Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Let it burn

Bear Canyon fire, Mt. Baldy, 2008

NOTE: I am not a pyromaniac, and I am certainly not an arsonist. Although I no longer live in the mountains (see photo directly above), fires still scare me--wherever and whenever they start. But I have to say this:

Forest fires and wildland fires are not bad.
In fact, they are good. And we should let them burn.

As I write this, a wildfire (dubbed the Canyon Fire 2) is burning out of control in nearby Orange County. So far, it has burned 5,000 acres and is 0% contained. It began this morning, driven by high winds and fueled by dry brush that has not burned in decades. Thus the explosive, quick-moving nature of it.

These same circumstances--and a couple of kids lighting firecrackers--sparked the Palmer fire that burned within three miles of my neighborhood a month ago. I've been a flatlander for four years now. After I left the mountain, I never expected to once again be watching a fire burn a few miles from my home, wondering if the wind would shift, and I would be running for my life.

I love where I live (just as I loved living in the wilderness in Mt Baldy). I chose this place because it was rural, nestled into the rolling hills at the foot of Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, with lots of open space and trails through the canyons so I could walk for miles. But just like everyone else who has chosen to live in similar settings in California, in making this choice, I have consciously chosen to live where there is danger of fire. Really, really dangerous fire.

And to say I am conflicted about this is an understatement.

I can't live in the city. For the sake of my mental health, I need the relative quiet of rural life and the opportunity for long, meditative walks in Nature with my dog. This place--a "senior" community comprised of mobile and modular homes--was developed on the outskirts of town, literally right on top of a long, deep arroyo that is used as a wildlife corridor for coyotes, bobcats, skunks and possums. Perfect. I love them all. But... the park is surrounded by hills covered in tall grass and dotted with oak trees, wild lilac and old stands of eucalyptus. Or, to characterize it in another way, firewood.

The aftermath of the Palmer fire, just a couple miles from my home.

And now, because we live here, every time there is a fire, that fire must be contained and controlled as soon as possible in order to protect human life and avoid property damage--all at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, manpower, aircraft fuel, operational costs, Phos Chek (fire retardant), etc., etc., etc.

The Palmer fire, like the Canyon Fire 2 in Orange County, was pushed on by high winds. It raced up and over the hills to Live Oak Canyon, where it came within feet of these homes.

The truth is, if we truly love Nature, we would simply allow fires to burn instead of going to all that expense of putting them out.

Because without interference, Nature does a fine job of housekeeping. Lightning strikes spark fires in the wilderness or the forest every few years, the fires burn off the layers of duff and debris--and thin the trees, which makes the stronger, older trees healthier (which is especially important now that those trees have less water due to drought, climate change and human encroachment).

But in the last hundred years, as we've sprawled out into the wildlands to build homes, we've mustered together great firefighting armies of hotshots, pilots, bulldozers and trucks to knock down wildland fires as soon as they start--and in doing so, we've simply been stacking all that unburned fuel up to create unholy conflagrations every time one gets out of hand, as the Canyon Fire 2 has done in just hours.

When fires don't burn through an area for decades, once they do they burn so hot that everything in their path is reduced to ashes.

Of course, at this point, it would be impossible to undo what's been done. We can't expect all those people with those beautiful homes and ranches in the hills and canyons of Southern California to give them up and leave them. Hell, I wouldn't. Still, we have to find a way to let fire do what it should do without endangering property or homeowners--or the firefighters who endure excessive heat, smoke inhalation, danger from falling trees and limbs and other hazards while battling these fires.

Due to some strategic Phos Chek drops during the Palmer fire, this home was spared. I'm kinda thinking the homeowner would have just as soon seen it burn.


  1. Kay, I agree to a point with your comments about letting these fires burn. The major causes of these catastrophes, and the ones now happening in NO Cal are two-fold, lousy forest management, as you point out, and overpopulation by people who do not understand fire ecology. We've painted ourselves into a very serious corner, living in and around forests and grasslands that haven't been burned over in years, in some cases probably close to centuries. I have no immediate solution to recommend, but people have to provide defensible space around their homes to help the firefighters, and we have to provide funding at all levels to thin out forests and eliminate the piles of fuel on the forest floors. Good luck with all that.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Art. When I lived on the mountain (Mt. Baldy, here is SoCal), we had annual fire inspections. If we didn't have the leaves and duff and debris cleaned up around our cabins, our lease was not renewed until we did the work. But all that really didn't matter; the forest had become so dense due to the practice of fire suppression that, had it caught fire, it would have been a conflagration as we've seen in Napa and Sonoma counties this week. Sadly, it's really only a matter of time before that happens up there. The fire will rage through the tree canopy, so no ground clearance will stop it.

    And I agree with you wholeheartedly: We've painted ourselves into a corner with this. There are no easy solutions.