Karen Raucher: Emerald Fire evacuee reflects on 60 years in Spring Creek (opinion)
Tribune Guest Columnist
At 2:32 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 14 my husband Bob and I awoke to loud, booming knocking. Before we could even get out of bed we could see the glow of fire out the window and I found myself telling my husband — “I’ll get the door, you call 911 and tell them there is a fire.” Of course, it was the sheriff knocking on the door telling us there was a fire. We never heard what he told us, the winds were roaring so loudly, but we got the drift and shouted back — “We got it, we’re out of here!”
As it was our fifth or sixth fire evacuation, we went into autopilot: Bob grabbed the car keys, phones and computers, while I grabbed coats, shoes and medicine;and we were out of our cabin at the top of Spring Creek in under five minutes. By the time we reached 89 we realized we were not running for our lives and stopped to take a picture; knowing in our hearts that we may never pass this way again.
I arrived at Spring Creek at the ripe old age of 6 weeks in early June of 1956. My mother and father, Kay and Bill Shafer, brought me and my two sisters to Spring Creek to help her parents, Ira and Ada Thatcher, build a cabin where I would spend all my summers at the Spring Creek Forest Service Tract.
The forest of my childhood was dominated by an incredible mix of old-growth crags; ancient white pine, fir and cedars up to 5 feet across provided special places with fairy rings and pine cones bigger than your baby cousin! The old masters provided dry places to shelter in a summer thunderstorm and dry wood for a fire even on the wettest days. My sisters and I were taught that if we ever got lost to go to the closet large tree and hug it — we would be safe and quickly found. There were enough old-growth trees that were somehow deemed uncommercial, and therefore left by the loggers to dominate the forest. It was a magical place!
As the years passed, the forest became darker and harder to navigate. Small, white spruce stands grew into impenetrable thickets, and eventually blew down, creating larger and larger masses of dry tinder waiting to burn. During the same time, the remaining old giants became targets of lightening, and we lost them one by one.
My love for the Tahoe forest lead me to the Yale School of Forestry, where I learned a great deal more about the science of forest management, silviculture, and pushed to develop policies that would protect our forests from unmindful logging, mining and grazing. I am proud of my contributions to the designation of Desolation as a Wilderness area, as well as my actions to increase forest planning. But I didn’t do enough and the Tahoe forests continued to decline.
As a child I often heard my grandfather, who grew up in a logging camp, curse under his breath at the Forest Service officials who prevented him from taking down any tree — living or dead. He understood that the Forest Service’s hands-off policy was a detriment to the health of a forest that had already been irreparably damaged.
And logging in the region had already drastically impacted the forest. As one journalist in 1900 reported: “inundation of nearly the entire original forest so far back as it has had a commercial value, from the shoreline of the lake back for 10 or 15 miles.” Although the American people responded by creating the Forest Service, we did not have either the scientific understanding nor the political will to move away from economic decisions (including adequately funding the Forest Service) in order to focus on the forest health rather than the value of the trees.
One-hundred-and-sixteen years after the old-growth forest was reported “logged out,” it seems we are still trying to figure out how to see the forest for the trees. One lesson learned seems to be that leaving the forest alone to heal will take too long for us humans, so we have decided to actively manage today’s forest.
Another lesson, seems to me, is that we as human beings can impact larger ecosystems than we imagine. Chris Anthony, CAL FIRE’s brilliant Emerald Fire Incident Chief (thank you!) spoke to us evacuees at the incident meeting about how climate changes are already affecting the Tahoe ecosystem through significant changes in snow amounts and timing.
My grandfather Ira’s “greatest” generation could not imagine that we could remove enough trees to damage a forest. They believed, without question, that the forest was large enough to support the economy without long-term consequence to the forest. In hindsight this unquestioned economic operating belief was incorrect, and the Tahoe Basin forest is still recovering from it 116 years later
About 6:15 a.m. on Oct. 14 I could hear my grandmother up in heaven saying, “Ira, Ira, do something — the forest is burning!” Whether or not he did, the winds died down and heavy misty clouds settled on the mountain. The miracle we needed to keep Spring Creek from burning happened — with support from dozens of firefighters, sheriff deputies, Forest Service, Caltrans, Red Cross and Tahoe citizens who worked incredibly hard during the fire, and every day, to create and protect the miracle we call Tahoe. Your extra generosity over the last couple of days is deeply appreciated!
Karen Raucher is a Lake Tahoe-area local and Emerald Fire evacuee.