On Fires and Fungus

I did not understand the position of public utilities regarding fire safety until I visited Headwaters Forest Reserve in Humboldt County.

Headwaters was the last private preserve held by Pacific Lumber that had not been completely clear-cut The north side of the reserve was harvested, but the central and southern sections include undisturbed old-growth forest. Headwaters was purchased by conservationists for $480 million dollars.

The southern groves are closed in the winter, leaving me with a five-mile prelude to communion with the ancient trees in the center of the Reserve. The first mile of the hike explains the history and botany of the Reserve. Harvesting began over 100 years ago. When a tree is harvested, it sprouts burls that grow into new trunks. As they grow, the open space around the stump becomes populated by rapidly growing deciduous pioneers.

The result is a dense thicket of kindling. When a tree falls naturally, that hazard is localized. Prior burns have culled the tinder around the ancient giants, whose lower limbs have also been consumed. Fire-resistant bark prevents spread to the upper limbs. When a forest is logged systematically, the hazard of the understory kindling becomes a death trap. The pioneers and burls act as wicks, carrying the flames up to the crowns of the older trees. As seen in California during recent years, the forest burns to the ground.

The public utilities are blamed for such disasters, but the true perpetrators are the logging companies that harvested and then went out of business, leaving behind a time bomb. Less direct than pumping hazardous waste into groundwater, but no less irresponsible.

Ten years ago, when I went to visit the State Redwood Preserve north of Eureka, I was alarmed to see the hills turning bare. Two types of fungus coated the trees, one of them an invader from Japan. Most of the stands resembled the mangrove forests coated with Spanish moss, but the true culprit may be sudden oak death, endemic to California. The draped branches cannot produce leaves, and the Japanese moss comes in to coat the weakened trunk.

I had seen some of the first fungus on the redwoods when I last visited Humboldt, so I choose to drive up this time overnight, hoping to avoid the depressing sight. Sadly, the initial stages of my hike proved that it was still active. Hoping that it had no penetrated deeply, I noticed that few of the redwoods were affected. Hit hard were the deciduous pioneers, a pattern proven the next day when I drove back to San Francisco in mid-afternoon. Where redwoods were attacked, the infestation seldom travelled to the upper limbs.

A light turned on in my head as I neared the parking lot. The fungus was clearing the understory. Then I noticed that lower branches on healthy trees were burdened by leaves dropped from above. The redwoods themselves suppressed understory growth by choking the lower layers. The fungus was doing that function as the forest recovered.

I did make it up to the old growth forest, and the density and feel was different from the slopes that had been harvested. It was worth the trip. But I also gained an insight into the ancestry of the politics of privilege that is destroyed our country. Tall trees drop choking leaves to protect from fire in the understory. Is this also how McConnel and his cronies see themselves? Just trying to keep the kindling from reaching into their mansions as the lower classes confront destruction in the conflagration that is COVID