Tracy Salcedo has written FalconGuides to a number of destinations in California and Colorado, including Hiking Northern California Waterfalls, Best Hikes Reno and Lake Tahoe, Hiking Through History San Francisco, Hiking Lassen Volcanic National Park, and a dozen books in the Best Easy Day Hikes series. She’s also the author of Historic Yosemite National Park, Historic Denali National Park and Preserve, Death in Mount Rainier National Park, and Search and Rescue Alaska. Somehow she finds time to write columns for local newspapers, work as an editor, and run a school library as well.Visit My WebSite
In July 2012 lightning ignited a wildfire in the woodlands on the northeast slopes of Reading Peak. The blaze scorched more than 28,000 acres, nearly 17,000 of them within the boundaries of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
In the wake of the fire, hazards in the burn scar included falling trees and voids where the roots incinerated underground. Knowing winter snows would help settle things down, park officials closed the fire zone until the next summer.
I first ventured into the burn in August 2013, traveling north on the Nobles Emigrant Trail. I walked through healthy woodland into a ghost forest. A mile in the burn was a mosaic of trees living and scorched. Two miles in, the forest floor was uniformly gray and powdery, thick with ash. No sign of wildflowers or grasses. I could hear the knock of a woodpecker, but otherwise nothing flew, not bird or bug. The standing trees were blackened matchsticks, and the wind set them to creaking. I found myself waiting for the widowmakers to come crashing down. Then the route disappeared, lost in broken trees and unbroken ashfall. I was done; I turned around.
I returned to that same stretch of trail a couple of years later, and nature was mending. Orange and purple butterflies flitted from deadfall to greening bush . . . because there were greening bushes, and wildflowers to gather nectar from. Back again in 2018, seasoned by a firestorm that flashed within feet of my Wine Country home in 2017, I was relieved to see head-high brush alongside the historic track, and signs of foresters at work in the woods.
When I was selecting a new hike to include in the newest edition of my guidebook, I was drawn to the Reading burn. A day hike to the Bear Lakes, where maps show the fire burned hottest, attracted me like the proverbial moth.
I walked with the words of Maya Khosla, Sonoma County’s poet laureate and a wildlife biologist who researches fire recovery, circling in my head. Khosla sees beauty in the burn, a landscape fecund, not ghostly. In her poem, Rejuvenation, she writes:
The living are awake to the growth and profusion soon to follow
They will grow with the diligence of all known colors unfurling
from the soil’s chocolatey darkness
from the trees re-greening come spring
from the blackness.
I walked like the living, and while that first vista of devastation took my breath away, I found colors unfurling in butterflies and wildflowers, in the tawny shades of the lake water, in the rim of green around the shorelines, in the softening silvers of the dead standing. I was able to do something I couldn’t have fathomed back in 2013, when the Reading Fire was new, or in 2018, when the memories of my own fire flight were still raw. I was able to sit and stay, to listen and touch, to pause and reflect. And it was lovely.