PyroFiction Hopepunk Biketopia

My friend Paul Price runs Paul Component Engineering — a world-class manufacturer of high-end bike parts, here in Chico, California. After the Dixie Fire, I did an interview for his newsletter and they asked some funny questions that let me run wild with a fantasy of how things could be different in our relationship with fire. My friend Lenya Quinn-Davidson just published an essay on the power of radical imagination, so it seemed like a good time to share this piece.
7 Questions with Zeke Lunder – From Paul Component Newsletter

1). Who are you? Why should we listen to what you have to say about fire in California (don’t be shy)?

I grew up in Westwood, right in the middle of the Dixie Fire. I started working in the woods up there in high school, in 1991, and have been a student of fire in Northern California ever since. I’ve been working on large wildfires since 1999, started a company that has supported mapping on most of the largest fires in California’s recent history, and have helped teach prescribed fire classes all over the USA. I’ve had a lot of great mentors in wildfire, and ask a lot of questions. Also, I use my real name on Twitter.


2). Can you tell us about the current conditions in the west that have led us up to this point? How are climate change, drought, forest management and lack of historical indigenous knowledge intertwined to create the current conditions?

We’ve made a lot of big mistakes in managing the forests; sometimes cutting too many trees, other places, not enough, and trying to suppress just about every fire. The original sin, though, was cutting down nearly all of the big fire-resistant trees. If you look at a big old-growth tree, sometimes there aren’t any branches for the first 50 or 60 feet. In the Dixie Fire, a lot of the trees that burned weren’t even 60 feet tall. Smaller trees, packed denser on the landscape, burn like the sun, especially in times of drought.

I think one of our biggest problems, in terms of land management, is we conflate forestry with managing ecosystems. But just because we have been able to cut down most of the big trees across millions of acres and replant lots of little ones doesn’t mean we are actually capable of tending to all the functions of a forest at a landscape-scale. Fire is the only player with the patience and stamina to do this work. A lot of people know this, but for the past 100 years, we have tried to keep fire on the bench, and pretty much kept native people out of the arena altogether. Fire isn’t waiting for us to get our shit together, it’s just doing what it does.

3). Let’s say you’re the president/humble dictator of all forests in the West. When it comes to the health of our forests, and let’s say you have all of the money and resources you need at your fingertips, what choices would you make in the next 5 years? What about for the next 30 years?

It’d be better if you had put me in charge 20 years ago, when I thought I knew everything. Nowadays I kind of feel like the harder we try to make things better, the worse things get. But since you are asking me to go big, here is my vision, framed as an anti-science fiction/fantasy:

Land Tenders: A Good Fire/Bike Utopia Fantasy

Imagine a country ravaged by a century-long battle with wildfire. After this bloody siege, with rapidly escalating casualties, fire has unexpectedly joined forces with a new superhero named ‘Global Warming.’ I come to power at a time of unimaginable destruction, with our communities in smoking ruins, people shell-shocked, and forests on the brink.

The war is finally over. Fire is the undisputed winner. I’ll negotiate a tactical retreat. This agreement will ban new permanent settlements in fire’s territory, allow fire unlimited access to its traditional homelands, and cede human control of territory fire has claimed in recent battles. Displaced people will be allowed to return to previously occupied areas if they harden their structures and agree to let fire burn freely through their towns whenever it wants.

After the armistice. I’ll abolish the military and direct their budget to domestic spending. Healthy land and water is the only real Homeland Security, so we’ll redirect the DHS budget, too. We’ll bulldoze the server farms and surveillance centers, and turn army bases into affordable housing. We’ll scrap all the war machines and airtankers. Munitions factories will be retooled to manufacture boilers for small-scale biomass energy power plants.

All fire bulldozers will be immediately seized and placed under armed guard so they can’t rampage across 2,000 miles of watershed land next time there is a large fire. Cal Fire’s name will be changed to SoCal Fire, and they’ll need my permission to operate north of the Grapevine. Inmate firefighters will be freed and given new jobs teaching kids how to work hard as a team. The US Forest Service will be scrapped. The National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act will be shredded. No permits will be required to cut, burn, bulldoze, or build anything, but you will have to consult a local panel of elders before you do any of these things.

I’ll bring back the draft and conscript all of the people stuck on the bong playing video games into the CCC. All young adults will have to serve their country for two years, also. We’ll send battalions to places like Cohasset and Dobbins to seize the land of the big pot growers, build barracks, and plant big vegetable gardens. Once the rest of the grunts arrive, we’ll teach everyone to operate a Bobcat or mini-excavator, ride a dirt bike, and sharpen a hand tool. Instead of giving everyone a gun, we’ll give them a good chainsaw and a nice mountain bike.

Here is where it gets fun. In between growing food, cutting brush, thinning trees and burning things, our army of land stewards will use the confiscated fire dozers and Bobcats to tear out the old logging roads and build a new network of tactically-located trails and pump tracks that does double-duty as a system of control lines for prescribed burns and naturally-burning wildfires. When we are done thinning the brush around existing homes, we’ll bring in the goats to help keep the regrowth down. With communities temporarily safe from fire, we’ll stock everyone (locals, students, CCC, old people, kids, hillbillies) up with torch mix and burn slash piles all winter, running prescribed fires whenever conditions are right.

Once the hillbilly shacks and vacation homes in the mountains are safe from fire, we are going to let every lightning fire burn. In the fall, about a week before big rains, we’ll use helicopters to drop fire onto all of the major ridges and let the fires back downhill until winter puts them out.

Abundance will reign. Once we let Ishi Wilderness burn again on a regular basis, the Tehama Deer Herd will rebound to the astounding numbers old-timers remember. Youngsters will learn why we called Highway 32 ‘Deer Creek Canyon.’  People, deer, bears, squirrels, and turkeys will be able to eat a lot of acorns because our frequent burns in the front-country are going to wipe out the acorn weevils and kill the seedling Douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees that have been choking out our black oak groves. And we’ll feast on Pacific Chinook Salmon in the summer because our prescribed fires have thinned the overstocked forests, freeing up groundwater for the springs, feeding healthy flows in our creeks again.

Freed from their video games, phones, and drugs, our land stewards will patrol the forest on bikes, maintaining trails, foraging for mushrooms, and nursing lands trashed by 150 years of timber harvest back to healthy mixed oak and conifer forests. Native grasses in the understory will support grazing herds of elk. When the crews are not falling in love with each other, running laps on the flow trail or shaded up in a hammock, they’ll be looking for opportunities to put good fire on the ground. It’s going to be smoky sometimes, but not like it is today, in our dystopian present, when you can’t bike all summer because a million acres are burning like it’s the end of the world (END FANTASY)…

4). Let’s say you never became the president/humble dictator of all the west (we were hard on the campaign trail for you though, just so you know), how do you see it all actually playing out. How do you REALLY think we will move forward from here? Have we learned anything?

I don’t see things changing much. We have built so many towns right in the middle of the brush it is pretty much impossible to let fire do its thing. Even after towns like Paradise, Berry Creek or Greenville have been wiped out, the only new vision the State seems to be offering is to jump in to backstop the insurance industry so people can rebuild in these crazily wildfire-prone places. I mean, that’s insane, isn’t it? The insurance companies pay some of the smartest people in the world to evaluate wildfire risk, and they’ve made highly-informed choices about where they will or won’t insure a wooden house. But it’s politically untenable to tell people the truth. So the State is going to socialize the cost of insurance so people can rebuild in places we know will burn again in the near future.

The State is talking a lot about how we are going to expand our use of prescribed fire and vegetation management, and they keep throwing money at it, which is good. But no amount of money is going to change the fundamental scale of the problem. The State of California is responsible for fire protection on about 30 million acres. Gavin Newsom says he wants California to treat a million acres of hazardous fuels each year, but this is just a number they are pulling out of the air.

To give you an idea of how out-of-touch it is to aim to treat a million acres without using fire, last year, the State cut brush or prescribed burned on about 12,000 acres (1/80th of a million). Sierra Pacific Industries, the state’s largest landowner, employing the majority of California’s logging contractors, log truck drivers and road-builders, has taken over 20 years just to cut half a million acres.

We need to keep in mind that wildfire is already doing the heavy-lifting of managing the fuel loading in California. Over half of the 4 million acres that burned in 2020 experienced fire that was beneficial for the ecology of the brushlands and oaks that burned. If we were able to change our fire suppression policies to let more fires burn out to pre-established control lines, we could easily achieve/claim a million acres of fuels reduction a year. But smoke is unpopular, and risk-managers run the world, so it’s probably not going to happen and we’ll be stuck with smoke from the fires we can’t control.

5). We’ve been following along with your updates on your new website The Lookout over the past month or so. Would you like to talk about the inspiration behind it, how you see it evolving and your goals for the future of the website?

I have been publishing fire maps and commentary about forest management and wildfire behavior on Facebook for about a decade, mainly for things happening around Butte County and the Feather River. I started using Twitter last year and while it is great for networking with other fire geeks, both FB and Twitter really suck for discussing nuanced topics like forestry. I’m not interested in arguing with strangers, and there is just so much bullshit flooding social media.

We started The Lookout in August to write about the Dixie Fire. The local newspapers in Plumas and Lassen Counties closed their doors during Covid, and there is a huge need for local reporting. The site started getting a lot of traffic and people were generous in their donations, so I have been able to focus more of my time on reporting. I have been wanting to do more journalism around wildfire after getting involved with some documentaries after the Camp Fire in 2018, but with so many newspapers shutting down, I didn’t really know how to get into it. I think we just realized that having a website and Youtube is pretty much what journalism can look like, now.

We have invested some of our readers’ donations into audio and video gear, and I have been spending a day or two a week up in the Dixie Fire burn, getting footage of the fire effects and trying to get a feeling for what we should be focusing on now that the fire is out. My folks live in Westwood, brother Nils lives in Indian Valley and works for the Feather River Land Trust, and brother-from-another-mother Jake Blaufuss works in Quincy as a forester for SPI, so future forest and land management in the Dixie Fire/Lost Sierra is right up in the center of our lives right now.  We are committed to reporting on topics like postfire restoration, adapting forestry to climate change, and community wildfire resilience.

My hope with this site is to help fill some kind of lookout role for the general public; keeping an eye on what’s happening on fires (and in fire policy), and communicating to the public what’s coming next.

6). As you know, we are huge fans of and supporters of Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, who lost a ton of the work they have done over the past 20 years. We are all devastated at the amount of loss they have sustained from the Dixie Fire. Do you see a way that trail stewardships like SBTS can move forward from here? How they can benefit the work of forest management moving forward?

The work SBTS is doing around creating sustainable local economies is critical. There is no way we are going to achieve the huge volume of land stewardship work we need to get done without skilled local workers and an economy that makes it possible for places like Greenville or Westwood to survive. SBTS is demonstrating the enormous under-utilized potential we have to use the creative and physical energy of the recreation community to get land stewardship done.

I see a lot of overlap in trail-building and forest restoration – I mean, we use the same Pulaskis and McLeod tools to build trails and firelines, so why not build networks of permanent firelines that are also great trails, and use mountain bikers and hikers as part of the workforce to get burning done? There is a lot of movement right now to train up non-agency people to do prescribed burning, especially in SBTS home turf around Quincy. Check out the Plumas Underburn Cooperative or the Butte County Prescribed Burn Association if you are interested in learning more about getting trained to use fire for good.

If we are going to really make big changes in our wildfire resiliency, we need to manifest a restoration economy that employs tens of thousands of people. Our current model spends billions on wildfire suppression and disaster response, and all we have to show at the end of each year is millions of acres of charred forests, shattered communities, and 100,000 truckloads of toxic waste. Gavin Newsom just committed to spend $15B in water and wildfire resiliency. We need to make sure these funds make it to the ground.

7). Can you define the difference between “good fire” and when a fire “nukes” an area?

That’s a tough question. Some people think a nuker fire isn’t all bad, because some woodpeckers and other critters like to eat bark beetles. It all depends on the ‘fire regime’ of an area. Some areas like high-elevation red fir or lodgepole forests that usually have deep snow well into the late-summer only burn every hundred years or more, often during extended droughts. There is no snow on Mount Lassen right now, so this might be the time they were due to burn. High-severity fire isn’t always bad. Also, a lot of brushfields burn with high-severity. Some people would say it isn’t possible to burn chaparral too hot.

Generally, high fire severity in forests that traditionally had frequent low-severity fires it’s a bad thing. For example, before we started putting out every fire, the eastside pine forests where we ride the Lost and Found gravel grinder had fires every 5-10 years, and we rarely had fires here that killed all of the trees in an area. The Dixie Fire, really nuked some of these areas. You can read more about the fire effects of the Dixie Fire here:

8). We lied; we have 8 questions! Bikes, the reason we exist. We hear that you did a pretty epic tour this summer. Wanna tell us about it? Any photos or advice for folks wanting to do something similar to your adventure? Want to say anything about your set up (or the kids’ and partner’s set up for the matter)?

We (my wife and 9 and 11 year-old sons) rode from Kansas City to Washington DC in June. Linked up three major rail trails and a canal towpath. We shipped bikes to my aunt’s place in Kansas City and got a ride about 100 miles south to start our biking in Clinton, MO. We took the Katy Trail across Missouri to Saint Louis, hopped into a rental car to Cincinatti, rode the Ohio to Erie Trail up to Lake Erie, skipped to Pittsburgh, and then rode the GAP Trail and C&O Canal to DC. It was 95% car-free, and fairly flat.

We rode 30-40 miles a day, only got caught in the rain once, when it rained about 2” in 10 minutes, in Ohio. Trails were mostly crushed limestone or graded dirt. The Ohio to Erie Trail is a network of railtrails, urban bike paths, and low-traffic roads, all paved.

Food and lodging were tough. Many cafes and restaurants were out of business, and the ones that were open were often understaffed and service was slow. Larger grocery stores tended to be on the edges of towns near the interstates or highways, not in the old parts of each town along the old railways we were following. Since most of our routes followed the rivers, it was usually a steep climb to leave the trail to go to a store or cafe.

There are good trip planning websites and trail guides for each segment, but we were just planning a day or two ahead at a time, and spent a lot of late nights on our phones in motel rooms looking for grocery stores or motels a day or two out. We camped about 30% of the time, mainly on the GAP and C&O on the last third of the trip, and carried too much gear for the rest of the way. If we were going to do it again, I’d consider shipping camping gear to Pittsburgh and going light for Missouri and Ohio.

My wife and 11 year-old rode their own bikes. Erika was on a Masi touring bike and our local used-bike hero, Ron Toppi, built Ezra up a nice 26” Rockhopper. My 9 year-old rode a custom trail-a-bike I fabricated for my Surly Ogre. It’s basically a chopped 26” Trek MTB with a custom neck and hitch. Burly setup, but major pain in the ass to disassemble in the lobby of a hotel before taking up the elevator to our room, which happened about a dozen times.

America is a crazy place. Riding past Confederate flags in the former slave-state of Missouri and following rivers north thru Ohio along the old Underground Railroad route gave us and the boys a lot to talk about. There were a lot of historical markers and signs, and riding abandoned railroads put us way off the beaten path, and into neighborhoods we’d never have seen in a car.

Leaving Pittsburgh, we rode the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail up tributaries to the Ohio River and over the eastern continental divide to Maryland and the headwaters of the Potomac River. The GAP Trail ends in Cumberland, MD, which is one of the poorest urban areas in the country. It was a really hard place, with strung-out kids trying to sell Erika meth in front of Round Table Pizza in broad daylight. Erika and Jasper took the train to DC and Ezra and I rode the last 5 days on the 180 mile C&O Canal towpath. The entire trail is a national historic park, and there are free hiker/biker campsites every 5-10 miles. It was humid and hot, and we swam in the Potomac as much as possible.

Rolling into DC was a great way to cap it off. The trip was a 1,000 mile-long open-air museum about the westward expansion of the USA, and visiting the Smithsonian American History and American Indian Museums felt like a review of what we had just ridden through. The GAP and C&O Canal were worthy of a trip in themselves. We shipped bikes home from DC, which turned out to be a real hassle because none of the shops in DC were receiving any new bikes to sell, so they didn’t have any boxes. We ended up having to take the Metro 45 minutes up into Maryland to find a shop that could actually box and ship them.

Ways to Help

Some of our very favorite areas to ride burned up in the Dixie Fire, along with people’s homes, businesses and even the entire town of Greenville. As the smoke clears from this fire, we are finding ways that we can help the folks most affected by it. If you feel compelled to help with recovery efforts, check out these amazing, local organizations that are assisting the people and places affected by the Dixie fire.

North Valley Community Foundation-Wildfire Relief Fund

The Almanor Foundation-Wildfire Grant Program

Plumas Crisis Intervention and Resource Center (PCIRC)

Dixie Fire Relief

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