“After California’s largest wildfire, a national park perseveres and restores its natural beauty.”
The fire was approaching.
Around 30 miles of thick woods suffering from severe drought separated Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Dixie Fire – an area primed for combustion.
The once-thriving town of Greenville was destroyed by a fire, forcing its residents to evacuate. Jim Richardson, the park superintendent, knew that despite the efforts of countless firefighters, the fire would soon reach his location.
He was wondering what could survive the fire’s spread through the Sierra Nevada.
Richardson stated that they were aware of the high flammability of all the fuels in the surrounding forest. He also noted that within the initial 48 hours, he realized that the park was in danger from the fire.
The occurrences in August 2021 have left a lasting impact on the terrain of Lassen. The hills are scorched, the trees are burnt, and appear frail and fragile. As I travel along the park’s highway, passing winding mountains and bubbling mud pools, I am met with large patches of land that resemble Mordor. While fire is a natural component of this ecosystem, the Dixie fire was unprecedented in its level of destruction for the park.
The wildfire, which was the biggest in California’s history, destroyed nearly 70% of Lassen. About one-third of the affected area experienced severe flames that resulted in the death of most trees and depletion of nutrients in the topsoil.
Yet, there are signs of strength amidst the destruction – new growth sprouting from the burnt ground and the striking contrast of black and green in the mountain landscape. The rebounding environment in this lesser-known national park serves as a poignant example of the dangers facing America’s untouched areas and provides insights on how to safeguard public lands in the face of a changing climate.
This kind of fire was not typical.
The Lassen Volcanic National Park, situated in the northernmost part of California and on the southern side of the Cascades, has been influenced by catastrophic events. It was established following the 1915 explosion of Lassen Peak to safeguard the region for future research and was designated as the 17th national park.
In July of 2021, Lassen National Park had just reopened completely following the melting of the winter’s below-average snowpack. Although not as well-known as Yosemite or Joshua Tree, the park typically welcomes over 500,000 visitors each year. With the Covid-19 pandemic fueling a desire for travel, the park was expecting even more visitors to come and see its impressive volcanic dome, hike to waterfalls and hydrothermal areas, and journey along the Pacific Crest Trail.
However, while the Dixie fire raged through the Sierra Nevada, the Lassen staff carefully monitored the fire and subsequently closed two distant entrances and suspended overnight camping in the backcountry.
In the beginning of August, Lassen National Park was closed in order to allow firefighters to have unrestricted access. According to Richardson, the staff frequently put in 16-hour shifts to map the fire and strategize ways to safeguard the park and its structures.
Controlled burns and wildfires had already decreased a significant amount of plant life in certain areas of Lassen. However, as the Dixie fire rapidly approached, firefighters aimed to take additional measures in order to salvage as much as possible, such as protecting the Kohm Yah-mah-nee visitor center and nearby communities.
The team spent several days using large equipment to remove flammable materials near the fire boundaries. When the wind conditions were suitable, they started a controlled fire in the direction of the approaching blaze. They strategically ignited fires around the visitor center and the park highway which connected with both the Dixie Fire and another nearby fire.
The Dixie fire ravaged large portions of the park, destroying sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and a fire lookout that had been standing for almost 100 years.
The firefighters successfully completed their task. The visitor center and the towns of Mill Creek, Mineral, and Old Station were not affected. However, the damage to Lassen was severe and unlike anything seen before. The staff is currently determining the total financial impact of the damages. Fortunately, the previous years of controlled fires helped to lessen the destructive impact of the fire.
Despite the destruction, Richardson was still amazed by what was left. Many of the structures were able to withstand the fire, and in certain places, the intense flames were quelled or extinguished completely due to controlled burning initiatives and efforts to reduce tree density, eliminate dead trees, and clear buildings of pine needles.
Gary Bucciarelli, an ecologist and director of the University of California, Davis’s Natural Reserves Lassen field station, stated that the work done over the past two decades has ultimately lessened the impact of the Dixie fire in the park. Bucciarelli emphasized that fire plays a crucial role in the ecosystem and without it, fuel accumulates and leads to more severe fires.
According to him, when natural fires are not allowed to happen and fire is not given a purpose, the result is catastrophic. This is evident in the massive fires that are not typical for these ecosystems.
‘Nature is adaptable’
The path adjacent to the Kohm Yah-mah-nee visitor center may seem like a glimpse into the destruction caused by the Dixie fire from afar.
The trail weaves through a darkened forest, where the trees are scorched. However, as it crosses a bridge and climbs up a hill, there’s a sudden explosion of green. The terrain is lush and sprinkled with wildflowers. Grasshoppers create a buzzing sound that fills the atmosphere.
Aiding in the removal process were members of the Mooretown Rancheria of Maidu Indians of California, who helped clear away many of the charred trees. While some bridges in the remote areas still need to be replaced, the dangers posed by the fire have been eliminated. Travelers on the park highway can witness the beauty of the natural surroundings and see firsthand the consequences of a wildfire passing through.
Many visitors express their sadness to Ranger Russell Rhoads when they see the current state of Lassen. According to Rhoads, it may take several decades for areas that have been severely burned to fully recover, but the ecosystem is still sustainable. In fact, there are additional planned prescribed burns in the park.
According to Rhoads, many individuals only notice the presence of black and brown, but there is still beauty in the middle.
According to Rhoads, upon observation, one can notice the presence of mushrooms and insects that will function as decomposers for decaying logs. These insects will eventually become a source of nourishment for birds and other creatures.
Rhoads explained that even decaying tree stumps provide ample food for bears in the form of larger grubs. The burned areas also offer potential for new plant growth, as the absence of a dense tree canopy allows for the growth of shrubs and grasses that can nourish other wildlife. Additionally, birds of prey are able to maneuver through the forest more easily.
During his presentations at the visitor center on the Dixie fire, Rhoads aims to emphasize the fact that fire is a natural occurrence in this region. He highlights how certain trees rely on fires to spread their seeds.
According to the speaker, it is uncommon for people to witness the current state of things in their entire lifetime of living in this location. However, for the speaker, this has been the only reality they have known. They also mention that fire was constantly controlled during the listener’s lifetime, causing the buildup of fuels that have now become unmanageable.
Rhoads has a positive outlook on what lies ahead. He believes that nature is defined by its ability to evolve and transform. It has the flexibility to behave as it desires.
According to him, the endurance of Lassen can be seen throughout the terrain. At Chaos Jumbles, where a large rockfall occurred 350 years ago, there is a vast expanse of seemingly indestructible rocks, but somehow trees have managed to thrive there.
He mentioned that the terrain may not be the most welcoming, but it still managed to produce a result. This is characteristic of the ecosystem here – it faces challenges, but it adapts and evolves in its own unique way. There is no need for it to revert back to its previous state.