A month after the Walbridge Fire destroyed our home at the end of Palmer Creek Road, I finally had a chance to hike beyond the rubble of our house to see what effect the fire had on the 55 acres of forest my husband and I had bought back in 1989, the forest where we'd lived ever since.
I had already confronted the total ruin of the modest manufactured home where we'd raised our three children and which had housed several life-times' worth of family treasures, and over a football field's length of bookshelves packed with books. But now I wanted to see what the fire had done to the forest I've long thought of as mine not because we own the deed to it but because, like a family member or a dear friend, I’ve known it so well and loved it for so long.
Soon after we moved there, that forest had been the inspiration for my first novel, and it had been an inspiration, a solace and a delight ever since. In the nearly 30 years we’d lived there, I had reveled in the sweep of seasons, watched as the second-growth forest grew more mature, mourned the arrival of sudden oak death, discovered bear scat and mountain lion tracks, and enjoyed many generations of fawns gamboling on our front lawn. Working with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, I’d released foxes, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes onto the land. I'd discovered many treasures there, too — hummingbird feathers, deer antlers, a raccoon’s tail, a bird’s skull no larger than my thumb, as well as several arrowheads made by the First Nations people who inhabited that forest first and whose violent displacement from their homeland was infinitely more tragic than mine can ever be.
I was hoping my hike might reveal more treasures and also serve as a source of comfort. I’d read the accounts of biologists and survivors of previous fires describing the near-miraculous speed with which wildlands regrow after a burn, and I yearned to find promises of that kind of regrowth now. I felt that, along with the enormous outpouring of care and support from my family and friends, one of the greatest comforts I could hope to find was proof that my beloved forest would return.
Instead I found myself roaming a landscape that might have been the setting of Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road.” In a forest that was previously thrumming with life — filled with tracks, scats, calls, songs and innumerable lively insects and living leaves, now the only signs of life I found during my several hours of wandering the ridgetops were five grasshoppers, two small lizards, a tiny silver newt, a few new sprouts at the base of a single bay tree and one half-dried fox scat. Once I thought I heard a call from one of the members of the raven family with whom we had shared a clearing for the past three decades, but when I listened more closely, I realized it was only the screech of two burnt trees rubbing together. I knew it might be too soon to know for certain, but I came to fear that the fire that burned my forest had been so slow and hot that it may have extinguished all potential for new growth.
"It's just nature," a well-meaning friend had observed a few days earlier, when, in an attempt to console me, she'd tried to construct some sort of usable philosophy from the tragedy. But in fact, there was nothing natural about the Walbridge Fire. Instead, it had been caused by the unfortunate conjunction of record-breaking high temperatures, a freak electrical storm that had bombarded Northern California with over 12,000 lightning strikes, and many decades of fire suppression in a forest that had evolved to burn. It was not a natural disaster but an unnatural one, not an "act of God," but the result of human ignorance and greed, that same lethal combination of opportunism and denial that is currently causing record flooding in China and a record-breaking hurricane season in the Atlantic.
As I wept my way through my silent, charred and reeking forest, I remembered back to earlier in the week when my husband and I had driven from Chico, where we've been couch-surfing with family, to McClellen Park, where President Trump was scheduled to meet with Governor Newsome about the wildfires. We had many reasons for wanting to protest our opposition to the current administration, but chief among them was our desire to express our horror of Trump's and many other Republicans’ on-going dismissal of global warming.
I’d made signs for us that read: “GOP: Wake Up and Smell the Smoke,” and “Global Warming Just Burnt Our Forest Home.” Although we did not expect those signs to have any effect on the president, we were hoping that expressing those sentiments in public might help to nudge the needle just a little toward a greener, more sustainable future. Instead we were shocked by the vitriol our magic-markered signs provoked. Trump supporters (two of whom, we later learned, had driven into groups of protesters with their vehicles) yelled at us that our home had burned because the forests weren’t being logged, or because we hadn’t raked the forest floor. Some screamed that global warming was impossible because there had been ice ages, while others yelled that the climate was exactly the same as it had always been. Middle-aged women bedecked in MAGA bling chanted “f--- you” at us, while flag-draped men in red hats and crude T-shirts (including one emblazoned with an image of Trump urinating on the letters “CNN”) shouldered protesters aside as they walked, unmasked, through our small crowd.
It remains to be seen whether the miracle the biologists have predicted will actually take place in my beloved forest. Unlike a natural wildfire, I truly fear that instead of stimulating new growth, this unnatural fire may have extinguished all chance of it. I also fear that, even if my beloved trees do sprout new shoots, even if the wildflowers are lush in the meadows next spring, and even if the animals and insects do manage to venture back onto that charred land, the rebirth of my forest will be short-lived. Unless we humans can change our attitudes, expectations and laws with lightning speed, I fear that whatever new growth I will get to witness in my forest will be stunted and fleeting, while unnatural disasters — mega-fires, hurricanes, floods, rising sea levels and droughts — will keep humanity suffering and grieving for centuries to come.
Jean Hegland is the author of three novels and a book of nonfiction. “Into the Forest,” the novel inspired by the forest in which she lived, has been translated into fifteen languages and adapted as a French graphic novel and a Canadian film starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. Jean and her husband lost their house and forest in the Mill Creek watershed to the Walbridge Fire in what she calls an “unnatural disaster.”