From Field Notes, a regular column by Larry O'Hanlon in the Tahoe Daily Tribune. March 20, 1994

Twain’s lesson in fire science

It was in the summer of 1862 that Mark Twain set fire to the Tahoe Basin. According to his own account of the wildfire, it was an accident. But scientists and foresters today know Twain’s blaze was intentional.

It all happened like this:

"While Johnny was carrying the main bulk of the provisions up to our ‘house’ (a lean-to) for future use, I took the loaf of bread, some slices of bacon, and a coffee pot, ashore, set them down by a tree, lit a fire, and went back to the boat to get the frying pan," Twain wrote in his book "Roughing It," which chronicles his adventures as a young man during the "flush times" of the Nevada Territory and California in the 1860s. "While I was at this, I heard a shout from Johnny, and looking up I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises!

"Johnny was on the other side of it, he had to run through the flames to get to the lake shore, and then we stood helpless and watched the devastation…. We were driven to the boat by the intense heat, and there we remained, spellbound.

"Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame! It went surging up adjacent ridges – surmounted them and disappeared in the canyons beyond – burst into view upon higher and farther ridges, presently – shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again – flamed out again, directly, higher and still higher up the mountain side – threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among the remote ramparts and ribs and gorges, till as far as the eye could reach the lofty mountain-fronts were webbed as it were with a tangled network of red lava streams. Away across the water the crags and domes were lit with the ruddy glare, and the firmament above was a reflected hell!"

What Twain didn’t know at the time of this mishap is that fire is inevitable in the Sierra Nevada. Up until the 19th century, Indians regularly set brush and forest fires, knowing that it improved the forage for deer and cleared out the underbrush and dead wood to make traveling and hunting easier. As one eyewitness described it:

"In the spring…the old squaws began to look for the little dry spots of headland or sunny valley, and as fast as dry spots appeared they would be burned," wrote Joaquin Miller, a Sierra poet and forester who was a member of the Yosemite discovery party of 1851. "In this way the fire was always the servant, never the master…. By this means, the Indians always kept their forest open, pure and fruitful, and conflagrations were unknown."

The plain truth is that the Indians had established a working, symbiotic relationship with the Sierra "fire ecology" which enabled the land to have its regular fires from which the Indians and wildlife benefited.

Only in the past few decades have foresters and wildlife biologists started to realize that the Indians had it right all along. Smokey Bear was wrong. Foresters from the Forest Service and state parks around the Tahoe Basin know that introducing carefully prescribed burning into the area is a big part of maintaining forest health, once the current glut of dead wood is dealt with.

Today a careless camper like Twain could make matters much worse than in 1862. Piles of dead wood from the past few years of bark beetle attacks could fuel a catastrophe, destroying homes, trapping and killing people and burning so hot and furiously that even trees adapted to fire would be roasted to death.

Twain got off easy. He only lost his dinner. The same stunt today would have landed him in the slammer.