Approximately 30 miles of rainforest withered under severe drought between Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Dixie Fire—land poised to blaze.
The historic town of Greenville has been devastated by fire. The whole community fled. Jim Richardson, the park’s superintendent, understood that the fire would soon reach his doorstep despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters.
The question on his mind was: what would survive the fire march across the Sierra Nevada?
“We know that all the forest fuels around us are flammable,” Richardson said. “Within the first two days, I knew our park was in danger from this fire.”
The events of August 2021 are reviewed on the Lassen scene. The slopes are black, the trees are burned, and the toothpick is thin. Driving along the park’s highway, around rolling mountains and bubbling mud pools, reveals swathes of land reminiscent of Mordor. Fire is a part of the ecosystem here, but the park has never experienced anything as devastating as the Dixie Fire.
The fire, the largest in California, burned nearly 70% of Lassen. A third of the burned area saw the kind of intense fire that killed most of the trees and cooked nutrients from the topsoil.
However, there is evidence of strength amidst the destruction: sprouts emerging from the scorched earth and the black and green mosaic of the mountains. The recovering ecosystem of this off-the-beaten-path national park serves as a reminder of the threats to US wild places and offers lessons on how to protect public lands in a time of climate crisis.
‘Not the kind of fire that usually happens.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, located in far northern California at the southern end of the Cascades, was formed by the disaster. It was created after the eruption of Lassen Peak in 1915 to preserve the area for future study, becoming the 17th national park.
In July 2021, it had just fully reopened after the below-average winter snowpack had melted. While less popular than Yosemite or Joshua Tree, Lassen typically receives over 500,000 annual visitors. The park is expecting record visits amid the COVID-19 pandemic from travelers eager to see the world’s largest volcanic dome, explore trails leading to waterfalls and hydrothermal vents, and hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.
But as the Dixie fire burned across the Sierra Nevada, Lassen crews kept a close eye on the fire and soon closed two remote entrances and stopped the backcountry for overnight camping.
In early August, Lassen closed completely to give firefighters unrestricted access. Staff often worked 16-hour days mapping the fire and figuring out how to protect the park and buildings, Richardson recalled.
Prescribed burns and natural fires have already reduced most of the vegetation in some parts of the Lassen. But with the Dixie fire approaching, firefighters are looking to do more to try to save what they can, including the Kohm Yah-mah-nee visitor center and nearby towns.
Crews spent days using heavy machinery to clear fuel around the fire lines, and then, when the wind permitted, they blazed another path to the approaching fire. They burned around the visitor center and the park highway that connects Dixie and another recent fire.
The Dixie fire has consumed vast swaths of the park, chewing through backcountry bridges on the Pacific Crest Trail and devouring a nearly century-old fire lookout.
The firefighters were able to achieve their mission. The visitor center was spared, as were the towns of Mill Creek, Mineral, and Old Station. The damage to Lassen is extensive and unprecedented; staff are still calculating the total cost of the losses. But years of prescribed burns have helped stop the worst effects of the fire.
Even with the injuries, Richardson hit the rest. Most of the facilities were saved, and in some areas, the raging fire slowed down or burned out completely thanks to prescribed fire projects and manual work to thin the trees, remove dead trees, and clear the pine needles from buildings.
That work over the past 20 years has ultimately helped reduce the severity of the Dixie fire in the park, said Gary Bucciarelli, an ecologist and director of the University of California, Davis’s Natural Reserves Lassen Field Station. Fire is an essential part of the ecosystem, he said, and without it, fuel loads increase, and fires that occur are more severe.
“If you don’t allow natural fires to happen, if you don’t allow fire to play a role, fires can be devastating,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing—these big fires that aren’t the kind of fires that normally happen in these ecosystems.”
‘Nature is adaptable.
From a distance, the trail next to the Kohm Yah-mah-nee visitor center appears to provide a window into all the devastation wrought by the Dixie fire.
The path unfolds itself through a dark forest with gnarled trees, but as it turns over a bridge and up a hillside, there is a sudden burst of green. The land is green and full of wildflowers. Locusts emit an electric hum that fills the air.
Many of the burned trees were removed with help from the Mooretown Rancheria of the Maidu Indians in California. The hazards have been removed, although some bridges in the backcountry are waiting to be replaced. The park’s highway offers a glimpse of the area’s natural wonders and a living model of what happens when fire moves across the landscape.
Visitors often tell Ranger Russell Rhoads how sad it is to see Lassen this way. While areas with high burn severity can take decades to recover, the ecosystem remains viable, he said, and the park has more prescribed burns planned.
“For a lot of people, all they see is black and brown,” Rhoads said. “There is beauty in between.”
If you look closely, you’ll see that some fungi and insects act as decomposers of the dead logs, Rhoads said, and the insects eventually serve as food for birds and other animals.
Even rotting tree stumps have larger mushrooms that bears can eat, Rhoads added. There are opportunities for new plant growth within burned areas, and a reduced tree canopy allows the growth of trees and grasses that feed other animals. Birds of prey can navigate the forest more easily.
In the Dixie Fire presentations he gives at the visitor center, Rhoads tries to remind people that fire is a part of this land. Some trees only scatter their seeds during a fire.
“People say: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this in all my life that I’ve lived here.’ In my life, this is all I’ve seen,” he said. “The fire has been suppressed all your life; the fuel has accumulated, and now it is out of control.”
But Rhoads is optimistic about the future. Nature is characterized by change, he said. “It’s adaptable. It can only do what it wants to do. “
Lassen’s strength can be seen throughout the landscape, he said. In Chaos Jumbles, the site of a massive rockfall 350 years ago, a field of seemingly impenetrable rocks stretches across the land, but trees have somehow made their home there.
“It’s obviously not the most hospitable land, but it still comes out one way or another,” he said. “That’s the way this ecosystem is. It gets thrown a hard pass, and then it recovers and does something different. It doesn’t have to go back to what it was before.”