Ecosystem Restoration after Disaster: Hotlum Eco-Regeneration Camp and its response to the Lava Fire

May 2022

As the climate crisis deepens, Ecosystem Restoration Camps sites are responding to increasing natural disasters in different ways. Today, we are highlighting Eco-Regeneration Camp Hotlum, California, and its experience recovering from the devastating Lava Fire of 2021. 

A history of change: Hotlum from the 1800s to now

Camp Hotlum, located in Siskiyou County, California, is already in a highly disrupted landscape. Jonathan Kabat, who purchased the site years ago, can only trace its history back to the 1860s.  Hotlum stands on the slopes of Mount Shasta, which takes its name from the Shasta peoples, an indigenous group who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The indiginous tribes in the area, including the Karuk and Yurok, are well known for their expertise in tending the land with cultural burns which would thin the thick brush that make up the understory of the forest. In the 1840 and 50s, gold miners and federal militias massacred the native Shasta people and forced them off their ancestral lands in a pursuit of riches. When the gold mania died down, railroad and logging interests moved in. 

The Weed Lumber Company logged the area and built a private rail line through it in the early 1900s. Over the course of the 20th century, multiple logging operations attempted to exploit the land at Camp Hotlum with diminishing results. The economy of Siskiyou County, where Camp Hotlum lies, was heavily dependent on logging, and with the collapse of the industry in the 1990s the county became one of the poorest in the state. In 2019, 120 acres of former railroad timberland were bought by Jonathan Kabat, and the vision for Camp Hotlum was born.

Experienced and educated in ecopsychology, Jonathan envisioned Hotlum as a space for human beings to connect to nature and themselves, while restoring a vulnerable and damaged ecosystem. After providing the kitchen at Ecosystem Restoration Camps’ Camp Paradise in the aftermath of the November 2018 CampFire Jonathan met John Liu and decided to bring Hotlum into the ecosystem restoration camps network. 

Using Ecosystem Restoration Camps’ volunteer model, Hotlum was envisioned as a place where volunteers could explore the principals of ecopsychology, and develop ecosystem restoration skills. To support the camp, Jonathan is fostering partnerships with local communities, the National Forest Service, Cal Fire, and non-profit organizations.

Over the course of 2019 and early 2020, the first visitors and volunteers at Holtum began to participate in restoration activities. They held workshops on biochar creation and soil building, and conducted burn practices to help reduce the concentration of manzanita and antelope bitterbrush in the clearcut areas of the camp property. While the COVID-19 pandemic heavily restricted most activities, a dedicated core of volunteers continued to steward the site until the summer of 2021, when the National Forest Service closed all National Forests in the state of California due to public safety concerns.

Fire strikes

These concerns proved accurate. While not as widespread as the previous year’s record fires, the 2021 fire season in California was still one of the most destructive on record, burning an estimated 2,569,009 acres over the course of the year. On June 24th, 2021, the Lava Fire began northeast of Weed, a town in the vicinity of Camp Hotlum, and quickly spread along the slopes of Mount Shasta. The Lava Fire was not like the fires that had existed in California in previous decades, climate change and drought created the conditions for a truly immense blaze. The fire was so intense that it created its own weather, forming pycorcumolonimbus clouds, literal firestorms that rose to almost 30,000 feet high, and which spread the fire even further when they collapsed.

When the fire reached Camp Hotlum, it caused devastation. The fuel load reductions that the volunteers had carried out made no significant difference in the intensity of the fire. Ambient air temperatures at the site were over 900 degrees fahrenheit, and trees that survived the fire were baked to death by the heat. It was so hot that the Hotlum Train trestle north of the camp melted. Less than 1% of Hotlum’s conifer trees survived. The majority of the canyon live oaks, which are fire adapted, were hardy enough to withstand the blaze. The native and important mountain mahogany and conifer populations were almost totally destroyed, and the ancient ponderosa pines that grow further up the mountain have a long road to recovery.

When Jonathan returned to Hotlum several weeks later, he found very little of the original ecosystem remaining. In some places, the ash on the ground was 8 inches deep. Much of the soil on the site was burnt. Still, much of the soil was still fit for future growth. In October, when the long awaited for rains finally arrived, the distrubed landscape around Hotlum fell victim to catastrophic flooding. The access roads to the sight were washed out, and much of the vital topsoil was washed away down the slopes of the mountain. When Jonathan was finally able to access the site, what he saw was more like the surface of the moon than the landscape that had been there years before. 

“It looks like a nuclear bomb went off” Jonathan says, “It’s Lunar. There are snags of dead trees everywhere.” Still, life had managed to cling on, with some manzanita and bitter cherry shrubs beginning to resprout. Even after these twin disasters, Camp Hotlum is still determined to fulfill its mission and connect people to nature through restoration activities.

Restoration after disaster

Before the fire, Camp Hotlum was focused on restoring a heavily disrupted, but still resilient landscape. Now, Jonathan describes it like recovering from the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. The top soil and most of the vegetation on the site has been totally destroyed, and what restoration in this context really means is itself in question. 

“The climate here is so disrupted that we don’t know what will grow best here in the future” says Jonathan, “in 20 years maybe the best plants for here will be cacti and Joshua Trees.” Whatever the ecosystem of a future Hotlum will look like, the task right now is to begin restoring the soil. This work will take a long time. “We are looking at a timescale of hundreds, if not thousands of years for a functioning ecosystem to return.” In actuality, Camp Hotlum is looking at assisted migration of tree species as a response to climate change. This approach is also being studied by the national forest service and many timber companies. 

Right now, Camp Hotlum is focusing on returning as much moisture in the soil as possible using net & pan water catchment technology and biomass addition techniques, including using biochar and dead trees from the site. Jonathan still believes that Hotlum can be an environmental education site, and the fire, while catastrophic, does provide an opportunity for research on post fire succession and restoration in a disaster struck area. It is also a powerful place for the social movement of grieving and reconciliation during an age of ecological collapse. Over the next year, Jonathan hopes to revive the camp’s capacity to host volunteers and work with fire ecology experts to create a comprehensive plan for the ecosystem’s recovery. While the road ahead is hard, Jonathan and the other stewards at Camp Hotlum are determined to restore the area. It’s not enough for him to just let the space alone and have nature take its course.

”We learn to care for things by caring for things.” Jonathan told me, “Those who grow up tending animals and tending a garden, develop a much closer connection to the place. The forests of northern California are very, very wounded. We don’t understand what a natural forest looks like anymore. The forests had been tended by the indigenous peoples for millenia with fire. Re-introducing fire is important, but we have to do it judiciously because the forest is not ready for it. A big part of restoration is bringing back good fire, just as it is bringing back native species. You can’t do one without the other.”

“These are tended places” Jonathan reflects, ”The biosphere doesn’t look the same without human intervention. It depends on how we’re intervening. Are we doing it with a sense of avarice and greed, or are we doing it with a sense of care and contribution?”

On April 15th, 2022, Camp Hotlum began a new tree planting initiative, starting with 300 trees in honor of earth day, the first of many to come.

Hotlum is not the only member of the ecosystem restoration camp movement that is dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. The Regenesis Project in the Philippines is currently recovering from Typhoon Rai. Khetee in India was also hit by a typhoon in 2021 and Reedsdale Regeneration in South Africa is emerging from 6 years of drought. These disasters only underscore the urgent need to restore our ecosystems so that they can be resilient in the face of climate change. 

Ecosystem Restoration Camps aim to restore damaged ecosystems throughout the world and provide people from all walks of life the opportunity to meaningfully participate in regenerative ecological practices. As the climate crisis continues to unfold throughout the world, increasing natural disasters such as wildfires, floods and landslides provide complications for our work. The story of Camp Hotlum and the 2021 Lava Fire illustrates the problems that natural disasters create for our ecosystem restoration work, as well as the potential our approach has to respond to these disasters in an ecologically conscious way. While we can not restore these ecosystems to exactly what they were before disaster, the Ecosystem Restoration Camps approach provides a means to imbue these places with a biodiversity and resilience that will be felt long after we have left.

If you are interested in helping support Jonathan’s work, consider donating using this link