To Make This Land Home Again - Pacific Standard

To Make This Land Home Again

After a catastrophic wildfire, what happens to seven million burned trees? And what happens to the people who lived on that land?
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The remains of the Hobergs’ home.

The remains of the Hobergs’ home.

Sue Hoberg could hear the wildfire’s roar grow louder as she moved frantically about her house, throwing armloads of clothing and keepsakes into a bag. Wind had carried burning debris from a nearby and swiftly growing wildfire to the forest behind their home; she could smell the smoke thickening inside, see spot fires flare up in the trees as she grabbed any last mementos.

Just 15 minutes earlier, it had been a summer Saturday afternoon like any other; she and her husband Devin had been running errands. Suddenly, Devin received a text from a co-worker warning of a wildfire quickly approaching his and Sue’s home in Cobb, California, a rural town of 1,700 people. They arrived at the house with precious few minutes available to pack up their necessities.

Those minutes soon passed, and now Sue was tearing down the front steps of the house, the yard around her dancing in flames. She and Devin packed both their vehicles full, hoping to escape with as many belongings as possible. But then, as she pitched the last load into her car, the keys somehow slipped from her hand.

Sue panicked, searching in the footwell and between the seats for the keys. But they’d vanished. All the while, the fire’s freight-train rumble grew louder, closer. Burning sap rained down on her from the ponderosa pines surrounding the house. Through all the sound and the fury, she heard Devin: “Get in the truck with me,” he shouted. “We’re going.”

Sue abandoned the car — and all the items and memories and life it contained — and jumped into the passenger seat of Devin’s truck. Peeling out of their driveway and onto the road, they barreled through a wall of flames. Even today, the hood and bumper of the truck still bear black scorch marks.

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An infrared aerial survey showed that, after just 12 hours, the wildfire, which came to be known as the Valley Fire, had spread across 40,000 flaming acres in Lake County, which includes Cobb. Ultimately, the wildfire would devastate slightly more than 76,000 acres, an area two-and-a-half times the size of San Francisco. More than 1,300 homes and seven million trees were destroyed.

The date of the fire was September 12th, 2015. More than a year later, almost all the destroyed buildings have been removed, and a handful of new homes have been completed. But it’s a different story for the land. With the exception of Boggs State Forest, the largest swath of public land in the Valley Fire’s footprint, the vast majority of the seven million trees that burned are still standing, like charcoal skeletons.

Burning sap rained down on her from the ponderosa pines surrounding the house. Through all the sound and the fury, she heard Devin: “Get in the truck with me,” he shouted. “We’re going.”

The Valley Fire was the third most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and the last of a series of catastrophic blazes to hit Lake County in the summer of 2015. First came the Rocky Fire, started by a faulty gas water heater, at the end of July. It burned more than 69,400 acres but struck remote areas, destroying only 43 homes. Eleven days later, the Jerusalem Fire, the cause of which is still being investigated, burned approximately 25,000 acres and six homes. Then, just over two weeks after firefighters extinguished the Jerusalem’s last embers, electrical current from faulty wiring at a house near Cobb arced into dry grass, sparking what would become the Valley Fire.

Though these three major wildfires crippled Lake County, which ranks as California’s second-poorest county, they were a mere drop in the bucket for the state. Last year, 8,745 wildfires burned throughout California — more than seven times the average number of fires per state across the rest of the country. Nationwide, 10 million acres burned in wildfires last year, making 2015 the worst fire season on record.

The Valley Fire obliterated the Hobergs’ house. By the time they were allowed to return, all that remained were twists and spikes of blackened metal, two sides of a scorched cinderblock wall, and a large, red-brick chimney. No framing, no windows or doors or walls, no recognizable furniture or appliances had survived. Everything else lay unidentifiable in an even layer of ash. And beyond the ruins of the house, all the trees stood dead and black.

The land that the Hobergs’ house stood on has been in Devin’s family since 1885; the house was built by Devin’s father in the 1960s. When Devin bought the property from his father, he was careful to preserve the forests he’d spent so much time playing in as a child, some of the massive ponderosa pines and black oaks more than 100 years old. Though the house was located a few dozen yards from Cobb’s main thoroughfare, the forest was too thick to make out the road from the front porch.

Now, you’d have no trouble seeing the road. Since the Valley Fire, truckload after truckload of thick, charred logs have rolled by, cut from Boggs State Forest behind the Hobergs’ property and bound for mills across Northern California.

The Hobergs’ insurance is paying for a rented house nearby, and they come to their scorched property on weekends, nights, whenever they can, to work on it. While there, Sue hears chainsaws, the snap-whoosh-crash of felled trees, watches the stream of trucks and knows she’ll never get her forest back. Sure, things will regrow, but it won’t look the same in her lifetime, maybe not even in either of her two children’s. She feels lost on their property without the trees, the land black and broken in every direction. The fire stripped the trees of foliage and small branches, and they point skyward like spears, their charcoal bark glistening in the sun. So it goes for miles.

Hours of twisting roads separate Cobb from the nearest freeway. It has little more than a school, a gas station, and a pizza joint. People live in Cobb because they love the forest — the hundred-year ponderosas and Douglas fir laden with old man’s beard moss, the manzanita bushes with cabernet-colored branches and leaves like jade teardrops. For the residents of Cobb, the Valley Fire took not only their homes and possessions but also what made the place home to begin with.

Most of the seven million trees burned by the Valley Fire were on private land and, therefore, are the responsibility of landowners. They can be left standing, with the hope they won’t fall in years to come, or logged, with the hope of making a little money. For many landowners, however, the reality is not that this timber will be a cash cow but that they’ll be lucky to break even. The majority of the trees burned in the Valley Fire were pine, a lower-grade wood that doesn’t sell well even in the best of times. Currently, the domestic pine market is glutted by drought-killed trees harvested by the state from public lands — timber from public lands cannot be sold overseas. So landowners’ best hope is to find a logger willing to do a small fire-salvage job at a reasonable price, and sell the wood to foreign markets.

Given such complications, the question of what to do with these trees has thus been on the top of everyone’s mind.

Like many aspects of this disaster, no clear and immediate answer exists. The government can’t force property owners to deal with burnt trees or manage the land’s regrowth over the coming decades. It can only go so far as removing trees that might fall on a public road or right of way.

But should people be removing these dead trees in the first place? Various factions of the forestry and fire community debate whether actively managing regrowth helps or harms the land. Support of, or opposition to, forest management generally comes down to how much one believes the number of trees in a forest influences fire risk and severity.

Among those in support of land management is Greg Giusti, a registered professional forester in the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Giusti believes Lake County’s tangled, overgrown forests were one of the four factors that made the Valley Fire such a monster — the others being high temperatures, low humidity, and trees weakened or killed by drought. A lack of replanting and management after logging made the region’s forests a wild mess of saplings and brush crowded under the canopy. Decades of trying to put out wildfires as quickly as possible actually increased the fire danger because it let brush build up. Though this made for an idyllic backdrop, it was also a dangerous one. And, Giusti claims, if left untouched, the scorched Earth will grow back as the dense tangle it was.

Sue and Devin Hoberg on their property one year after the Valley Fire.

Sue and Devin Hoberg on their property one year after the Valley Fire.

Managing the burned land would mean waves of planting tree seedlings, pruning saplings that have sprouted from the roots of burnt trees, and decades of hand-thinning brush until the canopy can re-establish itself enough to shade the forest floor. The end result would be something that looks more like a park and less like the fairy tale thicket it once was.

This is a popular line of thinking, with political will and positive attention behind it; Governor Jerry Brown and Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott have been championing removal of some of the 66 million trees killed by the drought or bark beetles. Giusti has already helped secure 100,000 seedlings to be planted in January of 2017. But management is expensive and requires ongoing political support and citizen buy-in. Some in the fire community consider it a waste of resources — and ecologically damaging.

“The reality is that larger fires burn when they burn because of weather conditions. It has relatively little to do with the density or amount of vegetation,” says Chad Hanson, an ecologist who studies forest and fire ecology.

Hot weather drives fires, and last year was California’s hottest on record. As the climate has warmed, fire season in the West has stretched out; it’s now, on average, 78 days longer than it was in 1970. Thirteen of the 20 largest fires in California have occurred in the years since 2000, with the second- and third-largest fires striking just since the start of the current drought. Last summer, a paper in the International Journal of Wildland Fire predicted an increase in coming years in catastrophic wildfires across historically fire-prone regions.

Hanson believes thinning forests and managing land would only interfere with the area’s natural cycles. These cycles create diverse forests with pockets of spacious old growth, and new denser sections dominated by shrubs and dead trees. This blend of habitats helps native species thrive, and, opponents claim, would be difficult to recreate through human management.

While Giusti agrees with Hanson that a mosaic of habitats is ideal, he is wary of “applying that puritan ethic across the whole landscape.” “In parts of the Sierra, or just like on Cobb Mountain, they’re not wilderness areas,” he says. “There are people’s houses up there.”

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Leaving the forest untouched and the burned land to its own devices is not a popular idea in Lake County. Maybe there is no perfect solution, and probably there will be no consensus.

Asking, “What do we do with all these burned trees?” is also asking, “How do we make this land home again?”

Sue and I speak on the phone one Saturday morning last spring while she, Devin, and their two sons (one 20 and the other 21) are clearing burn debris from their land. Though the state cleaned up the wreckage of their house months ago, it left the brush and trees.

The fire’s ruin, specifically its destruction of the land, has brought the Hobergs grief without respite, like living in a body of decay.

“It’s not like going to a funeral, where you mourn and you go and you heal. You’re in the funeral every day,” Sue says.

The past few months have been filled with insurance paperwork, community meetings, and county bureaucracy. All the while, she and Devin had gone back and forth on whether or not to rebuild the house. Though they’ve considering buying a turnkey house on land that wasn’t charred and scarred, they also don’t want to give in to nature’s whims.

“It’s a bit defeating, you know,” Devin says, clad in a camouflage baseball cap, jeans, a plaid shirt, and work boots, seated on a fallen tree in their ruined yard. “I don’t want to let this fire chase me off my property.”

But before they can break ground on a new home, they have to take care of these scorched trees. While the trees can provide excellent habitat for wildlife, they become a hazard in proximity to houses, roads, cars, power lines — anything they would run the risk of falling on, really. The affordable option would be to sell the wood to a professional logger, who would cut the trees and sell them to a mill. But the Hobergs haven’t yet received a call back from any of the local loggers, who are swamped with post-fire jobs. If Sue and Devin can’t find a logger, they’ll have to call a tree service, which can cost $50,000.

In the first week of March, Giusti paid a visit to the Hobergs. They had asked him to evaluate the trees on their property to figure out which ones had to be removed. Giusti marked some trees for removal, but determined others — including Sue’s favorite, a large oak in the front yard — might survive. It was hopeful news, but no guarantee.

“It’s not like going to a funeral, where you mourn and you go and you heal. You’re in the funeral every day.”

Yet, just getting to this point — living among the fire’s ruins for seven months and deciding to stay — means they have been able to do what many others couldn’t. Some who lost everything will never come back. And others, whose houses didn’t burn, find living amid the fire’s ruins to be too emotionally painful; the blackened land serves as a constant reminder of the Valley Fire’s terror, the bare lots stand in for neighbors who will never return, and the patches of forest that survived are a threat that a fire could hit again.

For those who have decided to hang on, the road ahead is a long one.

Of course, not all of Lake County burned, but the Rocky, Jerusalem, and Valley Fires combined burned 20 percent of the county. The Valley Fire alone devastated some of the major tourism and recreation areas, like Boggs State Forest, where an estimated 90 percent of the trees burned.

The fate of the trees carries so much weight because rural Lake County is “industry poor,” as Devin puts it. The county’s only industry to speak of comes from its plentiful geysers that feed the world’s largest complex of geothermal power plants. (Devin works at one of these plants.) Beyond that, Lake County survives on tourists drawn to its craggy, forested mountains, patchwork of lakes, and lush rangeland rippling with yellow wild mustard.

Although Lake County has middle- and upper-middle-class enclaves, one-quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line, and the median household income in 2014 was approximately $36,000 — slightly more than half the statewide figure. Lake County may be on the hook for $3 million of the Valley Fire’s damages, plus the costs of new infrastructure projects the fire created. Rebuilding would be even tougher considering a potentially shrunken tax revenue: According to Lake County News, the Valley Fire diminished the property tax base by nearly 9 percent, or $1.7 million. How long it will stay contracted depends on how many people rebuild, and how quickly. The County’s recovery survey, released in March, found 56 percent of the fire survivors plan to rebuild, but 20 percent do not, with the remaining quarter on the fence.

Carol Huchingson, who led the county’s response and recovery efforts before transitioning into the role of county administrative officer, spent months searching for a way the county could help landowners deal with the burnt trees. By September of 2016, one year after the fire, she still didn’t believe one existed.

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From a government standpoint, “there’s really no way to address trees on private property,” Huchingson says. “Tree work is very expensive, and I think many owners won’t be able to take care of it.”

For this year at least, the state will backfill $1.3 million of Lake County’s lost taxes. But whether that support lasts one year or three, it will come to an end. A county of approximately 64,000 people, a quarter of whom live in poverty, simply does not have the human capital to make whole all those who have suffered. And in an area so small, there isn’t a person who hasn’t been affected by the disaster.

Given the tremendous fiscal challenges the county faces, economic development seems like a prime solution. But people are divided over how to handle this: Some propose bringing in chain stores and the multitude of jobs they bring with them; others contend doing so would cripple small businesses and be worse for the local economy in the long run.

The Hobergs’ new view, one year after the Valley Fire.

The Hobergs’ new view, one year after the Valley Fire.

In late April of 2016, those against big businesses won a victory when the Lake County Planning Commission rejected a Texas developer’s proposal to build a Dollar General in Middletown, as Lake County News reported. Many feared the store would put local merchants, struggling after the fire, out of business; others felt it neither fits Middletown’s homey aesthetic nor is true to Lake County’s “heritage and context.”

With debate over development deadlocked and the government unable to do much about the millions of burned trees, the limbo extends.

“It’s like you’re circling the airport. You can’t really go back to where you took off from, you can’t land yet, you’re just circling and circling and circling,” Sue says.

As time passes in that holding pattern, the Hobergs have begun to realize Lake County’s fate, like so many burned regions in the increasingly fire-stricken West, comes down to the choices of individual landowners whose lives bear the fire’s scorch marks. They ache for the lost forests they loved, but know something has to change — defensible space has to be cleared, the road may have to be visible from the house.

Life began to feel different for the Hobergs come spring. After a wet winter, green was reappearing in the sea of black land. Daffodils poked up through charcoal and, as April turned the corner to May, Sue spotted a lone sprig of leaves halfway up the trunk of her favorite oak. The tree was alive.

The Hobergs worked through spring and summer, preparing the land for a new life, a new house. Sue walked their property with a handful of surveyor’s flags, marking any sprouts she found — a patch of snapdragons here, a ball of oak seedlings there. As the plants shot up so did the first rebuilt houses in the neighborhood below.

Sue also spent time noting how the land has changed. After the fire, government-contracted crews sprayed grass seed on hillsides to help prevent erosion. The grass that grew on the slope below the Hobergs’ house was not what had been there before; it crowded out native species, dried faster in the summer, and the deer weren’t interested in eating it. Sue tenaciously pulled it by hand wherever she found it. Although their house sat on the mountain’s slope before the fire, it was protected from wind by all the vegetation. Now eddies of dust from the bare earth swirl around the Hobergs as they work.

Devin was able, eventually, to get a logger to come for their trees. The Hobergs went to watch him work, and Sue was amazed by how efficient it was, almost like a ballet. The logger, aware Devin was sensitive to how many trees were being taken, had Devin cut the final one himself.

By the one-year anniversary the rhythm of constant work has become so normal that, as Devin is out on the property, he sees people on the road below, cruising on motorcycles or towing boats to the lake, and remembers, Oh yeah, people have lives.

“You’re in the trench, then you look and realize, wow, so much time has gone by,” he says.

But with their land cleared the Hobergs begin to imagine a time when this period of their life is a memory. Ten-and-a-half months after the fire, their insurance finally agreed to a settlement and Devin and Sue began talking in earnest with an architect-contractor. Their insurance requires them to rebuild what they had, so Sue hauled out some grid paper, drew the old square footage of their house and cut it into three rectangles. She delighted in playing with them, trying different configurations before settling on the best option within their constraints.

Bit by bit, Sue and Devin grew accustomed to the change. Instead of mourning the shade and dappled light they lost, they thought about putting in a garden, which they’d never had enough sunlight to do. Sue was surprised and delighted by new species of wildflowers on the property, and the family developed an appreciation for their expansive view. Yes, the view includes dead, black trees and bare ground. But from their vantage point the Hobergs can see unburned ridges across the valley, and watch the neighborhood rise from the ashes.

“It’s like being in a new place,” Sue says. “I think you just acquiesce to the point that you have to embrace what you have.”

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