Posted by: James Wapotich | January 8, 2018

Trail Quest: Through smoke and fire

It started December 4, near Santa Paula, far away from Santa Barbara. Within five days the Thomas Fire had reached Santa Barbara County, driven by strong Santa Ana winds and in some cases burning through brush that hadn’t been burned in more than 50 years. A week later it was bearing down on Santa Barbara. Families were evacuated and thousands of firefighters were mobilized as we watched and waited, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

It wasn’t until the fire reached the burn scars from the 2008 Tea and 2009 Jesusita Fires that it started to stall out near Santa Barbara. It’s somewhat ironic to consider that we were in part saved by those previous fires. With less easy to burn fuel, combined with the efforts of fire crews creating fuel breaks and burning back fires, the Thomas Fire was effectively stopped on the frontside of the mountains, but continues to burn in the backcountry. Full containment is predicted for early January.

Now the largest California wildfire in recorded history, the Thomas Fire in many ways has changed how we’ve come to view wildfires.

In its first seven days the Thomas Fire burned more than 230,000 acres during December; it took the 2007 Zaca Fire seven weeks to burn the same amount of land during the middle of summer. It seems like we’ve gone from one large fire every couple of years in the tri-county area to sometimes two or three fires in a single year.

Each of these fires have left a mark on the landscape and in many of our lives.

When the Zaca Fire burned more than 240,000 acres, its growth through the backcountry was hard for me to keep hearing about. Every time the news reported the fire reaching yet another camp or trail, it was like hearing about another great painting being destroyed. Some were places I’d visited and loved, others were places I hadn’t visited and now would never get to see in their pristine state.

Monitoring the progress of this new fire as it threatened people’s homes and moved towards the city, I found myself unwilling to give it all of my attention, preferring to balance the scenes of destruction with activities that were more enriching.

In my own life, I have seen enough loss. My father passed away when I was six, leaving me, my sister, and my mom to carry on the best we could. Those events unknowingly set me on a lifelong journey to overcome the pain of that loss. A path that included wanting to avoid feeling pain; wanting to blame myself and the world around me for the pain; as well as wanting to eliminate the causes of pain in the world.

And while those steps were part of my own personal process, what ultimately allowed me to begin healing was actually feeling the pain, grieving the loss, and rebuilding my life. And that grief work was just that–work. I’ve often likened it to physical therapy, where the day to day gains seem minuscule, the timeline for recovery seems endless, and the necessity of going through it seems unfair.

What helped me stay with it and gave me inspiration was the belief that things could truly be better, that a feeling of wholeness could return.

One of the models for me of that is nature. Nature is unstoppable in its ability to renew itself. Life will find a way to not only survive, but when given the opportunity will flourish and thrive.

If I had lost my home or a loved one to this fire, my grief would be more immediate and might take years for me to process. There is no way to measure the loss of a loved one and it is difficult to put into terms the impact of losing’s one home or seeing a neighbor lose theirs.

Most of us were fortunate enough to not lose our home or someone close to us to the fire, thanks in large part to the evacuations and the effort of our fire fighters.

Nevertheless, many of us may still feel grief coming up. Our sense of safety has been shaken and our lives disrupted, particularly those who were evacuated or left because of the air quality. And while things are slowly returning to normal, the angst and anxiety from the fire may have restimulated memories of past fires and other losses in our lives. Outside of the cities, there is the loss of habitat and the impact on the plants and animals that can also be hard to define.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. And it’s important, as part of our process, to ultimately reach for renewal. To find ways to return to celebrating what is still living.

The day after the fire reached the burn scar of the Tea and Jesusita Fires, I felt a sense of relief. Optimistic that the worst of the fire was over and the imminent threat to life and property had passed, I went for a hike on the backside of Figueroa Mountain.

It felt good to be out in nature and breathing some fresh air after being cooped up indoors and living under a cloud of smoke and uncertainty.

Halfway down the trail, I found a dead band-tailed pigeon laying on the ground. There were no visible injuries and it couldn’t have been there for more than a few hours. Although I wondered about the circumstances of its death and was saddened by its passing, I was more overcome by its beauty.

I felt like I could almost breathe in the rich, iridescent colors of its green neck feathers. As I admired the precision of the grey and blue feathers on its wings and tail, I found myself marveling at how the arrangement of these forms and features somehow gave it the power of flight. Cradling the bird in my hands, I could easily imagine it flying amongst the oaks and moss-covered pines, plying the little canyon and sipping water from the nearby creek in the timelessness of the mountains.

I wanted to be able to bring it back to life so it could continue being the magnificent creature it was. At the same time I could sense the forest pulsing around me. The sound of running water, the activity of other birds, and the subtle wind through the trees, all part of something larger and unending. Here, even in its humble passing, the bird had given me a great gift, reminding me of the aliveness of the world in the midst of loss.

While I was saddened by the impact of the Zaca Fire, having now hiked many of the trails within burn area, I can see that nature has indeed returned. There are places that are again filled with life. That’s not to say the impact isn’t still being felt, it will be a long time, if ever, for the pines to return to the fullness they once enjoyed, but nature itself is still moving forward.

Now, when I hike through burn areas, I see and acknowledge the devastation and damage around me, but I’m more drawn to the new growth. I look for chaparral plants sprouting back from their root burls, wild flowers blooming abundantly in the ash-enriched soil, and fresh animal tracks on the charred earth. These things tell me that not everything is lost and life will return.

If we give all our attention to destruction and despair and leave no room for hope or joy, we rob ourselves of the ability to renew ourselves and our grief can become endless.

Nature, through its power of renewal, can help us remember, that in addition to acknowledging and grieving our loss, when we are ready we can also rebuild our lives and return to celebrating and participating in the life around us.

In the words of Native American elder and medicine man Nicholas Black Elk, “It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom, and fill with singing birds.”

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 8th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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