Wildfire Planning

The Fire Scar

     by Colin Fletcher


YOU CAN SOMETIMES gather in a golden and unexpected harvest from an ugly, barren-looking gully. On August 1, 1977 two lightning strikes in Los Padres National Forest touched off the second largest fire in California history. Three weeks later, an army of men and machines at last brought the blaze under control. They did so by ringing 175,000 acres with an almost continuous firebreak - a swathe slashed by bulldozers through rugged forest, brush, and grassland.

In early November I backpacked for the first time since this Marble Cone fire into the Ventana Wilderness, kernel of Los Padres Forest. I went to see what had happened. But I did not go to see what damage the flames had done.

In our California coastal mountains, periodic burns are part of the process that has made the land what it is, and because we have for seventy years suppressed fires of all kinds, this one was not only necessary but long overdue. So I did not worry much about what somebody called "the ashes of our forest." Naturally, I felt sad that the Wilderness might not, in my lifetime, look the same again. But time would heal the fire scars. Before long, the steep slopes and sinuous ridges would once more be green and beautiful. And they would still be wilderness, would still stretch virgin and protected - a sanctuary in which man was only a visitor, not the dominant animal.

The wilderness would still have been virgin, that is, but for the bulldozers.

Now I have been a cat skinner. Many years ago I bulldozed a road over unspoiled African mountains very similar to those of the Ventana Wilderness. So when I backpacked in that November day I thought I knew pretty well what to expect in the way of bulldozer damage.

After three hours of steady walking through unburned forest I came up at last, in bright sunshine, onto a ridge that dominates the northern part of the Wilderness. A broad, burned-over basin spread out below me. As I expected, the damage looked less devastating than news reports had implied. Patches of green still flecked the charred slopes, and I knew that life would spread outward from them, the way it had always done after fire swept through these mountains - long before man arrived and began to meddle. Because we had meddled and allowed seventy years of tinder to accumulate, this latest fire had burned hotter than usual. But its scars would soon heal. In ten or twenty years at most, you would be able to look out across that basin and see no sign of damage from the Fire of 1977.

But I had not come to see what damage the flames had done. And there on that ridge my fears were realized: the ridge had been crucified.

The beauty of mountain scenery often lies, like the beauty of women, in its curves. I had known that ridge for many years - known it as curving grassland, smooth and flowing, subtle and evocative. Dark forest had flanked the grassland. Always cloud wrapped and somber or glittering in sunlight - it was a beautiful and unspoiled place. And I had come to love it.

But now the crown of the ridge was gone. It had been sliced off; bulldozed out of existence; scraped and pounded into a flat, stony swathe - as engineered and sterile as a parking lot. Along both flanks of this swathe stretched raw, ugly dikes, sometimes four feet high. Protruding stones bore fresh white scars. Beyond them, the trees that once formed the forest's edge had been uprooted, then brute-forced into an almost solid wall of gouged and splintered chaos.

Even outside the main swathe, stark, unnecessary cuts lacerated the grassland and clove haphazardly through brush and trees. One mad bulldozer had escaped from its paddock, run amok through delicate young forest, and left a senseless, mile-long graffito of crushed saplings. Empty fruit juice and oil cans, wine and beer bottles punctuated the carnage.

When I had recovered from the first shock, I walked a few yards along the ridge. A cloudlet drifted across the sun. I sat down on a granite outcrop.

I knew that the fire fighting crews had often battled close up with walls of flame, under virtual combat pressure, and war can explain, if not excuse, certain excesses. But I also knew that this stretch of firebreak had been cut when the fire was miles and days distant.

Struggling to subdue my anger, I leaned back against the granite outcrop. It had been my lunch stop on many a backpacking trip. Stretched out on a natural platform among its rough, lichen-greened rocks, I would look out toward a wedge of ocean, ten miles away, 3,500 feet below. Always I was calmed and strengthened by the place: by the distant, shining, wind-pewtered Pacific; by steep, forest-clad mountainsides; by smooth grassland curving up to my feet; and by the way all these details meshed - jigsaw, naturally, harmoniously.

But now, at my very feet, there gaped a pair of long, deep, parallel furrows: a bulldozer had twice angled down the slope, blade gouging soil, and then for some reason had quit. Thirty feet below, the main swathe cut stark and brutal across curving grassland.

I ran my eye along this swathe then back up the twin furrows. Time, unaided, would not quickly heal such scars. Even today, Roman roads cut clear and distinct across green European fields. And the Romans used no bulldozers.

I closed my eyes, thinking there was nothing I could do in the face of the Forest Service and huge, lumbering bulldozers. Nothing any of us could do against the lumbering impersonal forces that our vastly successful industrial society had unleashed.

Then I opened my eyes. Opened them to the distant Pacific. To scorched but still-plunging mountainsides. To still curving ridgetops. Opened my ears to the wind and the silence. Opened eyes and ears and mind to the wide blue bowl of the sky.

The cloudlet drifted clear of the sun. My hand reached out and touched rough, lichened granite.

Something could be done. Something could be done by individuals. The way to heal the two ugly, unnecessary wounds that slanted past my feet was not with more machinery like that the Forest Service had already used to "clean up" the swathe. The way to salvage this special and fragile place was to massage it, gently, with help from local volunteers.

And that would be only the beginning.

I felt my back straighten. The picture began to focus. Details clicked into place.

SMALL GROUPS, even individuals, would work in places of their own choosing, in places as rich to them by association as this curving, grassy ridge had been to me. Such people would come undriven by money motive and uncommitted to the ham-fisted application of engineering solutions to biological problems. These people would arrive after several hours walking. By then, the din of human striving would have begun to fade. They would half-hear the mountain music. They would work with tender loving care. That was the pith: tender loving care. They would use picks and shovels and even such tools as small chainsaws, but they would be doing work appropriate to the problem: biological work, poetic work, work of love.

I knew, of course, that one small group, massaging only a few hundred yards of ridgetop, would make no impression on the immense swathe that ringed the Wilderness. But a swarm of groups could. And sitting there on the granite outcrop, bolt upright now, looking out across the mountainsides to distant ocean, I saw my idea unfolding from a single small seed until it had helped heal the whole sadly wounded Wilderness.

Now the trouble with such shining visions is that once you have glimpsed them you must act. Otherwise you cannot live with yourself. In those first minutes I knew that I had to begin by forming my own small group - even if it turned out to be a party of one.

Two days later I set things in motion.

First, I unfolded my plan to a small, carefully selected group. Then, assured of some support, I tackled the Forest Service. Leery of unleashing ignorant, if well-intentioned, amateurs on the denuded mountains, they hesitated. But a five-hour session with my photographs of the ridge convinced them that - as a one-time cat skinner and farmer - I genuinely understood erosion problems. Two days later we signed a grandiloquent document. Its five introductory whereases opened with "WHEREAS there are certain areas of the Ventana Wilderness, Monterey Ranger District, Los Padres National Forest, that are in need of visual improvement to enhance the scenic quality ..." And there was much, much more. But the document authorized our group to try to restore the natural contours along a quarter mile of ridgetop.

Our "group" quickly evolved into a party of two. My schedule at that time fortunately let me spend extended periods up on the ridge; and though half a dozen early helpers soon faded away, Irving Rogers did not. A construction laborer by trade, Irv Came up for busman's-holiday weekends, did yeoman labor, and taught me volumes about moving earth. He brought only one disadvantage: we found so much of common interest, from non-politics to music (Irv is a Sibelius aficionado), that we sometimes sat and talked when we should have been working. Mostly, though, we worked.

Irv, like me, will not see fifty again, but he is a professional. His coaching, plus some past experience, soon lifted me out of the tyro class. And slowly we began to make a difference.

At the very start, because it seemed fitting, I personally attacked the twin scars below "my" granite outcrop. I moved steadily down the two-hundred-foot furrows pulling dark, displaced soil back into them with one of the tools the Forest Service had loaned as - a long-handled McLeod, hoe on one side, broad-tined rake on the other. Within six working hours I had both furrows filled and the soil smoothed level. Next morning I transplanted tufts of grass into the bare earth. Then I dragged from unburned forest the trunks and limbs of two long-fallen trees and laid them carefully across the restored strip - to reduce erosion dangers and also give an illusion of undisturbed land. Finally, I scattered over everything a decent covering of oak leaves.

Then I stood back. If I half-closed my eyes I could already pretend that no bulldozer had ever visited that place. So the first test was over. Something could indeed be done. A few highly motivated individuals using only simple tools, could heal the wounds that man had inflicted. We could restore the natural curves. Time would do the rest.

In the weeks that followed, Irv and I made slow but steady progress. Our main and monumental problem was a stretch of swathe that bypassed a high point of the ridge and slashed across open, steeply sloping grassland. The cut was as deep and broad as a county road. In places, its vertical upper bank rose higher than a man's head.

Initially, we planned to shovel the displaced soil back up into its original position, compensating for inevitable loss by raking down part of the bank. Instead we eventually decided to pack logs along the foot of the bank: to reduce the amount of shoveling; to help restore the original slope without breaking down the bank; to buttress both bank and replaced soil against erosion, and - much more than a bonus - to dispose neatly of nearby walls of bulldozed trees.

With a small chainsaw we bucked the trees into one- or two-man loads and shouldered them as much as two hundred yards to the grassland. Once, a passing troop of Boy Scouts lent willing, good-turn shoulders. Then we buried the logs - along with all nearby cans and bottles - under shoveled-up fill. Slowly but steadily we moved forward, erasing the "county road." To curb erosion we planted grass tufts, then laid sticks across the line of drainage. When heavy rains hit in December, these measures held up.

One starlit evening, after a long day's work on this main cut, Irv and I were eating dinner at our camp on top of the ridge when Irv said, "You know, a lot of people would think us crazy, doing this. But it's one of the more satisfying things I've ever gotten into. And maybe the best part is that we're dealing with the job personally, kind of alone, and quietly. I've been on several one-day trail clearing trips with the Sierra Club, and they're effective enough. I mean they get the job done. But it's all heavily organized, with jeeps ferrying supplies to roadhead and people taking pictures all day and a whole lot of back-patting - so that the thing almost becomes a media event. Like a barn raising, you know. You get the barn raised all right, but it's not the same as building something yourself, quietly, and at your own speed. Up here, though, the way we've been doing it, there's none of that. No hoopla at all. You feel it's just you yourself standing with the wilderness. And hell, it feels good."

I nodded into the darkness. "Yes, it does, doesn't it?"

Nights, the two of us would talk for hours. By day, we kept stroking and kneading away at our allotted quarter of a mile.

ONE SUNLIT afternoon in late January I was working alone on the stretch of sliced-off ridgetop that had shocked me when I backpacked in after the fires. With McLeod and Pulaski - a shorter, stouter, mattock-like tool - I was breaking down one of the dikes that bounded the main swathe. With gloved hands I carried the biggest stones a few yards and added them, scars hidden, to a hillock I was building out in the middle of the devastation. Then, with shovel and McLeod, I spread soil and rubble out across the flat swathe, reshaping it into natural looking little mounds and hollows and gullies.

The work was going well. In two days I had restored more than sixty feet of the swathe's barren surface into something like the subtle, interlinked jigsaw of meaning that nature weaves. It was not perfect, of course. If you looked searchingly you could detect some rather odd land formations - for there is a limit to how far you can drag or throw soil and rubble - but I had helped disguise the imperfections by rerouting an obliterated foot trail along a carefully casual, meandering course. Already the manmade straight lines had gone. Curves once more ruled. Time, as always, would do the rest.

Late that sunny afternoon I stood back for one of my periodic rests. By now I always used such sweat-saving techniques as pulling soil and rubble slightly downhill, in league with gravity ("working along with Sir Isaac," we called it), but although the digging and hacking and spreading no longer racked my body the way they had done when we began three months earlier, I still needed a rest from time to time.

Now our digging and spreading and our bucking and toting of logs no doubt sounds like hard labor. It was, too. But it remained the reverse of drudgery. As I rested that bright January afternoon, leaning wearily on my McLeod and surveying the sixty feet of ridgetop I had restored in the last two days, I saw why that was so.

Our massage was working. My carefully concocted curves had already erased the dikes' tell-tale straight lines. Soon, I would apply the salves and cosmetics: transplanted grass; scattered oak leaves; dead tree limbs, strategically sited. There at the forest's battered edge I would scatter ripe red madrone berries. Later, we might bury acorns, even transplant saplings-unless we decided to leave reforestation to the jays and their allies. And when grass and brush and young trees had reclothed our work - in three or four years at most - few passers-by would notice anything unnatural. In fifty years, with luck, no one would detect a trace of what man had once done to that place.

Standing there in the afternoon sunlight, leaning on the McLeod, I looked to my right, where the swathe still stretched bleak and barren, then once more to my left, where I had massaged the dikes back into the ridgetop. I nodded to myself and the ridgetop. It was working all right. Our task was less than half done, but this first small seed was already bearing fruit. The Wilderness had begun to benefit. Future generations of men would benefit, too. But I saw now that by far the richest reward had fallen to those of us who had done the work. Imagining we sowed for others, we had reaped an unexpected, golden harvest. Up there on that remote ridge, high above the Pacific, we had broken free from the industrial world. We had reasserted our value as individuals. We had worked creatively, usefully, with our own hands and brains, in our own time, at our own pace. We had done something real - something that would last. We had done something that could send a small message of healing clear across the Ventana Wilderness and could, if the word spread, broadcast it far beyond this one wilderness.

To feel you have done something like that is indeed a rare privilege. You can hardly ask for more. I stepped forward and with new strength drove my McLeod deep into the raw, still-standing dike.

Colin Fletcher (1922-2007), the spiritual godfather of wilderness backpacking and author of several books chronicling his wilderness odysseys, is best known for his classic backpacking guide, The Complete Walker (1968-2001).  Fletcher completed several extraordinary solo expeditions which he later wrote about including The Thousand Mile Summer (1964) which recounts his 1958 hike along the entire eastern edge of California.  That was followed by The Man Who Walked Through Time (1968) which tells of the first (his) continuous trek the length of Grand Canyon National Park below the rim.  In 1989 he hiked and rafted the entire length of the Colorado River from its Wyoming headwaters to the Gulf of California as told in River (1997).  In his later years, Fletcher lived in Carmel Valley and was a frequent visitor to the Ventana Wilderness.