I received a telephone call last month, from a US Mail carrier who works in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, asking for information and ideas on ways to do something meaningful in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire.  At the time, I was moved – and still am as I reflect on our conversation – by the honest, soul-searching attitude that motivated her to reach out to CNPS in the first place.  I wrote back to her about a week later with a few links to information addressing the phenomenon of fire in California landscapes.  Now a month has passed along with the tragedies in Montecito.  I wrote back to her recently with these words (below), in an attempt to shed a bit of light on the causes and consequences of living in our natural surroundings.

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Well, what a tragic turn of events last week!  After weeks and weeks of fire and devastation, nature comes back with a torrential rainstorm and a flood/slide that fills Montecito with mud, rocks, and debris, killing many people in the process.  I know you must be particularly inconvenienced at this time.  It’s crazy right now!

I have reflected often during these weeks about our telephone conversation in December and what we, as one of the many creatures on the planet, might do to help nature to heal itself.  Some facts we cannot ignore are:

  • Chaparral is a fire-climax vegetation; it must burn to renew itself, or die due to over growth and senescence.  Much of the area surrounding Ojai, Ventura, and Montecito where the Thomas fire occurred had not burned for a long time.  And, in the meantime, humans have moved into the hills and built homes, surrounded by vegetation which naturally burns every 50 or so years.
  • California is one of six areas of the world with a Mediterranean Climate.  This climate is characterized by cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers.  The rains didn’t start this year when they normally do, in November.  Therefore, the vegetation in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties was without water for more than eight months, making the hills were especially dry in December.
  • The Santa Ana winds are a regular phenomenon in Southern California, especially in the autumn and winter months.  When they really start ripping through the hills, as they did in December, let’s be honest, there is nothing that can stop a fire with winds over 50 miles an hour!  It was the same story in Santa Rosa (the Wine Country Fires) in October/November, although the vegetation there was mostly forest, yet hot, dry winds were over 50 miles an hour there, as well.
  • Also, temperatures were unusually high during the late autumn months.  You probably remember the Fire Triangle we all studied in elementary school – Heat + Fuel + Oxygen = Fire.  High temperatures just exacerbate the dry, windy conditions and make conditions a lot worse.
  • And, houses are made mostly of wood!  As Americans, we pride ourselves on prudent economics.  We build nice houses out of the cheapest materials available – in this case Douglas Fir.  The northern forests have abundant resources and for us, wood-framed homes are the cheapest structures we can build that suit our lifestyle.
  • Having said that, does it make sense to build wooden houses in areas with excessive winds, at the end of a long, dry summer, when temperatures are high, in a fire-climax vegetation?  Isn’t it a bit arrogant to ignore all of these elements and build homes the way we do?

After the fire came the flood, and without adequate vegetation on the hillsides to keep the soil in place, the side of the mountain washed down into a neighborhood what wasn’t prepared for it.  Here again, we have built structures in danger-prone areas without adequately addressing the consequences until disaster strikes.  It’s nice to build a house creek side, to have the tall, riparian trees and hear the water ripple over the rocks at night.  But one pays the price when that creek turns into an avalanche of mud and debris.  Who would have thought?

I plan to attend the Conservation Conference of the California Native Plants Society the first weekend of February 2018 in Los Angeles.  There will be hundreds of botanists and field researchers there from all over California.  There will be workshops during the conference on Chaparral vegetation and at least one on the relationship between Fire and Chaparral.  During those workshops, I will discuss the topics you and I spoke about in our phone conversation and I will report back to you after that.

I sincerely hope you are managing well these day, despite the many inconveniences!

1994 Highway 41 fire image

The 1994 Highway 41 Fire swept from Highway
41 to U.S. 101, destroyed 42 homes and covered
49,000 acres. Photographed on Day 2 from Los
Osos. photo: David Chipping