Living with Fire Part 1: A Personal Perspective

A four-part series on the impact, causes, and science-based solutions surrounding California’s “new normal.”

In the last two years, California has endured its most deadly and destructive wildfires on record, leaving many of us with important questions: Why is this happening? How did we get here? What can we do personally and publicly to help? Today, we begin an exploration of these questions through the lens of native plants, beginning with a beautiful first-person account by Jennifer Jewell of Butte County. Jennifer, a CNPS member and native plant advocate, is the host of the Cultivating Place podcast, broadcast through North State Public Radio. Here she shares her intimate observations on both the destruction and hope accompanying the recent Camp Fire. It’s an important reminder that the most thoughtful solutions must begin with humanity as a vital part of the ecosystems we work to preserve and understand.

The 2018 Camp Fire seen from Chico in Butte County. Photo: Jennifer Jewell
A Gardener’s Thoughts After The Campfire

Photos and essay by Jennifer Jewell

Adaptation and Innovation are ideas I, as a gardener, nature lover, and caring human, have been thinking a lot about these past few weeks – in light of and in the wake of the #Campfire here in Northern California. This fire – the deadliest wildland fire in California history has left our region sort of stunned — blackened, scoured, laid bare. Most of us are still numb – and only time will tell when that might ease and lighten.

That life does in fact go on, in all its forms and transformations, is both horribly cruel, and incredibly reliable. Every cliche you can think of comes to mind and irritatingly fits: the smoke clears, the sun rises, tomorrow is another day, life goes on. Pick yourself up, Dust yourself off, get on with it.

It’s almost absurd how unrelenting life can be in its single-minded drive to – well, to live – through its very capacity for innovation and adaptation. Eighty-seven human lives lost, almost 14,000 human homes destroyed, and 154,000 acres burned before the fire was contained after two-and-a-half-weeks. Somewhere entangled in the crazy-overwhelming and messy complexity of these numbers used to scale and order the tragedy, life is already asserting itself – human and non-human alike. In fact, life was asserting itself in a dizzying array of innovation and adaptation quite dramatically in the very midst of the fire – from the nearly 5,000 brave and kind first responders and the many, many volunteers working to comfort, shelter, clothe, feed, and orient the displaced, to the communities and individuals who resolutely prepared and fled, prepared and stayed, prepared again and are slowly going back in to what was lost, and what remains.

That life does in fact go on, in all its forms and transformations, is both horribly cruel, and incredibly reliable.

And now in the aftermath – it’s the many forms of innovation and adaptation of what remains that intrigues me: in people, in plants, in animals, in soil. How do you clean a burned homesite? How do you rebuild a bridge? A garden? A gravity and spring-fed home water system? A town? A forest or riparian ecosystem? A watershed?

From the fungi already busy at work in the wood debris after more than 6 inches of rain on my garden this past week to the ants and gophers rapacious (almost zealous) in the charred soft ground of the nearby oak woodland – life itself is answering these questions. It doesn’t make me feel better per se, nor should it for right now, but still it is – beyond, above, and outside of human intervention.

We’ve been walking the burnt oak woodlands near my house for the past few weeks since the fire moved further eastward. Everywhere the path of the fire is visible and we try to read it, as humans, as plantspeople and gardeners – to sift through what we read for understanding – from the white ash impressions of wood that burned long and hot, to the faster jet black searing across the dry, dry grass meadows and open understories – you can see where the fire went up, went over, lingered here, missed there altogether. (The week prior to the fire we’d been over 210 days without significant precipitation and our humidity measured in the single digits daily and John was tracking this closely even then.)

You can also follow the path of the people working to direct the fire away from my neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of my town. The rough choppy path of bulldozer crews working the perimeter of this woodland meadow tells a human narrative of urgent and rough strategy – where to place a break in the fuel, where to light a backfire to burn fuel in front of the fire and stop its progress in a specific direction. Of people working all night to think like a fire and one-step ahead.

Of innovation and adaptation on the ground, in the moment.

Beneath the blackened grass residue, the soil is a deep nutmeg color for now. And just like human homes, there are those trees – home to myriad life — valley oaks and blue oaks and live oaks that are downed completely in place, slumped or fallen while others are partially intact, others still – standing tall. This is the natural selection thinning management that is the rightful role of healthy fire. The landscape’s fire color palette ranges across an eerie ashen grey, shades of black, to a deeper than normal brown – indicating a more superficial singe from which the trees and shrubs will likely recover.

The oaks, the owls, the deer, the bulbs, us – we do adapt and innovate. We move over, we make way, we make room, we get up — albeit slowly and sadly at times — and if we can, we start again.

The understory shrubs tell similar stories of the fire’s whims: those red buds and coffee berries that defoliated, but the shrubby stems of which are still green and lively in the pith. There are expanses of silvery buckeye forming elegant thickets, these had little foliage in their summer dormancy before the fire and with the heat of the fire, they dropped all of their hefty nut-brown seeds, but seemed to withstand the flames and heat that clearly went right beneath them. Why, you find yourself wondering? Why did that grey pine NOT burst into flames as one of the most flammable of our trees?

Why did this oak go and that one not? And how did the acorn woodpeckers, the bush-tits and the towhees fare? The night of the fire as we humans drove, paced, watered, ACTED, the seasonal birds – Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes migrating along the Pacific Flyway above us in the night — moved too, unsettled, disoriented and calling, calling, calling through the night. An eerie and plaintive sound. And how are the pacific chorus frogs, the lizards, the snakes, the bumblebee queens already in hibernation after the heat of summer? John worries about these as we walk, hoping for the survival of the queens and for their return in just a few months to lay their broods – when the not-burned manzanitas will open their sweet bell-like blooms across the lower foothills.

As we walked the post-fire meadow the other evening, we intermittently examined ash, stood beneath tree canopies, followed a deer trail here, a bulldozer path there. We bent down a few times to salvage small succulent native bulbs (Dichelostemma? Triteleia perhaps? They didn’t have the scent of Allium) thrown above ground by the deep cuts of the bulldozer, also healthy plump acorns lying in abundance beneath trees the shape and resilience of which speak to genetics we’d like to encourage, help propagate, disperse.

We saw a bat sweep silently over us. We heard a diurnal pygmy owl calling out goodnight from a stand of trees nearby; a small group of deer moved quietly into the stand as well, some limping – from hot ash sores, we wonder? In this cluster of oaks that remain, their foliage is turning a warm bronze late-autumn early-winter color right on time, fire or no fire. These trees envelope the owl into their branches, the deer among their trunks, and we imagine a whole host of other birds and insects, reptiles, rodents and much more – many (or all?) evacuees from the fires in neighboring trees.

The oaks, the owls, the deer, the bulbs, us – we do adapt and innovate. We move over, we make way, we make room, we get up — albeit slowly and sadly at times — and if we can, we start again. We say goodnight and then in whatever our way, we say good morning not very long after.

I’ve written this before: Fire is not new or foreign to the people and landscapes of California, and much of our native landscapes have co-evolved to live and even thrive with fire as part of the normal, healthy cycle of things. But these are not normal times and these are not “normal” fires. More often than not throughout the West in the past decade, like much of the extreme weather conditions affecting our entire globe, much of the fire we see today is climate-change-fueled extreme fire, contributed to by a wide variety of human missteps, misunderstandings, and unintentional mismanagement in the form of a long legacy of abusing, subjugating, and ignoring indigenous peoples and land knowledge, fire suppression, and development with short term financial profit put well before and over natural resource conservation, respect, and sustainability for anyone. These, to be blunt, are innovation, adaptation, and opportunism gone very, very wrong.

These are exactly the times when we as gardeners (who innovate and adapt in our un-ignorable human impulse to cultivate our places), nature lovers, and advocates need to continue to coordinate and collaborate. We need to deepen and expand our questions, our listening, learning — our individual and collective understanding and advocacy. We need to continue to grow together in order to continue to grow the gardens – large and small, natural and cultivated, figurative and literal – those standing and those lost that we all love and find inspiration, solace, and hope in.

These are agonizing and yet teachable moments for us all. My fervent prayer is that our resounding human capacity for innovation and adaptation integrates with our learning and produces much better results, for all.


Jennifer Jewell is the creator and host of Cultivating Place, a public radio program and podcast on natural history and the human impulse to garden, based in Chico, CA. Her first book, The Earth In Her Hands, 75 Extraordinary Women Reimagine Life With Plants, focused on remarkable women transforming horticulture around the world, is due out from Timber Press in early 2020.

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2 Comments

  1. Jennifer Jewell captures both the aching sense of loss and renewal in her words–we’re sick of using the word ‘tragedy’ (which it is), but there is beauty in the aftermath of fire as well, even when the fire is not as it should have been in our changing landscape.

  2. Dear Jennifer, for the 20+years I lived in Paradise, I was active in the CNPS and Butte County Fire Safe Council. We tried so hard to be aware of fire’s potential impact on our community; we even taught children at the local schools about what to do before, during and after a fire. But nothing prepared any of us, really, to fully understand this tragedy. I now reside in Mendocino Co. right next to the western edge of Lake Co. We have been surrounded by at least 5 major fires in 6 years. It is tragically certain that we have a major threat not just to our landscape, but to our lives. The outpouring of love and support that has been flowing to those affected is heartwarming. And the number of classes, neighborhood information meetings, and articles like yours is essential to our coming to grips with the issue of fire. We can not stop learning and sharing. Thank you,
    Anna Stephens Golick

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