By: Janet M Kelly
We are turning the corner and what will be the outcome of another fire season? Time to put forest management back into the hands of local control.
This past September, a number of Kingsburg residents watched local news and social media posts hoping the unthinkable wasn’t happening. Homes or cabins, some in families for generations, were bursting into flaming infernos along with the magnificent forests of the Sierra Nevada around Shaver Lake. Was it their cabin?A friend’s year-round home? A place they had rented in the past? Could they recognize the neighborhood? Praying the fire wouldn’t hurt anyone, they watched the hillsides glow. Two of those watching were Kingsburg residents Debbie Mitchell and realtor Jeff Olson, whose families had cabins nearby.
“In mid 1990s The Sierra Club took a hard stand on logging. Journalists wrote enough negative articles about logging, and swayed public opinion about the practice. The logging mill in North Fork was forced to shut down.”
The Creek Fire was in full force, consuming everything in its path as it raged for days until finally burning itself out in the high country. The Olson Family had a cabin that had been in the family for generations. His great-grandfather built the two story home away from home decades ago. Debbie’s family cabin, The Harris Cabin, was purchased in the 1970’s. She and her husband honeymooned there, held family gatherings, and even hosting her daughter’s bachelorette party there. Both families built decades of memories in these homes that they loved. The loss would not only mean losing a structure, it would mean losing a family symbol.
What was the outcome of their vigilance? The Olson Family watched the fire skirt their mountain home. The Mitchell Family watched decades of memories go up in flames. Debbie Mitchell’s Harris Family Cabin burns during the Creek Fire 2020
The Olson Family had an escape plan in place in case of a fire. With the bark beetle devastation, most mountain residents knew fire was a threat. Shaver Lake has one main highway in and out… Highway 168. If this fire had started in Jose Basin, the fire would have raced up the hillside with the potential for devastating loss similar to the Camp Fire, where 85 people lost their lives in and around Paradise. The Olson and Mitchell families knew of back road escape routes, but most Shaver Lake visitors are not aware of these alternate ways of escape. Luckily, the fire originated in Big Creek, giving Shaver residents an opportunity to evacuate. People seem to ask, “Why?” “What is happening to our beautiful forests?” Perhaps a bit of history is in order.
Forest Destruction Decades in the Making Judy Linda Horn and her husband Don grew up in Kingsburg. They moved to the mountain community of North Fork in the late 1970’s and have a long, personal experience with what has happened to the forests. They lost their Cascadel
Heights home above North Fork in the Mission Fire, along with everything but their dog, a computer hard drive and their lives. Judy shared their experience.
Don and I moved to North Fork in 1979. It was a vibrant logging community. The mill and the Forest Service were the primary employers in town. The logging practice they used was called “selective logging.” This is where the Forest Service would evaluate areas to log, and mark trees which were diseased or dying. Then the loggers would take them out, mill them, and sell them as lumber. It was a good, solid practice and kept the forest healthy and vibrant. Community people would also glean from the logged areas by taking “slash” to burn in their woodstoves or fireplaces. (“Slash” is the left-over from logging… and people were happy to use it to heat their homes for the winter.)
During the 70s there was a BIG drought and more trees died from lack of water. The above-mentioned practice took out the sick trees and the healthy trees had more of the limited water share. All was good.
In the 80s a bark beetle infestation infected some of the forest in the Central Sierras, but as the above practice was in place, it was soon subdued.
In mid 1990s The Sierra Club took a hard stand on logging. Journalists wrote enough negative articles about logging, and swayed public opinion about the practice. The logging mill in North Fork was forced to shut down. Most of the mills in California followed and by 1999, logging was a dead industry in California.
In 2001, a forest fire was set off by a teenager in North Fork. It burned several hundred acres, near our home in Cascadel Heights North Fork. It was very scary for us to see the flames so close to our home. But it was subdued and then an independent logging company was commissioned by the Forest Service to take out the trees, while they were still good for wood. If trees are left too long, they become nesting ground for the bark beetle. Just days before the loggers were to start, The Sierra Club filed an injunction from one of their lawyers in CHICAGO to stop the project. We watched as the trees died and the beetle infestation began its great stride to become the nightmare of the central Sierra Nevada.
Following that event, more and more of the forest succumbed to the beetle. More dead trees meant more fires would be harder and harder to contain. We were evacuated from our home nearly every summer due to a fire in our area. One was set off by the drug cartel, another by a youngster with matches. Another from squirrel hunters who failed to put out their campfire. The overall theme was that if the forest had been better managed, these fires would have been contained more rapidly, and less damage done.
The bark beetle had become such an issue, that our Madera County Board of Supervisors met with the community to discuss how to handle the thousands of trees dying from beetle infestation. I had been reading about how Texas and Canada had handled their bark infestations by using planes to spray the forests with an insecticide which killed the beetle but protected flora, animals and birds. The Supervisors almost laughed. “This is California. Are you kidding?”
Texas and Canada were able to rid their forests through management, but in California… NO way. The Supervisors said the Texas had a sensible government, but we have to live with our California insanity.
Our fateful day came in September 3, 2017. We thought the fire season was done and brought back our “evacuation boxes” from Fresno. This practice had almost become normal for us. I was in Fresno for the weekend, and Don was home. An evacuation notice came over the phone. Don went to the back deck to check it out and saw the fire burning up our hill. He hustled to get things to the truck thinking that he had maybe 30 minutes, but was stopped by the Sheriff at the door taking him by the collar and rather forcing him to the truck to get out NOW. He was able to leave with our Dog and his computer hard drive. Everything else we owned was consumed by the fire. Our lives would never be the same.
Change is Needed: The Horns, The Mitchells and the Olsons want to see changes in the way the forests are managed.
The Horns want to see respect for varying opinions, a media who reports facts rather than opinion narratives, policies based on local concerns instead of lawyers who live thousands of miles away, and sanity returned to government.
Debbie Mitchell would like to see forests maintained the way they are where her cousin lives in Idaho: managed logging without excessive underbrush, where policies assure forest preservation.
Jeff Olson drove to the North end of Shaver Lake to inspect the damage. He saw something striking. On one side of 168, the side The Edison Company owned and maintained was unburned. The unmaintained side… completely destroyed.
Jeff would like to see everyone take responsibility for the natural world.
“I believe in conservation, but not to let the land go wild. Responsible policies preserve the land, caring for it, and also allow the public to use the land. All of us who love the mountains don’t want to see them destroyed.”