“In the beginning … they laid a woman, Ninmaiwaut (palm) on her back … took a wooden spindle and drilled her. First blood, then fire came forth. This woman then became a palm tree.” – Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel “Temalpahk: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants”
It’s a windy March afternoon, and I’ve just driven into Joshua Tree National Park at one of its southern entrances along Quail Spring Road. A sign by the entrance toll booth catches my eye: “Today’s Fire Danger: Moderate.”
On both sides of the road, I’m surrounded by craggy boulder-riddled vistas and, of course, ubiquitous Joshua trees. Spring wildflower pop up along the roadside: fields of yellow desert dandelions, sultry pink sand verbena and iridescent purple lupine have turned the usually tan-colored desert expanses – made even drier and bleaker in the past few years from the ongoing drought – into a beautiful symphony of passing color. Even the Joshua trees are tipped with fat white blossoms at the outermost reaches of their thick-thorned crowns. It’s hard to concentrate on driving, with all of this beauty surrounding me.
But I’m not here to see the wildflowers of this year’s so-called “Super Bloom,” spawned by last October’s monsoon rains and a favorable early January rainfall. I’m here to look for evidence of desert wildfires. I’m here to see up close the scars they’ve left behind, and how the desert landscape has been painfully transformed by wildfires.
This morning, I visited the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center in nearby Banning to interview Ernest Siva, a Cahuilla-Serrano elder and culture bearer, and one of the last living speakers of the Serrano language. Having served as tribal historian and cultural advisor for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians since 1996, Siva tells me that the famed palm tree oases in Palm Springs and other areas across the Coachella Valley – which have been inhabited by indigenous people for centuries – always had a keeper.
Traditionally, various tribal members were responsible for tending to the precious natural resources that provided food and shelter critical to earlier Indian people’s survival, he explains. To keep the oases clean, the undergrowth among the palm trees was deliberately burned to cleanse the groves from pestilence and help keep the trees healthy.
I think of this as I glimpse something otherworldly shimmering through the lens of magic Mojave time – an open stretch of desert, void of trees. The afternoon light is magnified and bent by the wind, or so it seems, and I see what looks like giant littered mammal bones strewn across the empty landscape.
I veer off Quail Springs Road and park next to a small pullout, pushing my door open against a burst of wind before crawling out of the car with my camera. I stumble into the fierce weather over to a metal kiosk with the heading, “Memorial Fire.” According to the kiosk, nearly 14,000 acres burned here for three days in late May 1999, ignited by a passing afternoon thunderstorm. It’s a lonely scene. Other cars race by as their drivers head towards the park’s popular destinations. I’m the only one out here today.
I catch a whiff of soot, still resonant after all these years, and I’m riveted back to the 1980s, when I worked as a seasonal wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District – one of the few women, and sometimes the only woman, on engine and helicopter crews. I also worked several seasons for the U.S. Forest Service’s Mojave Greens wildland fire crew.
I remember making a long, hot hike into a remote canyon near Quail Mountain during a 1984 fire in this very park, which I now behold at the edge of the Memorial Fire burn. Dressed in full fire gear on that blistering August day, I headed out to cut fireline, wondering – as always – as I surveyed the raging header of smoke and flames on the hillsides above if I would make it out alive.
I imagine how the Memorial Fire may have played out. As a lightning strike, it probably started when a pinyon pine tree caught fire on the small mountain that rises to what I guess is around 5,000 feet. It may then have been fueled by heavy winds from the passing spring storm, ripping through the chaparral at lower elevations, plants that include manzanita and juniper.
All of the pinyon pine and chaparral plants are highly flammable, and would have burned clean and hot. The fire may then have made its way downhill, fueled by windy spring weather, until it reached the Joshua trees in this high desert woodland and torched through many acres of invasive grasses that were undoubtedly thick, calf-high and tinder-brown – dried to easy flammability by the hot daily temperatures of a long spring season.
I know from my extensive wildland firefighting training and on-the-job experience that most wildfires in this part of the Western U.S. – our country’s wildfire hot zone – flow seamlessly between desert and foothills and mountains, much like the areas here known as critical wildlife corridors, where animals from all ecologic zones travel through in search of vital resources and drastic changes in seasons from one area to the next.
Wildfires such as the Memorial Burn can rage uncontrollably and with reckless speed down from mountains through lower elevations of chaparral and into broad open areas of the Mojave Desert, in a sequence mandated only by the whims of weather: wind, temperature, and relative air humidity-; topography; fuel moisture levels; accessibility and other factors that can be hard to predict.
Someone would have made the fire call when flames were first spotted. Perhaps a tourist, or a Park Ranger on patrol. Dispatchers quickly sent out what are known as initial attack crews in the wildland fire world: the two off-road fire engines and water tender truck from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) National Park joint fire agency over at Black Rock, just inside the Park boundaries twenty miles away, would be among the first on the scene, as well as the local Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, and other city and Cal Fire Agency engines. BLM Helicopter 554 – the flight crew I worked on in the 1987 fire season – would have likely been among the first to arrive, and begun to cut fireline in efforts to contain the fire. I worked on several smaller fires in the Park while I was on the H554 flight crew, and it took about thirty minutes to fly there from our post at the BLM Apple Valley Fire Station.
As the fire raged into the night, and grew exponentially with terrifying speed, helped along by the evening summer wind common to the Mojave Desert, the helicopter crew would have been grounded, or perhaps sent back to Apple Valley, while engine crews would have likely continued to use hose lays, water, and combat the fire directly along the front of the burn.
Local United States Forest Service (USFS) hotshot crews such as Del Rosa and Vista Grande, from their nearby San Bernardino National Forest stations, would have probably arrived by then, and these elite, highly-trained line crews would have worked hard and fast with their Stihl chainsaws, specialized firefighting Pulaski axes, and extra-sharp-tipped shovels to cut fireline around the perimeter of the burn.
As the fire grew ever-larger, in spite of expert efforts, red card line crews such as the Mojave Greens – a crew run by the nearby USFS Big Bear Ranger District that I also spent several seasons working on – and both orange-suited male and female convict crews such as Bautista and Rainbow from Southern California prison work would have arrived, and begun to help hotshot crews cut fireline far into the deepest reaches of the fire.
A fire camp with fire management trailers would have been set up somewhere – a park or a football field, for example – in one of the towns bordering the park, and hot truck crews, supply trucks, porta-potties and mobile shower units would have been made available for firefighters and fire incident personnel. This is where firefighters would have eaten, showered, slept, and regenerated their basic work supplies in between their 12-hour shifts on the fireline.
Finally, as the fire was contained after several days – meaning a fireline surrounded its burn zone entirely – and then brought under control, initial attack and hotshot crews would have been sent back to their stations, or perhaps continued on to work on other wildfires throughout California and even the western U.S., depending on need.
The red card and convict crews, perhaps along with a few other engine crews, would have remained behind for days, walking slowly through the hot, charred, sometimes ankle-deep ashes deep inside the burn zone, performing a thankless task known as “mopping up” in the wildland firefighting world. They’d have taken great care to use shovels and backpacks filled with water, known by firefighters as “piss pumps,” to put out each and every lingering coal, hot spot, smoldering tree trunk, root cluster, or anything else that even felt hot to an open hand from a foot away.
After this was done, the all-clear order would have been given by the fire incident commander – from either the USFS, BLM or National Park – and all fire personnel would have pulled out to go home or be dispatched to other fire incidents. The park would have resumed its peaceful status as a must-see tourist destination, and for those who live in the nearby small towns, all would be well, and the smoke-choked skies would be champagne clear once again. The fire was out! And it would be, for most people who fought it, saw it, or lived near it, categorized away in personal and historical memory banks as another large-scale wildfire event, to revisit some future day for re-telling to grandchildren or in a dusty archive.
For months after Memorial Day, there may have been vivid reminders that a fire had shredded the area: bits of burned fire hoses, perhaps the odd backpack or even a firefighter’s shovel left behind. Yellow police tape might have clung to healthy Joshua trees on the edge of the burn zone to keep the public out. But then winter rains would have come, and the reminders would have slowly disappeared – faded into the comfort zone of smudged memories.
Now, a lone Cholla Cactus rises bravely near a pile of sooty, loose-strewn Joshua tree limbs. The silhouette mimics the huge, healthily-blossoming trees in the distance. Beneath it is a tiny yellow wildflower. A beautiful, blue-feathered western scrub jay bounces against the wind; this particular species of bird is one of the chaparral and Mojave Desert woodlands life-zone animals that can actually benefit from wildfires, as fires can sometimes help regenerate the healthy regrowth of some of the plant species, such as Manzanita, that the jay depends on, in part, for its survival.
Standing here in the burn, I feel like a sort of keeper, a caretaker, if just in passing. To acknowledge the force of wildfire as it ripped through here, to honor what it claimed, to cherish what remains and find transformation in the subtle but tenacious regrowth.
A clear line of demarcation stands between the old burn zone and the healthy, thriving, blossoming Joshua trees far off in the distance. Up close, I see that many of the downed limbs are still intact; after a wildfire, burned Joshua trees can survive but often die within the first few years after fires, due to drought and other stresses on their re-sprouts. Some still bear charred stains on their fibrous skin that rub off easily onto my fingers, even after all this time. It’s as if the Memorial Fire burned just last season, that it hasn’t been 17 years since these trees were torched with flames.
Standing here today, leaning into the fierce wind, I’m reminded of how alone I am feeling these days, now that my only child and daughter Tarah has left home to marry and start her own family. She’s split away from me, leaving the geography our lives together and charting out her own new terrain. It’s an inevitable shift in my life that feels inwardly what this burnt landscape looks like. I’m wandering a landscape of loss and new beginnings, and like giving birth, and going through the “ring of fire” of hard labor, it hurts and leaves scars, just as the forces of nature have painfully altered this desert scene before me.
I think of Tarah, in utero, hiking along with me inside of me as I struggled through the sandy Boy Scout Trail to Willow Hole on New Year’s Day in 1988, not long after my wildland firefighting days. I think of the many mother-daughter journeys we made in the park in subsequent years. Tarah climbed her first rock here. She went on her first overnight camping trip here. We hiked Ryan Peak to Lost Palms Oases and Barker Dam. Like me, she marveled at the fierceness of the desert landscape, and at its capacity for offering unexpected moments of serenity.
Our stories here are memories shimmering through place and time in the haze of the Wonderland of Rocks, just east of where I now stand. My sense of missing her is immeasurable, like this view before me, and yet these memories of what we’ve shared here through many years both soothes and sustains me now.
And maybe I can revisit these stories more clearly here today because of what’s been cleaned away by the force of wildfire. The ghosts of the Joshua tree forest that once thrived here are reminders of what’s passed by, what’s been sacrificed, and talismans, too, of new life that is beginning to unfold, much as the new sprouts of needled growth at the bottom of burned Joshua trees reminds me of my two little grandsons and baby grand-daughter, and I know that one day, I’ll bring them here to explore.
As I think back to the parts of my life that have been burned clean, I realize I am becoming a witness to and participant in some kind of necessary cleanse by forces beyond my control, living a small part of a larger scheme of nature. There’s a new beauty here, and the views are wider, and the tiny yellow and white wildflowers and the occasional orange poppies blooming the open landscape don’t hold back their displays of spring color.
A kit fox scurries past me, and disappears into a hole. Overhead, a lone raven swirls on an updraft of wind, making its timeless and haunting “caw, caw,” as if to wonder aloud what I’m doing out here. I look up. The breeze is fiercer now, harbinger of a spring storm on the way, and turning cold. It’s time to say goodbye to this altered woodland forest, as the afternoon diminishes into dusty haze. I turn back to find that my car is much farther away than I thought it was. I suddenly realize that I’ve lost track of time.
Before I drive away, something catches my eye across the road.
At first, I think it’s a balloon, snagged on a creosote bush, but this is no piece of wind-strewn litter. As I walk closer, I see that it’s a huge hedgehog cactus – the size and shape of beanbag chair – covered with giant blossoms that flame up against the subdued earth tones of the Joshua tree and granite boulders rising behind it.
The flowers are a brilliant red. They’re the color of fire.
Ruth Nolan, is Professor of English at College of the Desert and a former wildland firefighter for the BLM and USFS. She is a 2017 California Writers Residency Award Recipient for her multi-media book project, Fire On the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.” She is the editor of the critically-acclaimed anthology, No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday Books, 2009) and author of Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line Press 2016.) Her short story, “Palimpsest,” was published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press 2016), received an Honorable Mention in Sequestrum Magazine’s 2016 Editor’s Reprint contest, and was nominated for a 2016 PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Ruth’s essays and poetry have been published in Women’s Studies Quarterly; News from Native California; Sierra Club Desert Report; KCET Los Angeles; Only Light Can Do That (Pen Center USA); Desert Magazine; The Desert Sun; James Franco Review; Angels Flight LA/Literary West; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Lumen; and Inlandia Literary Journeys. Ruth holds her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside. She lectures throughout Southern California and beyond on topic related to the California Deserts and wildland fire. She lives in Palm Desert, CA, and is mother to a young adult daughter and three grandchildren.