Matchsticks and Memories
Returning to a beloved landscape in the aftermath of Dixie
My family first stumbled across Warner Valley, a lush and isolated enclave in the southeast corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park, more than 50 years ago. I was 11, my three younger siblings ranged in age from 4 to 9, and my parents were looking for a new place for the six of us to spend our annual summer vacation.
For several years, our go-to destination had been a campground operated by the El Dorado Irrigation District on the shore of Silver Lake, a hydropower reservoir in the Central Sierra's Eldorado National Forest. Not far off the highway over Carson Pass, it met the basic requirements — a shaded place to pitch a tent and park the car, plus miles of stream for my dad, an enthusiastic angler, to stalk rainbow trout. My earliest memories of the outdoors are set there: fishing with my dad, hiking along the lake shore with my mom. But it was a pretty busy place, and I think my folks wanted to find something a bit more quiet, a bit more peaceful, a bit more wild. My mom had fond memories of childhood vacations in the area around Lake Almanor and Lassen, and one year they decided to investigate.
So in the summer of '69 we packed up the family station wagon, left our home in rural Sonoma County, and headed for the hills. Lassen is in the northeastern corner of California, a geographically complex region remote from the state's population centers, where the granitic Sierra Nevada meets the volcanic Cascade Range and the high desert country of the Modoc Plateau. It offered the prospect of solitude and unfamiliar terrain.
We probably entered the park the way most visitors always have, heading east from the Sacramento Valley town of Red Bluff on State Highway 36, and then north on Highway 89 through the park's main entrance. The park road is a steep and sinuous feat of highway engineering that features grand views and terrifying exposure — terrifying, anyway, if you are uncomfortable looking over the edge of a road, unprotected by guardrails, with drops of hundreds of vertical feet just inches from the pavement's edge. It wraps around Lassen Peak and traverses an alpine wonderland: pristine lakes, geothermal features, clear-running streams, verdant meadows.
We camped that first night at Manzanita Lake, a busy campground very much like the one we had foresworn at Silver Lake. Having not yet found the solitude they were seeking, my folks pressed on. On the highway map, they had noticed a small spur road that pushed across the park boundary from the southeast, beginning in the small resort town of Chester on the shore of Lake Almanor. They decided to see where it led.
It was a decision that would powerfully influence our lives for the next half-century. It would also set the stage for the feeling of profound loss I am experiencing as I write this.
In the late '60s, Chester was a small and relatively quiet place. Almanor was not yet the vacation-home hotbed it is today, and as I remember it, there was little more to the town's retail sector than a small market, good for stocking up on ice, and a sporting goods store, good for stocking up on fishing tackle. We drove into town and, next to the fire station, turned north onto the Chester-Warner Valley Road.
The road quickly left the town behind and entered Lassen National Forest. For the next 27 miles, the narrow ribbon of blacktop wound through beautiful stands of white fir, ponderosa pines and lodgepole pines, passing meadows, creeks, and rustic cabins tucked among the trees. Around one bend, the forest opened and framed a striking view of snow-capped Lassen Peak, seemingly close enough to touch. Just before reaching the park boundary, the pavement ended, and the dirt road grew steep and tortuous. It climbed and wound for 3 more rutted and potholed miles, passing an old ranger cabin and arriving at the Warner Valley Campground.
In my recollection, we arrived late and tired, and settled for one of the first vacant campsites we saw. But eventually we found better accommodations in a large site at the campground's edge, alongside a tiny brook — just large enough to soak tired feet and stash sodas when the ice in the cooler had all melted. The site featured a large rock fire pit, and was adjacent to the trailhead for a network of footpaths reaching every corner of the park.
It was quiet and gorgeous, the surrounding forest a mix of species including huge sugar pines and incense-cedars. As we explored over the following days, we found that the road beyond the campground led to the Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a rough-hewn assortment of cabins, dining hall, lodge, and horse corrals, all on the edge of a stunningly beautiful meadow that sprawled across the Warner Valley floor. Countless small rivulets crossed the meadow from springs at the foot of Flatiron Ridge, a wall of andesite that loomed above the valley on the north, making their way to Hot Springs Creek. To the valley’s east rose the volcanic bulk of Mount Harkness, which each evening caught the glow of sunset.
I do not know how long we stayed on that first visit. But we were utterly bewitched by the place, and returned again and again. Over the following decades, on visits that lasted a week or two, we hiked nearly every mile of trail connected to the campground trailhead. We fished every foot of Hot Springs Creek, from its birth amid the fumaroles and mudpots of the large Devils Kitchen geothermal area at the valley's west end, to its confluence with Kings Creek on the east. We visited every lake within a day's hike. Every night ended around the campfire, where we'd share stories about our adventures along the trails and streams, and make plans for the next day.
Over time, Warner Valley became central to our family's story, our emotional touchstone, a second home more magical in many ways than our real home — so much so that even as a kid in my early teens I had the distinct sense of homecoming when we rolled into the campground for the first time each summer and piled out of the car to find the place unchanged, still beautiful, still fragrant, still welcoming. And then, when it came time to leave, feeling the onset of homesickness and a hollow sense of loss.
As we kids grew older, it became more difficult for the entire family to gather at the same time in the valley. But we all continued to find ways to reconnect there, and my photo archives contain images of us in the valley in varying familial configurations — and changing styles of clothing and hair — over the years. In time, my siblings and I began bringing our own children to Warner Valley, adding a third generation to the mix.
Last year, having recently become a grandfather, I thought it was time to introduce a fourth generation to the magic of Warner Valley. I also figured it would likely be the last such gathering to include my parents, whose increasing mobility limitations made it unlikely that they'd be able to camp in the woods in the future. This milestone added significant emotional heft to the trip-planning process.
On June 14, 2021, I reserved five adjacent campsites in Warner Valley to accommodate the 14 of us who planned to be there. My partner Leslie and I would arrive first, on Aug. 11, and leave a week later. The rest would arrive in waves and depart the same way, with everyone being in camp on Saturday, Aug. 14, and Sunday, Aug. 15. We planned meals, gathered gear, laid in supplies.
And then we waited, with great anticipation, for our departure date. For homecoming.
On July 13, the Dixie fire ignited in the canyon of the North Fork Feather River, about 40 miles from Warner Valley. Driven by fierce winds, feeding on drought-parched vegetation, it roared northeast, growing steadily in size and leaping miles each day despite aggressive efforts to contain it. On July 25, the National Park Service announced that the Warner Valley and Juniper Lake areas in Lassen had been closed, and backcountry camping throughout the park had been suspended. Firefighters began setting backfires and cutting fuel breaks with bulldozers to create a line protecting Chester and other areas to the north, including the park.
When the fire reached them, those barriers held for two days, as weather conditions moderated. But on Aug. 2, the winds picked up again and the fire exploded, easily jumping the containment lines. On Aug. 5 alone, it grew by 110,000 acres, destroyed the towns of Greenville and Canyon Dam, and burned across the eastern end of Warner Valley and into Lassen Volcanic National Park. It overran Mt. Harkness, destroying a historic fire lookout built in 1930, and burned to the eastern shore of Juniper Lake. The park was closed and evacuated.
Over the next week, Dixie relentlessly worked its way through Warner Valley from the east, while a new fire, started by lightning on Morgan Summit near the southwest park entrance — lightning generated by a giant pyrocumulonimbus cloud column created by the Dixie fire itself — exploded out of control and came into the valley from the west. The two fires merged sometime on Aug. 16, probably right around Drakesbad.
In subsequent days, the main fire front moved on to the north, eventually slowing and losing energy as it passed beyond the park boundary. By the time it was finally contained on Oct. 26, Dixie had burned nearly a million acres, including 69 percent of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Our cancelled multi-generational family gathering became just one minor casualty of the largest single wildfire in California history.
In March of this year, I began planning a return to Warner Valley, to see for myself how the area had fared and what the prospects might be for recovery. Reports from the park last autumn, once it was safe for crews to conduct a post-burn assessment, indicated that most visitor facilities — included Warner Valley campground and Drakesbad — had survived the conflagration. Aerial imagery showed that across the park landscape, fire severity had varied widely, leaving some patches of forest intact or partially scorched while turning others into ghostly stands of tall blackened matchsticks. But the level of detail was inadequate to determine what conditions would look like to a hiker or camper on the ground.
The Park Service opened campground reservations before the start of the season, and in early March I reserved a site — the same one Leslie and I would have occupied in August 2021 had the fire not interfered.
On May 23, however, I was notified that Warner Valley’s seasonal opening had been postponed until June 15 — right in the middle of the week for which I’d reserved a campsite — although it might re-open sooner. As a backup plan, we reserved a site in the Butte Lake campground, in the northeast corner of the park. It was a good move; the Park Service subsequently announced that Warner Valley would remain closed to the public for the entire 2022 season because of damage from Dixie and ongoing work to mitigate safety hazards such as damaged trees. My reservation there was automatically cancelled.
We packed up Next Chapter and left town on June 11, heading first up the east side of the Sierra on Highway 395, camping south of Mono Lake in the Inyo National Forest, and then pausing in Reno to visit my son and his fiancé. From there, we headed northwest across Lassen National Forest toward Butte Lake, which is about 7 miles of unpaved road from the highway.
The Dixie Fire burned this area, too, but late in its run and after the weather had changed. No longer driven by high winds, the fire slowed and lost intensity. We found that some areas, such as the campground, were hardly touched. But many areas were scorched and some stands were incinerated. We stayed three nights, hiking during the day and exploring the colorful volcanic landscape — an 800-foot-tall cinder cone, extensive lava beds and ash dunes — amid the burn scar.
From Butte Lake, we headed to the park’s northwest entrance, and drove the main park road most of the way to Lassen Peak. Inside the park, conditions mirrored those outside, with a patchwork of scorched, untouched and matchstick forest. At the landscape level, this is not a bad outcome — big fires usually leave a mosaic of varying burn severities, and it appears that Dixie may have played the role of “good fire” in a lot of areas — clearing overgrown understory and consuming the buildup of dead fuel on the forest floor.
But we do not experience places at the landscape level. We experience them at the human level: one lake, one stream, one valley, one meadow at a time. We forge our spiritual and emotional connections with the land at this intimate scale, and it is at this scale that we measure loss. In the case of Lassen — my Lassen, anyway — that loss feels immeasurable.
On our final day in the area, Leslie and I drove to Chester, stocked up on groceries, and headed out of town on the Chester-Warner Valley Road. The road was closed at the park boundary, so we knew we would not be able to visit the Warner Valley campground, Drakesbad and all the beloved haunts of my childhood, but we wanted to get as close as we could.
Although I had obsessively monitored Dixie’s progression during the awful months of July and August 2021, I was not really prepared for the grim reality of the fire’s aftermath.
A mile or two outside of town, we entered the burn zone, and we followed the road — the road into a magical forested realm I promptly fell in love with when I first encountered it in 1969 — until we ran out of pavement. Along the way, we saw virtually nothing left alive in most of the valley. Although there are a few small pockets of intact and moderately burned forest, it’s now mostly a wasteland of blackened matchstick trees. The destruction is amplified by salvage logging the Forest Service has authorized, which is stripping everything down to bare ground in a 300-foot-wide zone on each side of the road. Blackened trees, blackened earth, charred debris and huge piles of scorched logs that used to be firs and pines constitute almost the entire vista for more than 20 miles.
The campground, meadow, Drakesbad — all those places where my family formed precious memories — may have survived, but they are islands in a sea of desolation.
It is foolhardy to yoke one’s love for a place to the wish that it never change. Natural landscapes change all the time, although not often as swiftly and dramatically as when charred by this new breed of megafire driven by drought, a century of misbegotten forest management policy, and a warming climate. But it’s worth remembering that when Lassen Volcanic National Park was established in 1916, it was to protect a landscape that had recently been scarred by powerful volcanic eruptions, landslides and pyroclastic flows. The park road passes through a feature still named “The Devastated Area,” even though that blasted plain had been reclaimed by forest by the time Dixie roared through.
And when Leslie and I visited Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in August 2021, after our visit to Lassen had been cancelled, we found ourselves driving for miles through beautiful mature forest where 41 years earlier, in the aftermath of that volcano’s 1980 eruption, there had been nothing but ash and stone and the blasted skeletons of dead trees. Natural forces have a way of overcoming even profound shocks and insults, although the reclamation process seldom unspools on a time scale convenient for humans.
The valley I remember will not return in my lifetime, and probably not even in that of my children, and I feel that loss keenly. I mourn the lost opportunity to gather four generations of my family there, something that probably will never be possible again. I mourn also the place itself, and all the future memories of it that we will never form.
In the end, however, our experience of the landscape plays a powerful role in determining whether we love or are indifferent to it. And my love for that place, while motivated to some degree by its profound physical beauty — a beauty now terribly compromised — really is driven by the richness and joy of my experiences there over the past half century. They established and shaped my lifelong love affair with the outdoors, a central element of my identity.
Dixie destroyed many things. But it left untouched the memories of those family camping trips in Warner Valley and of who we were, what we did, and how we felt while we were there. I’m grateful to still have them.
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John, I am sorry for this loss for you, your family and everyone who has experienced its beauty, which you describe so well I almost feel like I had been there.
But what a great family memory to hold. Would that more families made memories in such a way.