Valley of Fires

Just before noon one day in late October, Claire, Jessica and I jumped into my 22 year-old Subaru and drove to Lupine Meadows, a 58 acre property bordering West Hills road at the south end of Bald Hill Farm.  Jeff Baker, the Greenbelt Stewardship Manager, had just called to say “it” was to begin. The “it” was a prescribed fire that Greenbelt was coordinating on part of Lupine Meadows to enhance the native upland prairie habitat.  The Greenbelt Land Trust purchased the Lupine Meadows property in 2005 to protect the existing populations of endangered Fender’s blue butterfly and its host plant, Kincaid’s lupine. 

Willamette Valley prairies and fires are like floods and floodplains…there are long histories of connections, expectations and dependencies.  The Kalapuya people in the Willamette Valley ignited local fires to maintain favorite foods such as tarweed, camas, biscuitroot, and yampah. They also burned some prairies in late spring and fall to create lush meadows of succulent grasses with wonderful names such as blue wildrye, Roemer’s fescue, and Lemmon’s needle grass for elk and deer. In 1826 the great Scottish botanist/explorer David Douglas traveled  for 15 days through the Willamette Valley on his way to the Umpqua River and complained that there was “not a single blade of grass except on the margins of rivulets to be seen” because all was burned.  He worried that their horses had little fodder and game animals had abandoned the Valley.  

Jessica, Claire and I park along the edge of the small hill that forms the northern end of Lupine Meadows and head toward the white wildland fire trucks that ring the lower end of the hill.  Jeff with his yellow hard-hat, fire-proof trousers and yellow thick long-sleeved shirt is stalking the parameter.  A half-dozen wildfire specialists from the Grand Ronde Tribe and USFWS are scattered across the burn site.  They mowed a 10 foot strip around the fire zone.  Several men in the interior of the fire line use back-pack drip-torches to ignite the dried grass and flower stalks. Another man follows a truck holding a hose snaking from a large water tank on the back of the truck and waters the perimeter to keep the fire from leaping into an adjacent area.  We are the tourist photographers, trying to stay out of way but fascinated with the event and determined to record all we can.  The fire crew is working uphill and as they get closer to the top more of the prairie catches fire…..flames create large columns of white smoke that rise high above the hill.  I take a picture of Jessica as she snaps a shot of Jeff.  Claire is crouched down below the grass stalks trying to get ground level photographs of burning grass.  I look across the road worried that the smoke might disturb the neighbors or obscure the road.  A yellow school bus drives by, the school children staring out the windows at the smoke with open mouths. 

We, like our ancestors, have a love-hate relationship with fire.  Stephen J. Pyne,  my favorite fire historian, notes that the “Earth is a uniquely fire planet, and Homo sapiens a uniquely fire creature” who have “literally set about slowly cooking the earth.”  He believes that “many aboriginal tribes consider a land unburned a land uncared-for.”  However, industrial societies fear fire in part because we build our homes and schools in areas that evolved with fire and created vast forest plantations that exclude fire.  My father often stalked the rooms of our house late at night sniffing the air and worrying about smoke….remembering a friend who died in a dormitory fire when he was a cadet at Marion Military Institute.  Looking over our small fire on Lupine Meadows, I reflect on the way Pyne describes fire as a “creation of life” with a shared co-evolution.  For the past 1.5 million years fire has been intertwined with humans and their histories.  So maybe with our little Lupine fire we are just doing what comes natural to our DNA; clearing the land of last spring and summer’s remnants and starting anew with a desire to see new life and growth in the spring.