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Know the West

Through wildland firefighting, finding a space to heal

A grieving daughter encounters solace in an unexpected place.

I write this on Oct. 25, as another fire-weather watch is declared over Northern California. I can hear the wind screaming past the windows, straining the trees. I know from experience that this wind can make a spark rip through dried grass and brush in an instant. Every time a gust picks up, I feel a knot tighten in my gut.

Westerners try to control fire with chainsaws, fire retardant, bulldozers, and the sweat and blood of wildland firefighters. But in conditions like these, I am reminded of our helplessness against fire’s powerful indifference.

For half a century, land-management agencies adhered to the “10 o’clock rule,” a requirement that all wildfires be extinguished by 10 a.m. the following day. Now, land managers know that wildfire is a natural part of the West. Good fires prevent bad ones; small-scale burns thin out excess vegetation and dead trees, thereby helping prevent large, destructive megafires. This year, however, our efforts feel insufficient.

 

In college, I spent the school year learning about wildlife biology and the summers fighting wildfire. The choice to work in the wilderness was clear. My dad taught me to love the outdoors. My earliest memories are of the snow in the Sierras. At 3 years old, I lay on my back making snow angels, staring up at the pines in wonder. The trees loomed against the gray winter sky, impossibly high and imposing. Even then, I recognized their otherworldly beauty.

My dad was the first to show me the magic of the forest, the majesty of rivers and lakes, the quiet beauty of the desert. When he died, I was a teenager. Those trips to the mountains ended, and for a time, so did my experience of nature.

My dad was the first to show me the magic of the forest, the majesty of rivers and lakes, the quiet beauty of the desert.

I was working my first fire season when I read The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, which chronicles the story of the U.S. Forest Service. I learned about the history of America’s public lands while sitting within their legacy — how Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt fought tooth and nail to protect America’s wild places from privatization, at a time when there was little concept of conservation.

As a racially mixed kid from the Los Angeles suburbs, many times I was acutely aware of my difference, working on wildland fire crews where most of my co-workers were white men from rural backgrounds. I recognized the exclusionary nature of Western conservation, even as I studied its heroes. On the surface, I couldn’t have less in common with Roosevelt or Pinchot. But I identified with their love of nature, their desire to protect it, and, most of all, how nature served as a balm to their grief.

Both Pinchot and Roosevelt suffered unimaginable losses. Both immersed themselves in wilderness looking for an answer to their grief. Roosevelt lost his wife, and then his mother, within the space of a day. Pinchot’s fiancée died young of tuberculosis, and yet he continued to write to his love many years after her death. When he felt her presence, he would record a “clear day” in his journal.

I felt a kinship with their loss; my father’s death shaped my adolescence. I, too, ran to the forest seeking a spiritual reckoning. I heard my own answer during my first fire season, and I continue to hear it to this day.

Corey Brickley/High Country News

Three years ago, my crew was assigned to a small lightning fire by a lake in Northern California. The burn went through a rocky slope, scorching the ponderosa canopy above. The fire was already extinguished, so our job was to mop up any remaining hot spots. We went over every inch of its interior, turning over dirt, spraying water with backpack pumps between rock crevices. At the end of the day, I made my way down the slope, exhausted, my legs aching.

The burned rocky slope bordered a stream that flowed into the lake. A small wooden bridge went across the stream, connecting the trail to the opposite side. The land on one side of it was burned by fire, but the other side was untouched.

I crossed the bridge to a lush green forest. Broadleaf trees hung overhead in a dense canopy. Grass formed a thick carpet under my feet. The wet ground sank under my boots, still dusty with ash. Turning back, I sat on the bridge. The setting sun shone down on the lake, reflecting across the water.

At that moment, I thought of my dad. I felt his overwhelming presence. The one thought that surpassed all others was, “It’s all right now.” I heard a clear answer to my grief and despair, an answer I can hear even now, in this time of uncertainty. I felt a sense of peace in that beautiful place on the water, on a bridge balanced between life and destruction.   

Kimberly Myra Mitchell is a recent graduate of UC Davis with a major in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology.

The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy. Read the runner-up essay.