I got word of the Reading fire in the Lassen National Forest back in August of 2012, when it was still burning strong. A friend had gone down to Yosemite National Park (and brought back the funniest pictures of Japanese girls in high heel pumps climbing granite cliffs I’d ever seen), and on her way back north called and told me about it, just to tell me about it. Roads were closed and skies grew a strangely orangish-pinkish-gray color, she had said, which is totally typical for that type of thing, it turns out. It also turns out you can’t pick a worse time to drive through the forests of California these days than August, that is if your intent isn’t to be caught unaware in the manifestation of an actual, real-life Biblical plague.
A little over 28,000 acres got fried in this particular blaze, and I honestly thought nothing about it, living 500 miles away, until I was able to pass through the carnage myself on the way to Reno the following summer. Those first photos I took were boring and insignificant, but it was very sandy and dead, I remember, and bright, with tiny here-and-there patches of green and a creek running unmolested throughout the otherwise-preserved death. None of those pictures exist anymore, but over the following two years, in 2014 and 2015, in the same month, I went back and got the following:
And then I got these, in 2016:
And one more, in 2018:
What can you say about a scene of absolute destruction except, over time, life moves over it, covers it, and continues on unabated? The manzanitas were some of the first noticeable flora to grow back, although much of their former stature remains: lifeless, anguished and pleading to the skies, like bodies unearthed from the remains of the eruptions over Pompeii or Herculaneum. But in time, too, I imagine the elements will conspire to drop those fossils to the earth, new branches will rise just as high over them, and nothing will remain to stand as a testament to the fury that once consumed them but the photographs, both during and after. Which, again, is why we do it: to preserve that which one day shall be no more.