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When we think of the year 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic looms so large that it grabs all our attention, eclipsing all the other disasters we witnessed that year. One such disaster is the Woodward Fire of August 2020. Caused by a lightning strike and aided by gusty winds, it burnt thousands of acres in Point Reyes National Seashore, causing anxiety and resulting in evacuations.
Recently, I went on an awe-inspiring Fire Ecology Hike organized by Point Reyes National Seashore Association with a renowned naturalist Wendy Dreskin. Wendy informed us that many teams with different areas of expertise are involved in putting out a forest fire. That includes firefighters on land, firefighters on-air, scientists studying fire behavior and the effects of fire on forest ecosystems, air quality, and wildland-urban interface, to name a few. Drones equipped with thermal sensors help first responders, dozers create firebreaks, and satellite instruments detect and track forest fires. Besides focusing on putting out the fire, the teams walking on the burned ground also make sure that their shoes do not bring in any invasive plant species because invasive plants tend to grow faster and slow down the forest regeneration process.
The sky trail was breathtaking. It was misty and sunlight barely filtered through the tree branches and fog dripped on my head. As we walked on the trail, Wendy pointed out the signs of forest regeneration. I saw many burnt Douglas firs and California Bay trees but I also learned how the native vegetation in California has evolved and has adapted to forest fires. As Douglas Firs grow, the lower branches break, and the foliage becomes concentrated in the top to prevent fire from reaching the top branches. Bishop pines are fire-dependent; their cones need the heat to open. Some plants have seed banks in the soil that need heat to sprout. I saw new sword ferns unfurling in the burnt tree stumps and huckleberry and lupines growing in the understory. Lupine seeds in the soil seed bank start growing after a fire and the bacteria in lupine fixes the nitrogen deficiency in the forest soil after a fire. It was a humbling experience to see how well nature regenerates itself after a fire. However, if fires are too frequent, then plants do not have time to build up the seed bank. The resiliency of nature will be put to a stress test.
At the end of the hike, Wendy discussed the reasons for the increase in forest fires and it was a great learning experience for me. One of the main reasons is the misguided policy of forest fire suppression which dictates that any fire in the forest should be put down immediately. This has led to a buildup of materials that are very flammable in the forest floor, so the fires are bigger. Fire has always been a part of the California landscape and the indigenous people of California coexisted with fire. They periodically burned the underbrush, thus preventing the accumulation of flammable material in the forest. These less intense fires promoted new growth, improving the health of the forests. In addition, the current trend of building houses closer to the forests exacerbates this problem because we cannot let natural forest fires burn as they pose danger to lives and homes. The other important reason for the frequent forest fires is climate change. Global warming has resulted in an increase in the temperatures resulting in hot and dry conditions, which lead to forest fires.
Many years ago, we used to have one or two forest fires. In the last decade, we have seen many fires burning simultaneously and we are also getting used to seeing an apocalyptic orange sky. Frequently, one of these fires sets a record for the biggest in the history of California. This year, we have seen the devastation caused by the Dixie Fire and the Caldor Fire. It is disheartening to see these fires destroying towns and devastating lives year after year. It is time for outreach and action. All of us need to get involved, get educated, and find out what we can do at home, at work, and in public spaces to reduce global warming. We need to promote policies that aim to reduce global warming.
This walk was one of several walks organized in August by Point Reyes National Seashore Association, an organization with a focus on coastal conservation and environmental education, to mark the one-year anniversary of the Woodward fire. For more information on their outreach programs to educate the community, check out: https://ptreyes.org/
If anyone is interested in hiking the sky trail on their own, the following link from the National Park Service has trail maps and information on current conditions and trail closures: https://www.nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit/hiking_guide.htm
Anandi Lakshmikanthan is a retired software engineer. She is a co-founder of Sevalaya USA. She tutors refugee women and children. She has written short stories and reviews. She likes to go for hikes in the parks and open space preserves in the Bay Area.