National News

They Bonded as the Pacific Crest Trail Burned. Now They Heal It.

Posted July 17, 2018 8:51 a.m. EDT

CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. — He posted photos of himself on Facebook as he hiked hundreds of miles of the vast Pacific Crest Trail, masked in a bandanna to protect his lungs from the smoke of the fires that had closed down parts of it. She told him about the inner workings of NASA, where she was a college intern in Alabama.

As the West burned a year ago, Mark Beebe, the hiker, and Tara Prevo, the intern who was then stationed more than 2,000 miles away, began getting to know one another through texts, phone calls and trailside video. He told her of his job delivering pizzas in Portland, Oregon, to make ends meet, leaving long days to rove the woods. She told him about her time of homelessness, living for a monthslong stretch out of a pickup truck.

But it was the fires, they said — and the lure of the Pacific Crest Trail, which Prevo was already dreaming of trying to hike herself — that forged their relationship.

By the end of 2017, the West had suffered one of the worst fire years in decades and an area more than three times the size of Connecticut lay charred, the second-worst year since the early 1950s. East of Portland, a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail — the western counterpart to the Appalachian Trail and a place that defines for many people a kind of spirit path on which to test oneself or find meaning — burned on for three months through the steep terrain of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Federal fire-prediction maps foretold more of the same this year, with major fire potential in portions of the Pacific Northwest and California — the same area hit by some of last year’s worst fires. And since June, high winds and an early summer heat have made it a reality: Fires in Colorado have burned tens of thousands of acres, and July began badly in California and in 11 other states where 50 major fires were raging on Friday.

Through the fires of 2017, Beebe and Prevo, both 28, kept on texting and talking, sometimes for long hours into the evenings as Beebe rerouted his hike to get around the fires, like hundreds of other Pacific Crest hikers. More than 170, trapped by the fire in the Columbia Gorge, had to be rescued.

Sitting beside his tent, Beebe decided that no matter what came next, he would ask Prevo out on a real date if they ended up in the same place at some point.

“I thought she was out of my league,” he said. “But I decided to try.”

By the time the winter snows came, Beebe and Prevo were a couple, and portions of their beloved Pacific Crest lay in ashes.

Their response? They went back in together, along with scores of others, to rebuild. The Pacific Crest is the trail of John Muir, whose name evokes for many Americans the spirit of the Sierra Nevada, the redwoods, and the first stirrings of the conservation movement — a place that draws thousands of hikers every year seeking escape from work and urban life, but also meaning in the stories of how the trail’s solitude and beauty became part of Western lore.

The fire in the Columbia Gorge, which authorities say began Sept. 2, 2017, when a teenager threw fireworks into the woods, felt to many in the Pacific Northwest like a final emotional blow in a disastrous year of fire.

After wildfires, people often think of rebuilding homes, businesses and farms, but devastated stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail also needed fixing. And repairing scorched public lands is no simple task. In places where people live, insurance policies and federal disaster relief programs come into play. Wild lands, by contrast, are mostly on their own, dependent on volunteers like Beebe and Prevo. Government land budgets, stacked toward firefighting, have little left to help once the fires are out.

One day in May, Beebe, Prevo and 10 other volunteers put on borrowed hard hats, threw iron bars and rakes over their shoulders and hiked to part of the Columbia Gorge that was still blackened and closed to the public. On this day, the volunteers were tackling a 22-foot patch that had collapsed as huge tree roots beneath it burned to powdery ash.

The task would take about seven hours, and involve dragging dozens of rocks and boulders, some of which weighed 400 pounds or more. Six people strained at the corners of a rock sling to move the biggest ones. One of the team’s leaders — a retired engineer and accountant — then positioned the foundation stones with an exacting eye and an iron pry bar, building a wall on which a fresh layer of dirt would be tamped down.

After hours of labor, the volunteers, grimy and caked in soot, had finally filled the hole on their collapsed stretch. They laid a new pathway of dirt on the rock foundation. Future walkers will probably pass without a clue about how things had broken at this one spot, or who had fixed them.

“People don’t know what goes into one little piece of trail,” Beebe said as he stood on the edge of the hole in well-worn hiking pants that had frayed at the cuffs. Distance hiking is about muscle and endurance, but also myriad fussy details of management — calories, hydration, dry socks and blisters. For Beebe, fire was just one more wrinkle.

He had hiked more than 1,700 miles of the 2,650-mile trail by his first conversations with Prevo, and as he described his journey — and his mental map for the miles ahead around the blazes that were ripping through Oregon and Washington — she found herself deeply impressed. He was charming, she thought, but better yet, a nerd.

“The way that you tackle a problem, and pick apart the various resources and stuff that you have for it — that’s a strange thing to love about somebody,” she said, looking at Beebe across a coffee shop table in Portland recently. “But I was just really attracted to that.”

Beebe and Prevo have been out together five times now to work on fixing parts of the Pacific Crest Trail. They are planning for Prevo’s own solo hike on the trail in 2020, after she finishes an engineering degree. They intend to walk the first 86 miles from Canada, heading south together — the stretch Beebe, for all his improvisation, was unable to complete. He plans to be back in school by then anyway. He dropped out several times over the years, but intends to resume a study of computer science, partly inspired, he said, by a woman he met while he was walking in the woods.

Restoring the West’s Burned Rangeland, With Seeds and a Pasta Machine

In a little government building on eastern Oregon’s high desert, a restaurant-grade pasta machine spits out sagebrush and grass seed tortellini. Odd, perhaps, but scientists are into it. They put a mixture of compounds into the machine along with the seeds, and pods or pellets come out.

The seeds — coated with a cloak of botanical trickery to hold moisture or delay germination — are ready for planting on the mostly treeless open-range landscapes that have been scorched by fire.

If you think sagebrush is the great survivor of the American West, unkillable in the harshest, driest conditions, you are mostly right. Sagebrush is a stubborn survivor when it grows up — a signature species of the arid countryside of Nevada, east of the Sierra Nevada, and in Oregon, east of the Cascades.

But getting to that point is hard. Infant mortality is a problem. Few seeds survive to germinate. Scientists trying to restore land devastated by wildfire say coating the seeds with the protective layer may help them through the vulnerable early days. The thinking is a little like swaddling a baby. The idea is still in testing.

Along the way, the fires are also becoming their own brutal testing ground. They have gotten bigger, with more acres burned per fire. Last year came close to the record on that measure. And the fires are often hotter as well, enough in some cases to all but sterilize fragile rangeland soils deep below the surface, making regeneration harder.

Why has so much rangeland been burned?

It is partly that this type of land is less treasured than the green, forested places that attract hikers, campers and nature lovers. Grass and sage country is important for ranchers, bird-watchers and for devotees of Edward Abbey and his book “Desert Solitaire.” But when blazes roar through, there are fewer people and buildings that must be defended. With limited budgets, firefighting agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have to prioritize. Many range fires burn until they go out on their own.

— Kirk Johnson