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The Rites of Winter in Klamath Forest: Scorched Earth Yields to a Season of Rebirth

December 13, 1987|MARY ELLEN STROTE | Mary Ellen Strote is a writer who lives in Calabasas.

The oak leaves have turned color on the Godfrey Ranch in the Klamath National Forest, but they will not fall. It is winter but still they cling.

Godfrey Ranch is a 180-acre, 100-year-old homestead near the Salmon River in Siskiyou County, with water rights assigned by President Warren Harding himself. It burned on Aug. 31, the first day of the lightning-caused Northern California conflagration that ultimately destroyed 19% of the Klamath forest and nearly 1 million acres statewide.

The ranch, divided 20 years ago into several parcels, had been my refuge, my summertime escape, my Walden. I had a log cabin there, a few acres of virgin timber and good neighbors. Of the 10 little houses on the ranch, seven, including mine, were lost along with 10,000 acres of surrounding forest.

Last week I went there to see what was left and this is what I found: Shades of black and gray, an old war movie awaiting colorization. Craters where old stumps burned; I'm told some will burn underground until spring.

The ranch is deserted and what was once forest is silent. A woodpecker takes a few staccato knocks against a scorched pine and gives up. A fly buzzes against the cracked plastic window of a ramshackle outbuilding that miraculously survived. The last cat left on the ranch purrs as it follows me about. This is all I hear. That full-throated, cathedral-quality song of the forest is finished. The musical rustle of fir needles is now a dry rasp, like a diva whose voice has gone.

When fire burns hot, it leaves the forest purified, as if it had gone through a crematorium. Only the basic elements remain: earth, stone, ash. And black trees, still marketable, for which the loggers have already come.

I find myself, reluctantly, in the logging business, and now the sharp scent of fresh-cut pine and cedar overpowers the acrid smell of ash. I stand next to a 10-stack of once-stately 85-year-old trees. My trees. The living inheritance I wanted for my children. Tomorrow the logging trucks will carry them off for condominiums and copier paper and mulch for someone else's garden.

The ground they stood on has been torn apart by the loggers; the earth is naked. I feel I am visiting a dear friend in the midst of open-heart surgery.

In a microscopic way, I think, this is like a nuclear holocaust. In fact, scientists did aerial studies of the nuclear-winter effect produced in Northern California by the six weeks of smoke that shut out the sun.

Even where the fire didn't reach, growing things were traumatized. "My flowers didn't know whether to open or close," said Rita Hensher, who lives on the Salmon River.

Where the fire did reach, confusion, depression and denial are common complaints even four months later. Lingering respiratory illnesses threaten to become chronic.

In the worst-hit parts, residents cope with unrecognizable environments and missing landmarks. And, as would be the case in a nuclear war, their losses were uninsured and uninsurable. "I lost all my tools," said Godfrey Ranch carpenter Mel Berry. "And my father's tools and my grandfather's tools. I lost everything I ever owned."

All that is left, really, is the land, and so I look closer. An occasional hardwood tree may recover. One ancient oak looks untouched, but its leaves, fused to brittle twigs, are the colorless beige of death. Still, at its foot, three yellowish new leaves cower in the poor shelter of the parent tree.

Around the base of a madrone, tiny scarlet leaves the shape of flames erupt. Its shoots point up toward its charred red bark, now the color of a smoky sky, as if the tree were trying to heal itself with the instrument of its own destruction.

Wild mint sprouts in the ditch that carried our water before the pipes melted. The shroud of soot that covered the ranch is leaching into the soil with each new rain.

Driving home, south on Highway 101, I pass rig after rig loaded with firs from the north. The trees are young and supple and green, destined to bring Christmas to Southern California. I want to stop the drivers, tell them to take Christmas back to Godfrey, where nothing green stands taller than half an inch.

But maybe Christmas has arrived at the ranch. My neighbors are going back. Hopeful, they have decided to rebuild. A reforestation project is planned. If Christmas is a symbol for birth and expectation and promise, then it has already found a home at Godfrey.

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