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So much can be told about a people by how they deal with fire. It is my first season elk hunting Oregon, and large portions of the state and the American West is either burning or shrouded in smoke. Large chunks of public land near me, including most of the areas I have scouted, are either on fire or have been closed to prevent more land from burning. The fire closest to my home in Eugene, the Holiday Farm Fire, has burned over 300,000 acres.
Being new to the state, and new to having millions of acres of public land within my reach, it takes me several days to figure out what is still open on the West side of the state: some checkerboard BLM lands to the West of I-5. I pick a destination and load up the truck around sunset, which is little more than a strange, orange glow through the thick smoke.
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The road there is so smoky and foggy that I almost drive off the road more than once. A historical windstorm had just blasted through the area several days before, which tripled the size of the Holiday Farm fire and many others overnight. The roads are covered in branches and shattered deadfalls of various sizes, more than a few large enough that I have to get out of the truck to move them.
I follow a forestry road to the pin on my map, chosen for its proximity to an area that has been partially logged, until I am there, the dark and the smoke making the area as undiscernable as any other.
I get out of my truck without a headlamp, and without the help of the moons or the stars, it is almost like being blind. I crawl into the back of the cap of my truck and get some sleep.
I wake up a bit before first light, eat a quick breakfast and drink a cup of coffee, and head out, leaving my raingear behind. It will not rain for almost a month as the fires continue to burn. At that time, there were nearly 435 wildfires ripping through the American West.
I grab my pack and my bow and headed into an area that has been partially logged and wonder if it has been intentionally thinned. As I walk, I realize everything around me, the logging road, the rocks, the trees, are covered in a layer of ash. There are still some piles of small lumber, stacked neatly around the edges of the road and forgotten by some unknown company long ago.
I don’t have much hope of finding elk here, but I know I have more of a chance of finding them here than at home. As I walk and find no sign of elk, my attention wanes from hunting to the cause of these great fires, the cause of the smoke and the ash that surrounds me.
Wildfires here are nothing new; many species are even dependent on them for survivial. Indigenous people throughout the West, here the Suislaw, Coos, and Siletz, practiced controlled burns to keep the wildfires small, help various species thrive, and to funnel their quarry to areas they wanted them to be in, which worked quite well for 15,000 years.
I begin to find plenty of old elk sign from season’s past, but nothing I can even pretend is from this year. I blind bugle from time to time as I wander, but nothing returns the call.I can’t shake the feeling that I’m chasing ghosts.
You don’t need a degree in anthropology to know the way humans interact with the natural world today is different than when the Suislaw people managed these forests. In fact, there are many people who believe human activity has altered our planet’s composition so much that we have entered a new geological epoch characterized by such: the Anthropocene. There are some that even say there is no such thing as nature or true wilderness anymore, since it is nearly impossible to find any piece of the earth that hasn’t been affected by humans in some way. In two hundred years, humans have put more carbon in the atmosphere than would take over a million years to occur naturally, a precusor to each of the last six extinction events, and also to an increase in global temperatures, making fire seasons hotter and longer than ever before.
Other than lightning, more direct forms of human activity and negligence are often the cause of igniting these fires as well: failing to put out campfires near popular hiking areas, fireworks, burning leaves, or even pyrotechnics from a gender reveal party. And every year, arsonists use fire season as an excuse to light even more acreage on fire, something I’ll never understand.
But fires need more than just a spark and dry conditions: they need fuel, and lots of it. There is currently plenty of fuel on our public lands, most, if not all, of which has been mismanaged in the context of fire on a local, state, and federal level for decades. There is no clear solution without a massive labor force to clear up and cull the 660 million acres of public land in Western states or without logging large portions of land, which comes with its own problems.
Even our approach and policies regarding dealing with fire needs serious revision. Instead of taking significant time to prevent fires by cleaning up fuel and prescribed burns, we spend millions trying to contain or fight them after they start by hoping to move them away from buildings or people, usually when it is far too late. The fire fighters that take up this fight each year are much braver than I am, but are also severely understaffed, overworked, underpaid, and get laid off during the off season.
I see an old elk rub on a small tree in front of me and walk towards it. I put my hand on it, wishing I could transcend time to the exact moment the elk stood there, envisioning myself at full draw nearby. I pause to look around at nearby trees and see there are many other rubs, but all of them are at least a year old, maybe older. Maybe it is too early in the rut for this area or maybe that bull has long been killed by another hunter, predators, or old age. Regardless, it is clear he is not here now and hasn’t been for some time.
Fire is just another way we have floundered in the face of the natural world, that we have tried to control it, tame it, subdue it, rather than realizing it is a part of us, and we a part of it. It is a sign off the failure of modern humans, a failure so large it can be seen billowing smoke into the sky from space every summer. What the people who managed this land in the past knew, that we still have yet to learn is that fire is essential to rebirth, to the health of the land, and by extension the people around it.
Later that day, I find a grouse feather covered in ash. I spend awhile looking at it, these two symbols of wildness laying atop each other. I hike the area all weekend without seeing any sign of any elk. If I am to see any elk this year, I will have to head east, way east, passed the Cascades and east of units that are flooded with hunters fleeing the fires just like me, to have my first encounters with these ghosts in the smoke.