The air smells of ash and the landscape is leached of color. Spots of green punctuate the valley floor in places. But along the ridges, the powdery residue of charred trees has fallen like snow, accumulating up to 4 inches deep. These are the slices of forest where the fire burned the hottest, scorching ponderosa pines from crown to root. Once titans, they are now matchsticks.
Pola Lopez gestures in their direction, southward toward Hermits Peak. Before a tsunami of flames ripped through this canyon in Tierra Monte, the canopy was so thick that it was impossible to see the nearby mountain. But two prescribed burns set by the U.S. Forest Service — one on Hermits Peak, the other in Calf Canyon to the southwest — have changed all that.
When the blazes merged to form the biggest wildfire in state history, flames engulfed nearly 160 acres of riparian forest that once belonged to her father. “It wiped us out,” Lopez says.
Like so many in the devastation zone, she squarely places the blame on the USFS, not only for starting a prescribed burn in the windy month of April — when gusts reached 70 miles per hour — but for a century of conflict with rural communities. Known locally as La Floresta, the USFS is often seen as a feudal lord, a faraway government entity that has accumulated vast holdings with little idea of how to properly steward them or enough funds to do the job.
The community’s fury runs almost too deep for words, says Antonia Roybal-Mack, a Mora native whose family lost hundreds of acres to the fire...