Dark black soot covered the earth’s dirt floor. I had spotted burnt trees chopped down to save the ones surrounding it, charcoaled and black colored wood scattered all around our feet as we moved further up into the mountain. We followed the path that was once covered in flames up in to the mountains and out from the green meadow separating us from our campground. The sun was beating down on the six of us as we hiked higher into the mountain of trees all the while looking down at the aftermath of the forest fire that had just been calmed after weeks of burning.
The San Bernardino, CA forest fire broke out near Mill Creek Canyon, near Highway 38, and Bryant Street just north of Yucaipa. The towering flames had forced an evacuation of four homes on the Yucaipa ridge, campsites had been shut down, and fires were temporarily not aloud in the campsites that happened to open back up right before my group’s planned trip. The fire had burned at least 35 acres and was fueled by chaparral plants.
After hiking behind the campgrounds where we stayed, the six of us went back to camp for water to cool ourselves down and to clean up. One of the friendly campground hosts had driven up to a few of us who were washing away the dirt and grime from the afternoon’s hike. He asked us where we had hiked and told us all about the scorched earth behind the camp.
Apparently someone had spotted the brush fire just as it first began to smoke, but no one was able to check it out until hours after it had already began burning the side of the mountains. Lack of finding toward the preservation of the forest had led to a lack of staff that would have been able to stop the fire sooner. Instead, however, the fire grew and after nearly 20 fire engines, a dozen crews, and several helicopters and air tankers later the wildfire had eaten over $50 million in damages.
The campground host had mentioned that arson may have been involved, and that if they had enough staff present on the grounds that they could have prevented the wildfire. I assumed without doubt that it was the case when I had looked over into the camps surrounding us and saw several groups with illegal campfire flames quietly climbing up into the cold night.
There weren’t enough people out there to stop the multiple groups of campers hiding small flames by huddling around the warmth with their bodies, and the only reason I knew the fires were burning was on my long trip through the trees to use the restroom.
Budget cuts to the National Park Service left our national treasures, and the countless local economies that depend on American and international visitors, opened to threat of fires and economic ruin. The safety of the park visitors diminished as “more than a 7%, or $173 million reduction in the account to operate national parks and more than a 12%, or $364 million reduction in the total budget for the National Park Service over the last five years in today’s dollars,” according to the NPCA. And in “the last decade, there has been a 62% or $227 million decline in today’s dollars in the park service construction account, directly contributing to the $11.5 billion deferred maintenance backlog.”
Cuts have not only decreased the number of rangers to protect and maintain parks, but also have delayed the opening of parks and park roads, and limited the number of educational programs all across the country. A proposed Centennial Initiative by the president has tried to jumpstart the national parks on the road to recovery, but there has been a lot of opposition and lack of care about our national parks now and in the recent past.
I remembered looking up that night into the darkened sky, and seeing the dazzling lights of a sea of stars, and wondering if I would ever get the chance to show my future children of this wondrous site. I thought to myself, if all the trees were to have burned down because there was no one there who wanted to help preserve them, then the growing light pollution from the suburbs and cityscapes could hide the sea of stars forever.
America’s treasured places needs a bit of help with protection and preservation, and park funding does need to be increased in order for rangers to return to parks to address overdue maintenance needs. But what you can do, in the mean time, is write to your Senators and Representatives in order to help ensure a memorable experience for all visitors to our national parks.