By Shauna Potocky
After the wildfire, you face the fire scar and all the standing dead trees turned to charred stoic poles whose fate now will be decided by the winter or the wind. If you’re curious, you find yourself walking the fire line, listening to the bugs eating into the wood, spotting the handful of wildlife that thrive here, specializing in preparing the burned landscape for its next phase. You hike through two worlds with no mirror or mysticism between them—they are separated by pink retardant or a hand-cut fire line—a line in the sand, if you will.
On one side, sound comes under foot as you crush leaves and dried pine needles, where your eyes can marvel at the bright green tones of foliage and the tall spires that point to the sun, yet carpet the forest with shade.
In the fire scar, your footsteps have no sound as the barren black earth turned soft and to ash gives to your weight. Sometimes you posthole, your foot stepping right through the surface, as the roots that once held the ground in place have left nothing but vacant tubes of air below ground and your presence collapses the labyrinth. There is no shade between the skyward poles, but there are water scars from the helicopter drops and pink splotches of retardant that have yet to fade away, and there are lupine, black oaks, and wild roses already taking the forest back for themselves. The seed bank and roots that survive will sprout, racing to compete for all that sun and any moisture that will come.
After one fire you watch for the next. It is unnerving. These summers, I once heard them described as “white knuckle,” are relentless. And then there are all the opportunities for error, human actions that can spark a wildfire, sending people and animals into panic. The undoused campfire, a dragging trailer chain that throws a spark, the car that pulls over into the dry grass, or the dreaded cigarette launched without a thought into the roadside brush—so many things that, in the past had space for forgiving, today leaves no room for error.
Then there is this—you notice all of your new neighbors. The types who don’t knock on your door, or have a specific address, but come to your yard looking for water or in search of some food. Just as people lose their homes in fires, wildlife lose their habitat. They lose their den trees, or foxholes, their water sources, or the prosperous stands of Manzanita or the downed trees filled with grubs. So they come looking for what they need to make a living, and that place might just be the same place you call home.
I love all my new neighbors, the coyotes that are now coming into their winter coats, Great Horned and Western Screech owls that fill the night with breathy talk, expanded herds of Mule deer and the most elusive, a large Black bear who leaves only paw prints and scat.
Each night since the fire I can hear their footsteps crushing the fallen leaves and shuffling through the straw-dry grass. I can hear their deep inhales and sensing breaths as they determine where I am. I hear their snorts and their young peeping. At day break there is evidence everywhere—large bear scats filled with crushed Manzanita berries, clawed wood on the downed tree, deer pellets dotting the yard in patches, hedge high trimming to all of my edible plants, and flattened grass that reveals where the deer have bedded down for a rest in the lengthening night.
We respect each other, keep our distance, simply watch. I don’t leave out any food and make sure my car and garbage are buttoned up tight. It is too easy for wildlife to lose their foraging habits if they learn they can obtain food from housing areas; pet food, birdfeeders, trash, all of this can become a lure, which changes normal behaviors and can ultimately put wildlife at risk for conflict. It is a critical time, keeping this wildlife wild while they hover on the edge of the neighborhood and the forest.
Daily migrations of Mule deer are commonplace but the presence of a large black bear fills me with immense joy. There hasn’t been evidence of a bear here in nearly five years. Honestly, I am honored that the landscape of my property, which remains connected to the forest via an open fence, that has been tended exhaustively to clear for fire yet held space for native plants to thrive, can sustain large mammals found in the Sierra Nevada.
Now, I watch carefully to see how the Manzanita berry crop is doing and wonder how long the bear and I will both call this place home. It is welcome to stay as long as it likes and for certain, as long as it needs, though I hope things will return to a new state of normal, with the bear fattened in Fall in order to den for Winter and a return of rain and snow to California, in order to ease the drought and end this marathon fire season.