The Necessity of Fire
The second full day in Yosemite started out better than the first. We got up early to get to the valley floor before the crowds and the heat of the day had a chance to set in. We parked our car on the south side of the valley, just beyond the Merced River near the Swinging Bridge, feeling incredibly lucky to grab the last parking spot in the lot. We lathered on layers of sunscreen followed by more layers of bug spray, filled our packs with food and water, grabbed the camera and set off into the shade of the Valley Loop trail. We were planning on doing the entire loop, just over 6 miles, stopping along the way to see those sights Yosemite is famous for: Half-Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan.
We begrudgingly adjusted to the swarms of mosquitoes dive bombing our faces, welcomed the awakening sun rays as we walked into a picture postcard meadow view, the sky opening up and down the valley floor. We crossed the Sentinel Bridge over the dry trickle of the Merced River, reading the informational plaques along the way, educating us about the valley’s biodiversity. After an initial disappointing hike to a view of the non-existent Lower Yosemite Falls, buoyed by the gift of a mule buck that reminded us of the beauty present along with the devastating drought, we once again entered the meadow.
Soon we entered a tree grove, full of Cypress Incense Cedar trees and Western Yellow Pines. Our mood once again shifted into a forlorn state, as we became acutely aware of the fallouts of fire. All around us, on both sides of the trail, lay soft gray ash, blackened thickened tree trunk bases, a stark absence of green brushes or plant growth, and large man-made piles of cut up dead trees sticking out at odd angles like broken bones poking out of skin. Restoration attempts were already in progress, but there was no way to hide the trauma.
We were now walking in the scorching heat of the day, mosquitos left behind, all alone on the trail and overwhelmed with the images being singed on our retinas. We were alone to witness the devastation of fire, the empty spaces between the ground and the first branches of these ancient trees and could not feel even an ounce of hope. Not only for the forests, but no hope for the rivers and streams, the rising ocean and melting glaciers, no hope for disappearing species of wildlife and plant life, no hope for the planet.
Further along the trail we came to one of the many trailside educational plaques put in place to explain to visitors the history and biology of Yosemite National Park. There was one discussing the benefits of forest fires, something that stopped us in our tracks. Benefit? Of fires? What? Why is there so much hype every year about how bad a fire year it’s going to be in the West then, if this is a good thing? We learned a lesson that day, a lesson that growth comes out of fire.
Prior to the Euro-Americans settling into Yosemite Valley in the 1850s, American Indians would set fires purposefully to support the growth of different plant species. Euro-Americans stopped this deliberate practice well into the twentieth century, until fire suppression policy started to change in the 1970s. It seems the American Indians knew what they were doing. Go figure.
Fire eliminates underbrush and forest floor debris, depositing essential ash into the soil and allowing established trees to grow stronger without the competition for nutrients from other plants. Fire opens the forest canopy to allow more sunlight in, again nourishing the established trees and eliminating the less healthy ones. Fire clears out shrubs and heavy brush, allowing for increased water supply to nearby streams, as less plants are absorbing water. Forest fires also have the benefit of killing insects and stopping diseases that destroy growing trees. And some tree and plant species actually depend upon fire to open up their cones and release seeds for future generations.
With this new information percolating while we completed our hike, the blackened tree trunks and forest floor covered with ash started to look different. I still saw the devastation, but also could see the potential. I imagined how the carbon in the ash would enrich the soil. I imagined the seeds spilling out of the cones onto the forest floor, sending down small roots with dreams of growing big and strong. I imagined the trees that did survive this fire getting bigger, adding more rings to their trunks year after year, reaching higher and higher for the sun and sky. I could see the light with the dark, could see the process of regeneration right in front of my eyes.
When I returned to life and work and all the responsibilities that come with them, I took this new understanding with me: the benefits of fire to the forest are much like the benefits of challenging periods in my life. Whether at work, or home, with colleagues or with family, something new will always come out of the pain and struggle. There is hope. Hope for a better natural world, a healthier climate. Hope for a better workplace and family life, a healthier way of living. Today I am thankful for fires, both the external and internal ones.