The videos on social media looked apocalyptic last fall — California was on fire. The air was thick with smoke, the hills were red and smoldering. During Northern California’s Camp Fire, reports came in that the region was suffering from the worst air quality in the world.
It wasn’t quite the apocalypse, but the fires were incredibly destructive. In 2018, more of California burned than ever before in recorded history — with more than 1.8 million acres lost to 8,054 fires that year, as reported by the National Interagency Fire Center. Camp Fire left 85 people dead and 18,804 structures destroyed. When coupled with the calamity of other large blazes, like the Woolsey Fire and the Mendocino-Complex fire, the overall damage proved enormous.
The effects are still being felt, and as spring comes to a close — and hiking, camping, and National Park visiting begin to rev up for the summer — it’s important to consider the long-term effects of these natural disasters. How are the hardest hit areas in the state recovering? With so much destruction, are the affected parks even worth a visit? Or are they still just black, ash-filled wasteland?
“When the rains came, we had black hills everywhere,” Dr. Martha Witter, a fire ecologist for the National Park Service, says, “but a lot our area converted from shrublands to non-native annual grasslands. So when we got the rain this year we soon had emerald green hills.”
Dr. Witter’s home base is in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Center. This park, in particular, was hit hard by the Woolsey Fire in November. More than 88% of the land within the park boundary burned, scorching more acres throughout the park than ever before in recorded history. Still, with a climate adapted to wildfire, life is quickly returning to the area.
“Our park crew has been doing really well,” Witter says. “A lot of people are working very hard and many areas have opened back up already. People are getting back into the park, and things are coming together. They finished one of the last sections of the back end trail recently, which is open again.”
As we approach prime travel season, here’s why you should head back to Crater Lake in Oregon, Yosemite in California, Yellowstone in Wyoming, and scores of other parks affected by 2018’s fires.
Immediately after a fire, a burned area emergency response team — including foresters, hydrologists, and geologists — is dispatched to assess hazards to the trails.
“Those teams go out and inspect the trails and certainly identify which areas are dangerous and need to be closed until they can be cleaned up,” Witter says. “There’s a lot of activity that goes on in the aftermath of a fire.”
The response team manages everything from making sure no trees have become hazardous to predicting what soil will become loose or dangerous after rainfall to replacing damaged signs. Additionally, experts are employed to make sure every trail is safe before being reopened to the public. (That said, if a trail is not open yet, there’s a reason. Don’t ignore closure signs.)