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For the ashes of fire — rebirth

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POSTED August 23, 2012 12:47 a.m.

It’s an eerie feeling standing in the middle of a fire-scarred forest.

As far as you can see in any direction is pure destruction – once majestic trees that have been reduced to semi-towering clumps of ash and blackened earth where colorful plants and bushes once grew.

There’s an overwhelming sense that a place teeming with wildlife was instantly turned in a vast wasteland.

But there’s also that feeling of rebirth: The lone flower that springs from the underbrush. Or the birds returning to what was once their native home.

It’s the natural cycle of things.

Up in Northern California right now, however, it’s a little bit difficult for the residents of Shingletown to share that outlook.

Currently 22,000 acres of steep, rocky terrain in the area east of Redding has been claimed by what firefighters have dubbed the “Ponderosa” Fire. As of Wednesday morning it was only 50 percent contained, and it has taken out 50 buildings.

The tiny towns of Viola and Manton are also directly in the line of fire.

And this weekend I’ll be spending the night directly between the Ponderosa Fire and the 29,000-acre strong “Reading” Fire that has scorched a portion of Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Lassen National Forest and threatened the town of Old Station.

That’s because this part of California is my stomping ground.

Born in Redding, I spent a large portion of my youth tromping through Hat Creek and the Upper Sacramento River and swimming in Shasta and Whiskeytown Lakes. I’ve spent time tying off salmon roe on the Trinity and held my clothes over my head as I floated down an icy mountain river in the early summer.

It’s where I feel most at home, and it’s where I enjoy going when I have a few days to spare – exchanging banter with my 95-year-old grandmother and laughing at how no matter what she seems to come away a winner every time we visit the local Indian Casino.

But on Saturday morning when I got a phone call from my father telling me that there was a huge fire near Shingletown – one of the places we pass through on the way up to Old Station on our annual spring fishing trip – I didn’t really think anything of it.

It seems like every year there’s some sort of fire that burns out of control in that part of the state, and somehow fire crews always manage to stop it before it claims the sleepy mountain town nearby or the mill that supports it (in Burney several years ago the fire literally came to the edge of town.)

And when he sent me a picture of the “smoke” I could barely make it out. All I could see is what looked like clouds on the eastern horizon.

But that was it – huge, massive billowing plumes that had filled the sky in the first several hours that it burned (a lightning strike started it.)

The rest, they say, is history.

Since then the Big League Dreams complex in Redding – just up the road from where my Grandmother lives – has been converted into a shelter of sorts for those evacuated from their homes. It’s been a waiting game for the thousands of rural residents that can only cross their fingers and hope for the best.

I’m sure I’ll get a closer look at the scene when I head up north this weekend for a trip that we’ve had planned for a while now – never thinking that the campground we’d be visiting for the night could have been reduced to a pile of ash.

My thoughts go out to the displaced. We’re talking about people who spend their entire lives working so that they build a cabin up in a portion of the state where people are few and far between so they can live out their days in comfort and solitude – only to have all of that threatened by nature’s fury.

It puts our insignificance into perspective, but also strikes a chord with anybody that has a heart.

And my respect goes out to the firefighters – the thousands of them that are doing everything in their power to save lives and property. Manteca has a few of their bravest in those crews. Ripon and Lathrop too.

It might take a few years, but people will rebuild. Flowers will return. Trees will grow again.

After all, it’s the natural cycle of things.

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