VDH UltraOptimism, Inc: Dante’s California Inferno—Nine months later.

Two Chimneys Standing after Creek Fire in Sierra National Forest, September 2020

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

Two weeks ago, I drove up Route 168 to Huntington Lake, sometimes known as Lakeshore, California. 

I had not been there since winter. I have a small house up there, at nearly ground zero of the “Creek Fire” (September to December 2020) that devoured much of the central Sierra National Forest. The house, along with those of my neighbors, should have been engulfed with the other tragic destruction of 900 or so other cabins and structures over a vast area. But it was due to heroic efforts of the local and state Fire service frontline fighters and employees, some of whom drove their dozers into the flames and made a huge firebreak around the market, restaurant, marina—and our houses—near the lake. When I fly on American or United from Fresno to Dallas or Denver, the entire four-month-long, 400,000-acre black swath of destruction is visible from high above. The fire suppression cost was nearly $200 million alone. No one knows the cost of all the lost property, equipment and infrastructure—and probably never will.

So once there I wasn’t expecting to see much life as we knew it recovering, much less in full swing. The drive up to Shaver Lake, and between Shaver Laker and around Huntington Lake, was haunting, Dantesque, something out of the Inferno. Black ground, black stumps, burned everything: A chimney of a destroyed cabin there, the shell of an incinerated water tank here. 

Even more surreal were the new road “vistas” of hundreds of square miles of nuked-out forest. What were once green and lush stands of fir, pine, and cedar that blocked all views from the shady road, were now ash, revealing an open view for miles, albeit an ugly and frightening one. 

No strip lumber cutting, no carbon emissions bomb, no Curtis Lemay with his B-29s could have inflicted such damage to the environment, whether calibrated by the polluting clouds of soot over the central valley for months in 2020, or the genocide of wildlife, or the sheer destruction of human capital and labor.

When I arrived at the house, it still months after the fire smelled of soot and ash. I went up on the roof and found lots of overheated shingles that were warped and tried to fix them. And yet, in the immediate vicinity life had certainly survived. There were squirrels on the deck. Ravens in the trees. Coyotes in the brush. 

I thought the locals and neighbors would be obsessed by what one could have correctly argued was “preventable” carnage. And, yes, nine months later, there was plenty of furor at “them”. So who are they, as was once asked in The Wild Bunch? (Lyle: “They? Who in the hell is ‘they’?)

“They” are California and federal elected officials and bureaucrats of various forest agencies. For four years plus, they knew that 60 million trees in the Sierra were long-dead or dying from drought or beetle infestations. In the normal times of four decades ago, a robust timber industry would have harvested the dead firs, cedars, and even the pines, cleaning up the forest to prevent conflagrations like the Creek Fire, providing a lumber-short nation (cf. the price of 2×6’s and plywood recently?) plenty of harvestable lumber, and providing good-paying jobs in often economically depressed foothill communities. But remember, in California anything that seems win-win-win must now become lose-lose-lose.

So when I talked to neighbors all of that frustration came up. Why would the government allow 60 million trees simply to rot and serve as green napalm? To destroy the timber industry (which is all but destroyed in the California)?

To discourage humans from living “unnaturally” in the forest and foothills? 

To allow “nature” to have its way as in the age before man? To enrich the “ecosystem” by allowing tree “mulch” for the food chain.?

I have read versions of all the above in the lunatic California papers. 

Our conversations then turned to “who started the fire,” since D-Day, September 4, 2020, was not marked by thunderstorms or lightening, although that fact does not completely rule out a natural cause. 

Earlier rumors, recycled in The Fresno Bee, had spread that the cause was marijuana growers—or was it gang members or even terrorists, or laxity on the part of authorities? And on and on. Nothing has surfaced from a 9-month “investigation”—and most mumbled that the cause, as is America’s wont these days, will be massaged by political considerations rather than the simple truth.

Some houses inexplicably made it through the Creek Fire.

Then we talked about the vagaries of the fire: how mini-firestorms and whirlwinds that uprooted huge trees and destroyed 20,000 acres and more a day, at the fire’s worst, might inexplicably spare one cabin, and yet devour another just a few yards apart. 

But throughout the day, I was struck that most of the conversations were about shortages, of affordable lumber and labor. Many were eager to rebuild. But there was no one to hire, and now one could hardly afford—in the middle of a forest with tens of thousands of charred but useable trees for miles on end—to buy plywood or framing wood. All were rebounding. but bewildered that a can-do American can’t do, because the able-bodied are not looking for work and the stuff of our civilization, wood, gas, cement, dry wall is hard to come by at an affordable price. It was sort of like being short coal in the middle of a coal mine.

We rode bikes through the remains of the inferno today and saw below that some were launching boats, in a lake gulping down the last runoff from a drought-plagued limited snowpack that will be all but dry by September. 

Some were fishing. Some were putting in power poles and stringing high voltage wire. Some were cleaning up the messes around their charred homes. 

I looked at the acres of charred ground and saw grass, and weeds. And then, as expected, I saw a three-inch green pine. Where did this piney fellow come from? Sort of audacious to sprout up just months after the inferno, and beneath 60-foot charred trunks?

I remembered that famous introductory speech from As You Like It (adapted from Juvenal, sort of): “All the world’s a stage” And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances….

And then I thought that’s not quite it, but perhaps more instructive is another more famous thought from Ecclesiasticus

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: 2A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; 3A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

King James Bible

Or as Heraclitus wrote, panta rhei: “All things flow.” And the river runs on” “and no man ever steps in the same river twice.” And so even the fires cannot consume us all, and after they pass, life returns—sort of.

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17 thoughts on “<span class="ultra-flag"><i class="fas fa-lock"></i>VDH Ultra</span>Optimism, Inc: Dante’s California Inferno—Nine months later.”

  1. We have an ever increasing number of incompetent self serving government (elected and employee-bureaucrats) officials that think they know better than the people, the workers, the tax payers, of all economic levels. These government persons are destroying a constitutional republic that was the jewel of the world – was. That jewel cannot be voted back into existence because the ballot box was finally smashed by the the left, the Democrats, and the Biden administration and the lingering deep state is hastening the ruin of the constitutional republic . I will say it again, as I have said hundreds of times, the only solution is a revolution, a war, that should be, would be, similar to 1776 and 1861, combined. 1776 and 1861 Redux.

  2. Steve Fleischer

    Ran a pulp mill in Humboldt County in 2005 – the last of four on the Samoa Peninsula.

    The environmentalists would rather destroy industry (and eliminate the highest paying blue collar union jobs in the area). Now their kids (if they stay in Eureka) earn the minimum wage selling t-shirts or serving food.

    Atlas Shrugged is creeping up on us.

  3. RoseMarie Mucklin

    It seems to me the ferocity of the fires was caused by bureaucracy, which has become so large that not only do the citizens not understand it, but even the people who run it either don’t understand it or can’t do anything about it because of all the overlap and egos involved. I live in a small town in the Sierra Nevadas, and my home is surrounded on two sides by national forest. The local fire chief is well aware of it being a potential tinderbox, but he can do nothing because it’s “federal land” over which the forest service has jurisdiction and he has none, nor can I clean it up myself without licensing “fees” and “rules” which make no sense. So every summer I hold my breath when I smell even a local barbecue, and this year, with the drought, I suppose I will hold my breath some more, while I’ve gathered whatever treasures I wish to keep by my front door in case I need to escape quickly.
    But the bureaucrats were not done with us yet, as we saw once the China virus hit and as more and more of the corruption of that unravels. And to think the American taxpayer was paying for much of it is a disgrace! But such is bureaucracy—destructive, ever expanding, with the right hand not knowing what the left is doing and giving those with nefarious reasons a playground for their petty rules.
    I suspect under Biden it will only get worse. However, it’s not just Biden and the democrats. Government in general has created this, and the republicans and others, as well as the courts, are all responsible. Life may return after whatever destruction is wrought, but it seems wrong-headed (even evil) when it is government which exists to protect the ordinary citizen instead of destroying the country, the people’s living and peoples lives in their ugly and sometimes unintended consequences of their pursuits. It’s as ugly and evil as anything Hitler or any other tyrant has done, only by different methods. I wonder what historians will say about us and our unwieldy bureaucracies in the future.

  4. Peter Johnson, MD

    Since retirement my wife an I usually reside in our White Mountains of Az home. The largest forest fire in Az history, the Wallow Fire of about 600000 ac denuded a significant part of a very limited resource on Az, pine forest. We had the same baseless suppression of our lumber industry, restrictions in grazing, and the same prohibitions from harvesting dead trees as you report. The fire could have been extinguished early on, but the Ranger decided to let it burn despite predicted high winds. He did not suffer from this bad judgement. Interesting the West border of the burn is a sharply defined edge running precisely N-S, whereas elsewhere it has the usual bowed/tear drop shape. When asked the local USFS personnel do not notice the unnatural W border, and are unable to explain it when it is pointed out. What it is is the barbed wire fence line separating USFS managed land from the White Mountain Apache Reservation where logging and grazing properly produces a productive and fire wise forest. Unsurprisingly the USFS has not adopted the wise management of the Apache Reservation where you must now go to see a healthy forest.
    I read most everything you write and greatly enjoy your insightful and lucid interviews on Fox rarely finding anything I disagree with.

  5. Mike Davidson

    Your commentaries really sorts this chaos out for me . I always look forward to them . Regards .

    Mike Davidson.
    Toronto. Ontario

  6. A wonderful post. I appreciate all your work, Prof. Hanson!

    Just a slight correction if you don’t mind please?

    “And then I thought that’s not quite it, but perhaps more instructive is another more famous thought from Ecclesiasticus…”

    The Bible quotation at the end is from Ecclesiastes, not Ecclesiasticus. At least typically Ecclesiasticus refers to Sirach, which is different from Ecclesiastes.

  7. california will not “cure” anytime soon. too many californians, too many experts who pontificate and don’t know what real work is. overly educated idiots. and, please don’t send them north, we’ve too many of ’em in the willamette valley and in portland.

    i am 73 years of age. i am glad i will not live to see the whole damned mess get worse, because it is going to. this country, california especially, is gonna require a major “comeuppance” and people are gonna have to live through real tragedy before it gets better, if it ever does. it will take something akin to an ass kicking in war before the values of hard work and perseverance return. as an old professor of mine said, italy was rome before it became italy. maybe we will not return to what we once were.

  8. I always smile when you refer to a line in my favorite movie, “The Wild Bunch”. Freddie gave Lyle the best answer to his question when he said, “Their the pure and fancy they that’s who they is.” Great article, you paint a picture with your words.

  9. Great synopsis as usual sir! I come from near your area, Oakhurst on Hwy 41 north of Fresno. I am four months younger than you. I attended elementary school in Oakhurst than one year of high school, my freshman year, at Sierra High in Tollhouse before we moved down to Fresno where I attended Hoover High School. Sierra was a huge geographical district yet at the time I was there (1969) the entire four year student population was 700 kids +/-. There were kids from Shaver Lake & Huntington Lake down through Tollhouse and Auberry, lower to Friant then up Hwy 41 to Coarsegold, down to Raymond, on into to Oakhurst, up to Fish Camp and on out to Ahwahnee and Nippinnawassi. We had friends from all these areas. I remember well spending weekends with high school buddies in Shaver Lake etc. I am retired now and live in Grand Junction, CO after leaving California for greener pastures in 1993. It ended up being the best decision of our lives to leave, we really prospered after leaving. That’s a whole other story.

    Your sharing of the aftermath of the Creek Fire reminded me that, as a very young boy in 1961 Oakhurst we lived through a conflagration fire known as the Harlow Canyon Fire. My father was GM of General Box, the sawmill in Oakhurst (long since gone) and as such was heavily involved with efforts to keep the fire out of Oakhurst. They were able to save the mill and most all of Oakhurst but Ahwahnee and Nippinnawassi were leveled. Saving Oakhurst and the mill came at a cost. The fire was successfully diverted towards Deadwood Mountain. Deadwood is a 4,500 foot towering peak of oak, pine, scrub brush and, at the time, a couple of ranches on the north face of the mountain. As the fire storm reached the Fresno River and the base of the mountain, all conditions converged into the perfect fire storm. In 17 seconds, yes, 17 seconds that fire consumed the entire north face of Deadwood and climbed all the way to the top. Our father told our mother (he went to be on the mill earlier that morning) if the fire hits Deadwood, leave. We lived on a back road out of Oakhurst which gave us an easier route out, or so we thought. Myself, my brother, our mother were standing in the back side of our house when the fire hit Deadwood, about a half mile by the way of a bird from us. To this day (67 years old) when I see a forest fire, and when I saw this Creek Fire on the news, I feel a twang in my gut from the abject fear we all felt witnessing the great power of mother nature in one of her most destructive forms, fire. We could feel the heat sear our faces as we all stood and watched, mesmerized by what was happening and panicked with fear. We were able to evacuate to Fresno and spend a few days with friends. We didn’t hear from our dad for a day and a half when he called to say we could come home the following day, he told our mom that our house and the entire area we lived in, were saved.

    What inspired me to send you this comment was, when we returned home the following day, dad was there to meet us. We all felt great relief at being safe, our house was fine as was our neighbors yet we felt this odd guilt at so many others that had lost the entire life’s work in their homes. Yet, just as you pondered in your story here, we too saw in amazement the (perhaps) touch of God or simply fate as we walked to the rear area again of our home. I remember being afraid to go back there, I was still frightened as to what I had witnessed but dad said we have to go look at Deadwood Mountain. This mountain that had exploded in flames and was consumed in 17 seconds in what, at the time, was the fastest fire ever recorded (and still may be) yet those two ranches, both sitting on that same north face of the mountain, both were somehow magically spared. There on that mountain we saw the grace that fate can bring now and again. Amongst that still smoldering mountain, the air still putrid from all the destruction of trees and animals, sat two patches of green. Yes green as in a few trees somehow not singed or burned but simply protecting the two ranch homes several miles apart. That was an amazing sight to see and one I’ve always remembered.

    The Madera Tribune had a story about the Harlow Canyon Fire during last year’s Creek Fire.
    http://www.maderatribune.com/single-post/2020/09/16/remembering-the-harlow-fire

  10. Marlene Silvano

    It doesn’t surprise me that America is falling apart. We can’t even write or speak properly anymore. The huge number of word/spelling/punctuation/tense/capitalization errors in this article and the replies – as is the case in EVERY article I read ANYWHERE (including books and magazines) show to me the declining standards by which we function as a civilization. Just like ending the “broken windows” way of policing, when small things are allowed to happen, the whole process will eventually fall.

    1. Marlene, if you have found errors in our publication please send them to us. We appreciate the help.

  11. Thanks for the story. My place was burned in the Napa fire and before that in the 1988 fire. It is true that good things can come after all the destruction.
    Though many people cannot see it until much time has passed. Hope to see you under the redwoods.

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