Blog Post Chris Clarke Aug 27, 2020

What the Fire Took

An NPCA staff member documents the aftermath — both ecological and personal — of a wildfire that devastated 44,000 acres of the world’s largest Joshua tree forest.

I lost the center of my world last week. I’m feeling a kind of vertigo of the soul.

There is a wide spot on the side of a dirt road that has been home to me longer than any built house I’ve ever lived in. I first saw it in February 1995, visiting Mojave National Preserve in the first few weeks of its existence. I’ve camped there regularly since October 1997. For a long time it was the only place I ever went camping in the desert.

For more than a decade, I would throw a few essentials in the pickup every few weeks, leave my home in the East San Francisco Bay area, and drive the 500-plus miles toward Cima Road, my fatigue fighting my impatience. Then, I’d head about a third of a mile off the pavement to my campsite. It would be dark by then on most trips, and I would set up a place to sleep, usually under the stars. I would start a small fire, crack a beer, and let the stress of the day’s drive – and of the city life that prompted it – seep slowly out of my skin and into the dry desert soil. By the time my first swallow of coffee hit my innards the next morning, I would have fully arrived in Cima Dome, in the middle of the world’s largest Joshua tree forest.

I was content. In those days that feeling was unusual for me. I liked it.

But now, the world’s largest Joshua tree forest has been ravaged by disaster. On the afternoon of August 15, dry lightning struck near the Dome’s indistinct summit. The fire it sparked grew to 5,000 acres, then 12,000, then 25,000, then 30,000. By the time firefighters, working in triple-digit temperatures, had it contained mid-week, the fire had chewed through more than 44,000 acres.

Hotter, drier summers caused by climate change have led to the more frequent and intense wildfires across the West. Fires threaten ancient sequoias at Yosemite National Park and the namesake saguaro cactuses at Saguaro National Park. At the time of this writing, at least 77 large wildfires are raging in 15 states. Some landscapes have evolved to recover after wildfires. The desert has not. Exotic grasses and other plants introduced in the last century fill once-open spaces between the desert plants. A lightning strike that 200 years ago would have burned one Joshua tree now can set many square miles ablaze, as those introduced grasses carry fire across the landscape. And as climate change increases the severity of thunderstorms, more and more lightning bolts will ignite flammable desert vegetation. That’s what took Cima Dome from us.

Why is Cima Dome so special? For one thing, it is a geological oddity. It is a 15-mile wide mound of granite that has weathered from its original craggy mountain profile into a smoothly sloping mound, one that looks from a distance as if Earth is giving birth and the baby is beginning to crown.

By happenstance, that smooth semispherical surface lies entirely within the preferred altitude range of Joshua trees. Elsewhere in the Mojave, these trees are confined to smaller valleys or plateaus, or cling to the sides of mountains within their range, which is about 2,500-6,000 feet above sea level. The desert’s rugged topography means patches of land at just the right altitude tend to be interrupted by mountains that are too high, or valleys too deep, to support a continuous stand of trees. But Cima Dome offers miles of contiguous, perfect Joshua tree habitat. One 2018 study calculated there were about 80 Joshua trees per acre in this forest.

The trees grew so thickly that during my first visits I got lost in them, in more than one manner of speaking.

There were moments on the Dome that changed my behavior and my outlook. I had so many encounters and near-encounters with wildlife, from watching hoofprints from bighorn sheep fill with rainwater to inadvertently startling two dozen quail into flight, saving their lives from nearby hunters. Cattle grazing was prohibited on the Dome in the mid-1990s, and sometime around 1999, I could see the native bunchgrasses come back, which brought the rabbits back — and from my campsite, I could finally hear night song, confirming that the coyotes had also come back. Night after night and year after year, I marveled at the sheer audacious biodiversity of the place by day and wrestled with my demons by night, watching the parade of stars rise over the shoulder of Kessler Peak. I watched yucca moths alight on Joshua tree blossoms in March. Saw hooded and Scott’s orioles and gilded flickers work the trees for insects in May. Woke to a carpet of snow on the ground and the Joshua tree limbs in December. In June 2006, I took a walk before sunset. In a wide part of the road, eight or nine desert cottontails were socializing. All but two scattered as I appeared. I sat in the road to watch the sunset: the two remaining rabbits settled in to watch it with me.

This week, out of a quarter-century of memories, two moments in particular haunt me.

The more recent was in September 2007. My beloved dog Zeke was seven months in the ground. My marriage was falling apart. I spent a night there, alone for the first time in months, raging in tearful fury. The following morning, the Dome was carpeted in butterflies. Desert swallowtails and Indras flew through my campsite by the thousands, heading north.

The other memory was in August 2005, a month after the Hackberry Fire. Sparked by dry lightning, the flames had burned 70,000 acres in the preserve, a dozen miles south of Cima Dome. I stood at the edge of that fire and looked north at the familiar profile of the Dome and Teutonia Peak and Kessler Peak and realized that nothing but firefighters had kept the fire from heading that way. “The Dome will eventually burn,” I said to myself, doubting it as doomsaying even as I said it.

I have been unable to stop thinking about the study that measured 80 Joshua trees per acre here. The math is inescapable but brutal. We lost millions of Joshua trees in a few days.

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I could go into detail about the reasons this forest is extremely unlikely to recover: the intense mortality of injured trees; the trees’ reliance for pollination on just one species of moth that is unlikely to wait patiently for five or six decades until theoretical new trees start to bloom; the wholesale removal of blackbrush, the trees’ best choice to shelter their seedlings until they can withstand rabbit attacks. Any one of these would be sufficient to doom the forest within a century. All together all at once? There is likely no recovery from this.

Something else will grow here, and it may turn out to be wonderful in the long run. Or this may be the first in an increasingly frequent series of fires that spread introduced, invasive annual grasses like the cheat and red brome that already grow on Cima Dome. Either way, a permanent hole has been gouged out of the heart of the world’s largest Joshua tree forest.

And out of mine.

About the author

  • Chris Clarke Associate Director, California Desert Program, Pacific

    Chris joined NPCA in 2017. As California Desert Associate Director, he works with desert communities to protect national parks, monuments, and other protected places, and the landscapes that surround them.