Forest Fires: The Disasters That Keep On Taking

Grief and loss continue to build long after the cameras leave.

Posted May 07, 2016

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Small, inconsequential trees, you might think. Two bunches of river birches about 20 feet tall and 20 years old. Slowly dying in our front yard—we didn't realize what short lives these guys had when we planted them 22 years ago—likely to breathe their last breaths by crashing on top of our house.

So the cutters came and sliced the trees into knotty bits and pieces until our yard was full of severed limbs. I watched from my office, tears streaming, hands shaking, heart thumping, this whole experience a trigger for memories of the forest fire that scorched our Colorado property three years ago, leaving nearly 13,000 acres of dead trees in its wake. Fortunately, nobody died, and our little mountain cabin was saved by fire fighters.

But the loss of our trees is deep and personal. Yet here I am now, two states away at my home in the middle of Des Moines, Iowa, intentionally killing more in my front yard. I am close to rushing out and telling the tree service to just stop, that I would rather let the birches live while they have even a bit of green, but the workers are too efficient with their chainsaws; they cut the tops off first, so I am quickly left with only stumps, the yard littered with two decades worth of verdant corpses.

Literary sorts talk about forests as mystical havens that enrich our souls. True, that. But scientists say they have the data to prove that even a few trees can strengthen our bodies—just by being there, by being their own leafy mothers.

For example, adding trees to city yards can have the same effect on our feelings of wellbeing as moving to a more affluent neighborhood, according to researchers from the United States, Canada, and Australia who studied urban areas in Toronto, Canada. Ten additional trees on a block correlates to the health benefits that might come with an increase in income of $10,000 a year or from being seven years younger. People in greener neighborhoods also have fewer heart problems. Writing in the journal Nature, they explain:

Specifically, if we consider two families, one earning $10,200 more annually than the other, and living in a neighborhood with the same higher median income, it is predicted that the more affluent family who is living in the richer neighborhood perceives themselves as healthier people. Interestingly, however, that prediction could turn out to be wrong if the less affluent family lives in a neighborhood that has on average 10 more trees beside the streets in every block. Regarding cardio-metabolic conditions, the same scenario is expected to hold true for an income difference of $20,200.

They speculate that greenery by sidewalks encourages people to walk, giving them the health effects of exercise and community interaction and perhaps even cleaning up some of the toxins emitted from cars chugging down the street.

So, if ten trees per city block can improve the quality of life of its citizens, what does the loss of an entire forest mean? The year after our forest fire, the county assessed our property at 50 percent of pre-fire value. And right now we could probably not sell it for that, even if we wanted to.

But we want to stay there, and we have been trying to help the forest regenerate by planting seedlings, controlling erosion, killing invasive weeds, and encouraging new natural growth. That is the aftermath of a fire, the truth we seldom speak—natural disasters don't end when the cameras shut off and the reporters go home. People have to live with the results. 

Meanwhile, our health has suffered—my sister and I both got cancer, my husband and brother have serious gastrointestinal issues, and several of us have panic attacks, depression, and mild PTSD. The obvious cause is the stress of escaping the fire, fighting floods, and dealing with hungry, orphaned bears who want to come inside and eat.

Living with the loss of the forest and with the charred ruins of our once-stately trees is living with a grief few understand, least of all us. 

We spent most summers in our forest for 22 years before the fire, being beautifully nurtured by nature.  All the humans living within two miles of our cabin—actually only six other souls because we are pretty remote—are over 70. Yet we hike and work like youngsters. I sometimes wonder, as we sit on boulders 12,000 feet up in the Rockies, at our good fortune to have the stamina to get this far.

Seems we might get some of that from those trees we walk among.

We reaped the benefits of our healthy land on our healthy selves and now we are paying it forward, hoping for some sort of balance sometime, somewhere, as the land rebuilds and we help it. The 75 seedlings we have planted so far should give us credit for the equivalent of seven city blocks. We have 35 acres, so whoa, do we have some work to do.

So we will replace our birches, this time with something that flowers in the spring, when we most need a natural perk. We visited a local park that’s now full of flowering fruit trees and have picked out favorite, a crabapple called snowdrift that apparently provides especially welcome shelter for birds during Iowa’s harsh winters.  And maybe we’ll add a little oak over on the other side, something for another generation to appreciate, its growth too slow to shed much shade on our ancient selves.

And we'll plod along, planting as we can on our mountain, which may regrow to its pre-fire strength by the time our grandsons are our age.

I talked with a gardener friend the other day and told him about losing our birches. He got it: “You’ve lost friends.” Lucky for us, we can replant new BFFs in our city yard, which is good for our neighborhood health, and ultimately good for Mom Earth.

Interestingly, after our fire, the universal reaction from friends was relief that we were safe, as was our property. And truly we valued the love and concern they felt for our wellbeing. But few mentioned the thousands of friends we lost; few saw that as an essential element of our wellbeing.  

Like the best of all friends, these green city and country beauties nurture us as we nurture them, their lives our legacy, their strength our reward.

And like the best of friends, they're irreplaceable.