A Project of The Wildlands Conservancy




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David Myers, President

Friends, we all know the compassion in helping our children save a weather-beaten monarch butterfly or rescuing an abandoned dog or cat. We do these acts of kindness simply because it’s in our hearts to do. Devastating, unnatural, human caused fires, severely impacted three of The Wildlands Conservancy’s Sand to Snow Preserves over the past weeks. Our staff rescued everything from bear cubs, to bobcats, to grey foxes that had their foot pads burned that, unfortunately, wildlife agencies would have “put down”. Like your rescued dog, they are healing and will be released back in Oak Glen.

Mule Deer in the aftermath of the El Dorado Fire
Mule deer in the aftermath of the El Dorado Fire.
Photo by John Trammell

Our staff worked through many nights protecting the oak forest of Oak Glen with our partners at Los Rios Rancho using our own fire hoses, water trucks, heavy equipment, holding the line at fire breaks made by our dedicated team. It often came down to shovel work to put out flames to save a single oak—the home of grey tree squirrels, Steller’s jays, acorn woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and much of the wildlife you’ve witnessed flourishing at Oak Glen Preserve. We fought these fires relentlessly, not even having a sense of time until the sun came up.

Why do we go to such great lengths to save the “beauty” of nature? On days we work at the Oak Glen Preserve kiosk, most visitors use the word “beautiful” to describe their experience knowing that “beauty” binds our common human experience as we smile at each other. When we say “Behold the Beauty” are we really saying “Bear witness to the ties that bind us?” Are we somehow remembering what our fast-paced and fractured society somehow compels us to forget?—That we are all members of one human family bound by our love of life? 

Behold the Beauty!


Paul Melzer, Mission Advancement

Up the canyon creek that descends from the rocky face of Wilshire Peak above Oak Glen, beyond a series of abrupt and unscalable waterfalls, there lives a fellowship of ancient canyon oaks. Among these grows one tree, officially measured and recognized as the largest specimen of all oak species. The Champion Oak has survived alongside its relatives through fire and flood, earthquake and drought, for an estimated 1500 years, and describing its size in feet measured does nothing to portray the feeling of massiveness when you’re beneath it.

Champion Oak in 2018
The Champion Oak in 2018. Photo by Brian Kelly.

Words fail to describe why trees so easily inspire us. All trees are precious: they cleanse the air, nourish the soil, provide shade and shelter, come in myriad and wonderful shapes and colors. Trees are generous and each one is a champion—but oaks, perhaps more than any other species of tree, represent for people some of life’s highest attributes. Strength, wisdom, perseverance, patience, loyalty, humble beginnings—these are hallmark traits we all seek in others and in ourselves, and we find all these reflected in oaks. There is a magic to old oak trees.

Experiencing Nature’s beauty demands a commitment to defend it when called to do so, and so when, over a 6-week period this summer two wildfires, the Apple Fire and El Dorado Fire, bore down on the community of Oak Glen, Wildlands staff set to work to protect the Oak Glen Preserve and as much as we could, the surrounding forests.

As the nation watched the Apple Fire scorch the southeastern slopes of the San Bernardino National Forest and San Gorgonio Wilderness, The Wildlands Conservancy considered how we could protect the Champion Oak; we were under voluntary evacuation orders, and the hundreds of firefighters were busy saving homes and property. How were we to convince them that efforts protecting a single tree would be worth sparing a hotshot crew to clear the tinder and limb-up around the tree and its neighbors?

By the morning of August 6 we felt it was our last chance to climb into the canyon and do our best to help it survive the fire. Frazier Haney, Wildlands’ Executive Director, met and spoke daily with the fire chiefs overseeing the Apple Fire response. Frazier was persistent, insisting that focus be kept on Oak Glen, its surrounding forest, and the creek that provided fresh water for the community. And he’d spoken previously requesting protection for the Champion Oak. Frazier left us to meet with Chief Blankenheim and was successful in his bid for help. Not one, but multiple crews from the Vallecito Conservation Camp were dispatched.

Wildlands staff guided twenty-four hotshot crew members and their three captains up and over the steep access trail. These were prison inmates serving their time battling fires. After the long slog up the steep side of the mountain and back down into the canyon, lugging chainsaws, fuel, and other equipment further up the canyon, they all arrived at the tree in good spirits and set to work assembling teams to get the needed work done.

Hotshot crews work to protect the Champion Oak from fire.
The Apple Fire burns toward Oak Glen Preserve in early August. Photo by John Trammell.

Hotshot crews work to protect the Champion Oak from fire.
A hotshot crew from Vallecito, CA works to protect the Champion Oak during the Apple Fire. Photo by Tim Krantz.

Vallecito Hotshots and the Champion Oak
The Vallecito Hotshots and the Champion Oak, August 2020. Photo by Paul Melzer.

The American poet Mary Oliver wrote that when we are among trees, “they give off such hints of gladness.” A spirit of hope pervaded the hotshot crew who had worked on the steep ground beneath the great oak—that was a long, strenuous day. Before starting back, many of them expressed their thanks for the opportunity. This had been an act of heroism in protecting a tree never to be forgotten. They rose to the occasion and did the hard work.

The Apple Fire burned some 33,000 acres of dry chaparral and forest wilderness, yet somehow stopped short of reaching the Champion Oak. One month later, the El Dorado Fire set on its destructive path, this time from the west. Within a few terrible days—and nights—it had consumed the mountain ridge and the entirety of the forest slopes looking down over Oak Glen. The canyons there are deep and we couldn’t tell if the Champion Oak had survived. Ten days had passed and we hiked back in, this time over a lunarscape of deep ash.

Hotshot crews work to protect the Champion Oak from fire.
Cinders from the El Dorado Fire rest at the foot of the Champion Oak. Photo by Paul Melzer.

We turned the final corner in the creek bottom and saw a thankful sight: the Champion Oak had survived. Somehow, the fire had burned so close on the one side that the leaves were singed, but had not caught. On the other side of the tree, heading up the creek, more devastation and loss to many of the other ancient oaks and cedars in that steep grove. Scattered nearby were several smoldering logs and trunks, even ten days following the fire.

As we surveyed the area it was evident how all the hard work the members of that hotshot fire team had done one month prior—the clearing of adjacent shrubs, limbing-up the lower branches and moving aside the potential tinder near the tree—all this work really had helped save the tree’s life. Every member of that crew can know that their efforts made the difference.



Jack Thompson, Desert Preserves Regional Director

At the time of this writing, many of us are stunned at the fact that wildfire effects have touched most people living in the western United States. As many of you may know, some of The Wildlands Conservancy’s Southern California preserves have not escaped this fire season unscathed. But while the recent fires at the Oak Glen, Bear Paw and Whitewater Preserves have been difficult to bear, they have also shone a light on the incredible commitment and courage that runs through the heart of our organization.

During these recent fires, Wildlands staff could always be found at the sharp end of things, whether it was advising fire fighting authorities and providing critical information, or facing the flames shoulder to shoulder with fire fighters. Sometimes they even faced raging walls of fire with little to no support, often with nothing more to count on but themselves. Time after time, they held fast. After 13 years with this organization, I am humbled by this fact, but not surprised.

As an environmental organization, we have always been guided by the simple idea that our capacity to protect and caretake land is directly tied to our love for it. And because you cannot truly love something you do not know, our staff live on the land they caretake whenever possible. As a result, we forge relationships that only grow deeper with each passing day. This connection to the land helps guide our decisions, and inspires the heartfelt way we welcome others and pass on what we’ve seen and learned. The recent fires proved just what a powerful practice this can be. I have no doubt that despite terrifying sights and sounds, my colleagues held their ground because they could not bear to do anything else, proving yet again that nothing is so fierce as those protecting what they love.

My heart aches for what was lost in the fires. But I can also say from long experience that time spent in the Beauty of what was saved is powerful medicine for the soul. I extend my most sincere welcome to you. Come visit us. In the desert, fall is in the air and with each passing day we can feel the intensity of the summer receding. It is the perfect time to get outside and celebrate the Beauty that remains all around you. We are here, and access is and always will be free.

Ranger Gary at work laying down water on a hotspot

Ranger Gary at work laying down water on a hotspot
Wildlands Rangers work to hold fire lines during the El Dorado Fire. Photos by Doug Chudy.

Sunset at Whitewater Preserve
A sunset visit to Whitewater River. Photo by Jack Thompson.



Dave Herrero, San Bernardino Mountains Assistant Preserve Manager

In the early morning hours of September 9th, sight became sound in the Bearpaw Reserve. The El Dorado Fire had crept down from the ridge and was slowly burning through the understory, working its way to within feet of us before being shoveled over or watered down. Occasional flare-ups lit the sky and a persistent tawny glow illuminated our work. But we mostly heard the fire; the persistent rumble of destabilized rock-fall and the crack of burned roll-off. It warned of a threat gaining strength above us.

Dawn broke, smokey and with significant understory burn, but still. There was a wind warning for later in the day, but spirits were high. We had worked long hours the previous two days to protect the quiet Beauty of Bearpaw. Ladder fuels had been removed and defensible space had been reinforced. We walked through the burn area with the incoming strike team and talked about mopping up hotspots along the trail. But we continued to hear the fire; the persistent rumble of destabilized rock-fall and the crack of burned roll-off, still warning of a threat gaining strength above us.

The winds came mid-afternoon on the 9th. Sound became sight as flames erupted through the canyon. The creeping fire had been stirred. The call came to evacuate. We stood on the highway and watched a handful of trees incinerate as the smoke slowly choked our view. It all appeared lost.


Bearpaw after the El Dorado fire
Bearpaw Reserve smoldering after the El Dorado Fire swept through. Photo by Dave Herrero.


From where I stand, I see spindly black spikes along the ridgeline. I smell ash on the evening breeze. I hear the worried chatter of quail in the skeletal remains of the understory. It would be understandable, even defensible, to despair. We are in the midst of a record fire season. As of this writing, over 4 million acres of land has burned in California. But a broken world can be made whole. “A man cannot despair,” wrote Wendell Berry, “if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.”

But all is not lost here. Miraculously, much of Bearpaw Reserve remains (including the structures). What remains will serve as an ark, a vessel meant to preserve habitat for our fellow creatures and to remind us of our most public virtue, preservation, our expression of regard for neighbors, for future generations, and for the Beauty of this marvelous planet.


Sara Seburn, Marketing and Communications Director

The wildfires consuming California this summer are not only devastating the unique Beauty of the state, they are also releasing record amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, contributing to further climate disruption.

How can you help offset the damaging effects of these wildfires? Plant a tree! Trees that are planted in urban settings are safer from wildfire than those in the forest and have a higher success rate after planting because they can be tended to.

A typical hardwood tree like an oak can sequester up to a ton of carbon by the time it reaches 40 years old! Other species of trees can be great for sequestering carbon too, including the deciduous California sycamore (Platanus racemosa).

For more information about planting native trees to help offset the effects of California's devastating wildfires, contact your local nursery, or ask a Wildlands ranger on your next visit to a preserve.


The Carbon Cycle of a Tree