Tapestry Institute

Burning Through the Roots, Part 5

The wildfires burned for over a week and the one nearest the canyon consumed 50,000 acres before it was done (Figures 10-13). Sowbelly was in the middle of that burn and suffered severe damage (Figures 14-19). But we couldn't rail against what had happened or even think of it as a tragedy. The mere fact of the dream's existence and context told us that something sacred was taking place. So with that in mind, we came home from evacuation and journeyed into a landscape that was literally still smoldering.

Smoking fumaroles where the trunks of whole trees had once stood seethed in the burning landscape for weeks (Figures 20-23). The long, hollow holes that had housed their roots spiraled down into searing darkness farther than we could see. The earth of those places burned the soles of our shoes when we crept to their edges to peer in. Stephen Pyne, a well-known fire historian and wildfire-fighter, has written that "even a so-called stand-replacing fire, one that obliterates an existing forest and makes possible a wholesale replacement, incinerates only the needles and fine branches and merely scorches the trunks." (Footnote 4) The difference between his words and what we saw turned out to be the pivotal clue to the nature and significance of that wildfire. For the more we looked, the more we realized how meaningful those holes really were.

In some places, two -- even four -- separate trees had burned completely to ash, leaving only holes in the ground. Sometimes these holes were in the middle of severely burned forest, dozens of them only twenty to thirty feet apart. But just as often they were surrounded by trees and brush that had simply been scorched to death by the heat of the consumed trees. The longer I looked at them, the more I wondered how the heat from the burning trees had not ignited the neighboring plants.

Then three people told us stories of their own experience with the fire. A rancher who'd lived in the area his whole life told us how unnerved he'd been about having a tree burst into flames extremely close to him after he'd left the Volunteer Fire Department fireline and gone about a half mile away to rest. And a couple who lived up the canyon from us -- he the Superintendent of County Schools -- reported that while sitting in their car at the top of the canyon well over a mile from the fireline, a pine tree had suddenly and completely burst into flames some tens of yards away. Both the rancher and the couple insisted the wind was not blowing toward them from the fire, and that there were neither sparks nor burning brands in the air at the time. They were mystified. I was intrigued. The only way I could imagine these isolated pines igniting so rapidly and thoroughly without the touch of a spark or firebrand was that their tissues had simply reached kindling point all at once from the fire-related combination of high air temperature and reduced humidity. But if that was the case, why had only one tree ignited each time? Why not several or even the whole group? What they'd seen seemed to match the burn pattern we were finding on the ground but it still didn't tell me how it had happened that way.

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