A Walk Through a Burned Forest: The Fire Line by Fernanda Santos

The woods were still but not silent. I stopped and listened. No birdsong, no insects buzzing, not a fly or bee spiraling around my head, no chipmunks scampering across the trail, no rustles in the brush. There was no brush. No safe place for a bird to alight. No flowers for bees to feed on. Only death lived here.

The only sound was the crack and pop of weakened, black branches, an occasional thud as a larger branch crashed to the ground. I kept my eyes up in apprehension, aware every moment of the possibility of being caught beneath one of these burnt missiles. I walked quickly with the knowledge that the blackened trunks sloping up to my left could give at any time and come crashing down across my path.

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I was on a trail called “Noble Knob,” just outside of Greenwater, WA. The trailhead is nestled 5000 feet above the earth, and through the naked stands of charcoal trees, I glimpsed the snowy peak of Mt. Ranier, absurdly colorful against a cheerful blue sky punctuated by billowing clouds and mists.

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One year ago, I hiked this short, rewarding trail through a peaceful green forest, alive with lush green foliage, wildlife, and towering evergreens. Two weeks later, a wildfire would sweep across the ridge and leave this charred wasteland. Looking out over the valley, I could see strips of browned evergreens among the hills, showing the flighty, unpredictable path of the fire. In places, the trees still retained their needles, as though the fire had gently brushed a hand across the tops of the trees. But up here on the ridge, the destruction had been total.

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It was an eerie hike, a mile and a half in complete isolation, the buzz of life absent, the silent growth of plants stilled, the ancient knowledge of the trees erased. Feeling a gust of warmth against my hand, I was astonished to feel the heat from still smoldering trunks, a year later, the tenacious fire murmuring against defeat.

This summer I read The Fire Line by Fernanda Santos, the story of the 2013 fire that killed 19 men, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, as they fought a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona. These were nineteen elite, highly trained professionals, and yet the blaze took a turn they were unable to anticipate or escape.

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The book works to humanize the men who lost their lives in that blaze, nearly idolizing them, yet refrains from asking hard questions about the decisions made by leadership all along the chain that day. It does demonstrate our hubris in the face of nature, as more and more people encroach upon land vulnerable to fire, just as we build homes in hurricane zones and in valleys below slumbering volcanoes.

Walking through the burned woods, I tried to imagine how it would have felt to stand on the ridge with the fire racing towards me, cutting its fickle paths of destruction. If one thing stood out to me, it was how total the destruction had been in that particular portion of the trail, and the extraordinary courage needed to face down a blaze like that.

A week later, while hiking to Echo Lake in the same area, the fire was just over the hills, and even that was too close for comfort for me.

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Fire cleanses as it destroys, and nature is resilient. Here and there, scrubby patches of brush were already pushing through the ashen earth, determined to return. On a clean slate, nature was already writing its next story.

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