Opinion: How to love the mountains as fires rage

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Anissa Basnayake/The Occidental

Last summer, I was backpacking in a relatively unfamiliar wilderness with a 50-year-old map, caught in smoke so thick I couldn’t see the next ridge. With no place to camp anywhere nearby, I stumbled along the banks of a creek, watching the smoke-soaked, blood-red sun dip towards the horizon. I had decided to scout, dropping my pack and running a few miles down the trail, desperately hoping for a water source to stop at. I found one — a small creek — but in the process I had lost the trail, and was alone with only free-range cows for company.

It was not an ideal situation.

Forty-five minutes and some bushwhacking later, I finally made it back up to the ridge where the rest of my group was waiting for me, only to see that they had a satellite map pulled up on a phone. With it, I would have never had to run and scout in the first place. Instead of anger or frustration, the misunderstanding bubbled with humor, and soon all 10 of us were doubled over with giggles. It was a bad situation — the smoke, getting lost, all of it — but in the midst of that laughter I felt warm. It’s hard not to smile in those mountains because even in the worst of times, it’s home. But for the past few weeks I have been witnessing that home, the Trinity Alps Wilderness, slowly burning.

It turns out, the suffocating smoke we had experienced on that hike was only a prelude to further disaster. The Haypress Fire, which started in late July, has burned almost 200,000 acres of the Trinities and surrounding areas —and it’s still spreading.

This summer especially, I was acutely aware of the mortality of the mountains as I knew them. The especially dry conditions and the small fires that kept starting throughout the summer were reminders of the area’s impermanence. I’ve been backpacking in the Trinities every summer for seven years, and I consider those weeks some of my happiest moments. I spend every winter and spring waiting for the summer, and every fall mourning it. So when I clicked open my phone a few days ago, researched the Haypress Fire and saw just how much it had burned, I was pained. I felt a portion of my identity burn to ash, as a place that I had loved since I was 14 was drastically changing without warning. Even now, I am struggling to imagine a wilderness that is so familiar to me — forests, meadows, basins and ridges — all burned. It is utterly heartbreaking.

The growing threat of wildfires every summer is increasingly disheartening. The prevalence of massive fires every year is largely due to climate change, a force that often seems too massive for any individual to combat; however, there are small steps we all can take to shrink our carbon footprint, such as reducing time in cars or planes, eating lower on the food chain and not participating in fast fashion.

We can take even more specific action when it comes to keeping our forests safe. Humans start 84 percent of wildfires, meaning that anyone can take action to prevent them by practicing fire safety while in the wilderness. This involves obtaining a campfire permit before going on a trip, checking an area’s fire restrictions or, better yet, using a stove rather than a fire for cooking in the backcountry.

The burning of the Trinity Alps is personally devastating, and the broader threat of climate change feels insurmountably hopeless. However, I hope that we can still take time to appreciate the understated magic of existing in natural spaces. The world is changing fast, and I’m scared, but burned or not, I still want to laugh in the mountains.

At the end of that day, what brought me some peace was the realization that despite the change, I will always be able to call the Trinity Alps a home. In this thought process, I was reminded of the feeling of sitting and laughing in the smoke, after an utterly terrible day of hiking, getting lost and desperately running to find water. I don’t know what the future brings for myself or the Trinities, but I hope that feeling will always remain. After all, wilderness isn’t like a house. When it burns, there is still something there, even if it is just ridges and hillsides, waiting for new growth.