The Signs of the Four: mountains and metaphysics
Every major fire region has its metaphysics. Each has some question that assumes the form of a dialectic that it debates with passionate intensity, every partisan claiming “the science” is on his side, yet with no resolution in sight.
In the southeast it is the issue of seasonality of burning, which varies as the land is put to new purposes. In the Southwest it is a controversy over cattle and climate, whether ENSO or humans “drive” the fire regime, and hence whether people can intervene effectively or not, be it for extraction or restoration. In the Northern Rockies it focuses on torches and lightning as the source of historic ignitions, which is to say, the original, putatively wilderness character of the land. If all these controversies seem irresolvable, it is because, scientifically, they are. The real issue is not about how nature works but about how we should work with nature.
In Southern California the metaphysics swirls around fuel and wind – which accounts for the eruptive Big Ones? If fuel, then there is a case for modifying vegetation to abate the likelihood of conflagrations. If wind, then there is little one can do in the landscape, and attention should shift from the landscape-scale source of the threat to the objects threatened. The stakes are high. The science for each has, so far, convinced its partisans, but not its critics. What has emerged as the default position is to prevent ignition up front or if a fire starts to hit it with overwhelming force before it can spread.
That is the discourse of the research community. Yet if you talk to the people on the ground, the polarity fractures into a regional vernacular that identifies a four-part taxonomy of big fires. Fuel fires, wind fires, terrain fires, arson fires – together they remake the traditional fire behavior triangle into a fire rectangle, and in curious ways they align with the four national forests that delimit the fire province. Of course each forest – every fire – features all these traits, but each might also be seen as displaying one of them with a special accent. The Big Kink is as much a wrinkle in pyro-lexicon, and perhaps in pyro-conceptualizing, as it is in pyro-geography. The time has come to recast the issue. The four mountain forests suggest how this might happen.
Four ranges, four forests
Begin at the Mexican border.
The Peninsular Ranges run northward, bounded by narrow coastal mesas to the west and deep depressions on the east. They are relatively low, their crest a tumbling plateau tilted down to the sea. This is the realm of the Cleveland National Forest. The sprawl that is San Diego lies between the summit and the sea. The city includes some 900 miles of ravines scratched through the mesas.
The mountains abruptly pivot westward at Mount San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountain, rising 10,800 and 11,500 feet respectively, with a pass between them at 2,600 feet. The range pushes west as the San Bernardino Mountains. The passes to each flank are the main corridors into the Los Angeles Basin; the mountains stand like sentinels, and the San Bernardino National Forest guards the guardians.
The westward tracking range is known as the Transverse. A dense massif, the San Gabriel Mountains, occupies its center and looms over Los Angeles. To each flank, east and west, are gaps between mountains that provide the main corridors northward, and the primary flumes for winds. This is the domain of the Angeles National Forest. Then the Transverse Range breaks down, as though it had risen too steeply and the top tumbled toward the coast into a series of smaller ranges that form a cataract from the high desert to the shoreline, ending with the Santa Monica Mountains. No mammoth mountain, no national forest – the mélange of hills and valleys, like a giant sluice box between massifs, is overseen instead by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Then the mountains pivot northwestward. As if to make up for its slacking, the range thickens into a terrestrial triple junction. A splinter, the Santa Ynez Mountains, continues west, while the bulk splits northward in two. One branch, the San Rafael Mountains, moves northwesterly to merge with the Sierra Madre along the coast and the other, the Tehachapi Mountains, flexes northeastward to meld with the Sierra Nevada. The Coast Ranges above the Transverse are what the Peninsular Ranges are below it. They continue until the San Andreas fault strikes out to sea at San Francisco Bay. For over 200 miles these are the responsibility of the Los Padres National Forest.
§ That is the geographic matrix. Their geopolitical setting displays an oddity as distinctive as the Transverse. In 1891 a rider to the Sundry Civil Appropriations Act allowed the president to create forest reserves from the public domain by simple proclamation. The first exercise was to establish a buffer of reserves around Yellowstone National Park. The second were those in Southern California. In most of the West a public outcry arose, loudest from the monied interests, that protested the “locking up” of natural resources. The Southern California scene displayed the opposite logic. It was the local boosters who worried that unregulated cutting, grazing, and burning on the mountains would destroy the watershed upon which the future metropolis would depend. They linked fire and water; they saw the national forests as a public investment in infrastructure for both. Fire control was the flip side to water development, as vital as reservoirs and canals. The core mission of the national forests was to stop the fires that stripped away the crust of grasping chaparral that alone held soil and retarded flooding.
That notion reflected the scientific understanding of the day. Forests, even if they consisted of head-high shrubs, were most valued for their ambient “influences.” They stabilized watersheds, they moderated climate, they buffered lands otherwise prone to binge cycles of drought and deluge. Clearcutting on mountains destroyed that capability; so did the trampling of hooves and the tearing by teeth of sheep, goats, and cattle; and so did fires. In Southern California the typical fire was a slope-scouring burn that left ash, dry ravel, and a field of shrub stumps. If the subsequent rains were heavy, the hillside could slough off in debris flows. Large chunks of the foothills were in fact formerly mountain flanks that had washed to the basin. The climate was Mediterranean, which meant not only an annual cycle of winter rains and summer drought, punctuated by roughly decadal rhythms of wet and dry, but of Mediterraneanity, which is to say, a realm in which averages mean little. What drives the system are the extreme events: the big earthquakes, the major floods, the conflagrations. What haunts administration is the specter of the Big One.
The Big One
The fear is not unique to Southern California. The big fire has long dominated the American fire scene. It burns the most combustibles, it does the fullest biological work, it hijacks the loudest media, it costs the most (by far), it drives policy, it commands the most acerbic political attention. The 10 AM policy was designed to stop the big burns by extinguishing all little ones. When critics objected, the invention of the prescribed natural fire was an attempt to grant big fires range to roam. Even a casual observer might well conclude that American fire policy is a reaction to big fires. But whether or not that observation applies to the country overall, it certainly holds for Southern California.
From the onset, then, administrators have sought to understand the causes behind the big fires, which would then allow them to intervene with maximum effect. But the science has faltered – proved inconclusive, or contradictory, or too patchy for practice. Like generals refighting the last war, or economists preparing for the last recession, fire scientists find themselves arguing over the last burn, even as the landscape is changing around them. They want to identify a causal driver, as though fires ran like a commuter train and identifying the engine is sufficient to explain where and when it moves. Instead, the Southern California reality resembles a freeway matrix in which drivers swarm over the landscape.
Like Los Angeles – the metropolis without a core – South Coast fires mix and match their contributing causes. This a-centric etiology matters because the identification of causes guides what responses fire agencies will take. The assumption of course is that science will determine those causes and prescribe cures. The reality is that, in Southern California, science stumbles, and economics and metaphysics fills the void. The reason is simple. The act of settlement changes how the pieces come together, and where the frontier moves quickly, as it does in Southern California, fires’ setting mutates rapidly.
The fire environment is not something apart from people. It results from the interplay of geography and people. Even acting on ideas about how fire works can change the setting under investigation, and has. The Southern California fire scene did not evolve in methodical sequence, as in much of the U.S., but in a great rush. The social construction of fire has been as spasmotic as its geography. This is mediterraneanity powered by internal combustion.
§ Every rookie learns the fire behavior triangle and how fires spread according to three factors – fuel, terrain, and weather. In Southern California each of these factors is so magnified that each by itself can, under the right circumstances, override the others. The interplay between them is like the child’s game of rock-scissors-paper. Wind cuts fuel, fuel covers terrain, terrain shatters wind.
The vegetation is, in parts, ever combustible, and under the right circumstances explosive. It can burn against wind or downslope: it burns as gasoline might burn regardless of whether it forms a pool or splashes over the ground or wafts through the air as vapors. Terrain is so steep and crenulated that fires can always race up, or send spots across a narrow ravine, and firefighters have, after several lethal lessons, learned not to build line under flame fronts, or try to cut across chimneys. And as to weather – the climate is a dictionary definition of fire-prone, and the foehn winds are among the worst in the world because they come when the rest of the fire environment is maximized for burning. The winds can drive flames down slope at night and loft fire over sparse fuels or fling embers across the 8-lane San Diego Freeway.
The fire behavior triangle, however, only describes a going fire. There is no accommodation for when and how it might start; what matters is how it spreads. In Southern California, however, when a fire starts determines whether it gets big. Ignition is as fundamental to the ontology of big fires as the other three factors. An “arson” fire is as distinctive a category as a “wind” fire. So powerful and efficient are the regional firefighting systems that most sparks are quickly swatted out. What a big fire needs is an ignition so cunningly timed that it catches the other factors at extreme values and so escapes initial attack. Typically, that means a wind-kindled accident such as a broken powerline or outright arson. It means a spark that is stronger than the most muscular firefighting complex in the world.
Each forest exhibits all these features, but each might also stand for one distinctively, and serve to illustrate the complexity of that single factor. Consider what follows as an introduction to the systematics of Southern California fire and an abbreviated tutorial on why the search for understanding that can lead to remedies is trickier than one might assume. Southern California no more fits outside models of fire management than Los Angeles does models of urban development.
b Fueling the San Bernardino
“Fuel” is shorthand for an absurdly complicated mélange of combustibles. Calling it all “chaparral,” or brush, is a further simplification, since chaparral is a generic term that absorbs grasses, shrubs, trees; sage, buckwheat, chamise, manzanita, ceanothus, scrub oak; natives and exotics; broad swathes and intricate niches nestled by springs or in the crannies of a furiously crinkled terrain. Lower elevations differ from upper, north-facing from south-facing. On the Transverse Range the upper reaches are conifer forest, and at the summit, tundra. What appears homogeneous from afar breaks down into hundreds of species, scores of habitats, and numberless combinations, all with complicated histories.
Calling it chaparral is like labeling the entire human settlement in the Los Angeles Basin as “L.A.” It embraces the indigenous and the alien, the old time pueblos and the nouveau riche gated community, the giant and the miniscule, Los Angeles and the City of Industry. What seems like unruffled lake of suburbs, upon closer inspection, shatters into a fine-tiled mosaic of ethnic enclaves, 85 political entities, and patchy communities, only loosely united under a collective economic climate.
To lump the mountain biota into a “fuel problem” is like saying L.A. has a crime problem. The dismissive phrase disguises more than it reveals. But a good place to begin parsing what fuel means in Southern California is the San Bernardino National Forest.
§ The San Bernardino Mountains have all the usual flora and fauna. But uniquely among the Transverse Range they have an active history of human settlement along the summit. American landscaping began with Mormon settlers who in 1851 established the original town plats for San Bernardino. Searching for timber they constructed a road up Mill Creek, and then wormed it upwards to the summit; mills followed.
The crest widened into pocked terrain sufficiently wide to support communities, and over the next century a cavalcade of miners, loggers, herders, tourists, and rangers trekked up to the top, remaking the scene. Much of the big timber was cut out. The grasses and low shrubs were grazed away. Valleys were flooded. Hillsides were dynamited and hacked apart by picks. What wasn’t eaten out or hauled off was burned. In 1893, responding to local demands, President Benjamin Harrison designated the unpatented lands as the San Bernardino Forest Reserve. Another dozen years passed before effective protection arrived, when the reserves were transferred to the U.S. Forest Service for administration. Meanwhile, on the private lands, small communities took root.
Over the years protection and development advanced like partners in a three-legged race. Hydroelectric dams and debris basins filled lower ravines. An infrastructure for tourism matured, highlighted by such amenities as the Big Bear Lake ski resort, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, and the Rim of the World scenic highway. Fire control strengthened, especially during the 1930s, the heady days of the CCC which erected lookouts, cut trails, built fire roads and fuelbreaks, and fought fire. At times, however, the two stumbled over each other. In November 1938 Santa Ana winds drove a wildfire from Twin Peaks through Arrowhead and leveled the hotel. Eventually, as sprawl lapped against the base of the mountains, communities there also suffered; the 1980 Panorama fire was the most spectacular, burning over 345 homes in a single evening gulp. But by now, and for some decades, the general terms of land use, and hence the mountain’s fuel array, had been set. What changed were their internal dynamic and the borders they shared.
The pressures only built, never eased. Like the tectonic stresses that kept lofting the mountains upward even as they eroded savagely, big fires occasionally ruptured the landscape, which then rebuilt and readied for the next break along this biotic faultline. At the onset of the new millennium, however, the strains had reached unprecedented intensities. The mountains wouldn’t wash away, the winds wouldn’t stop, and the fires wouldn’t cease. The nature of settlement had changed from rural working landscapes to one shaped by post-industrial amenities, so fire causes had morphed accordingly, even if they were invisible, like seeds banked in the soil. The bottom line, fire would not fade away. Under exceptional conditions, some starts would escape initial attack and threaten to undo all that formal protection otherwise offered.
That left those amorphous fuels as the one point of vulnerability, the single article in the mountain’s fire constitution that a fire management agency might amend. But fuels included the dead debris lying on the ground, the living verdure filling every hillside nook, and the wooden-slabbed houses and malls that extended from asphalt to lakeside and dappled the summit like cords of firewood. Homeowners associations often prohibited cutting. Logging of any kind ceased by the mid-1990s. Old fuelbreak systems decayed. Then an extraordinary drought tightened the vice. It parched woods too thickly stocked to slack their thirst. Then beetles – western pine, red turpentine, engraver – swarmed over the weakened trees. The die-off was ferocious, afflicting roughly 360,000 acres in all, the kills as dense as 600-800 trees an acre in places. Oaks died. Chamise died. Even cheatgrass, the living dead of invasives, died. Fearful of broken lines that might kindle a fire, Southern California Edison (SCE) shut down power whenever the winds rose over 30 mph. At the onset of the new millennium all the bad boys that made for big fires were doped up and ready for trouble.
Threat became fact in 2003 with the Old and Grand Prix fires, the San Bernardino’s contribution to the regional complex. The cause of the Old fire, which burned 91,000 acres across and even over the mountains, was listed as “unknown.” The combustibles it burned were not.
§ The 2003 season traumatized residents and galvanized their congressional representative, Jerry Lewis, who conveniently chaired the House Appropriations Committee and liberated funds under the National Fire Plan and later, the Healthy Forests and Restoration Act. But the private sector, alarmed over potential liability, contributed as well. SCE eventually spent lavishly to clean up around powerlines. And residents joined in what became a reverse NIMBY. No one wanted to reside next to a vat of kindling. What evolved was a fire cooperative, the Mountain Area Safety Task Force.
MAST had money, political clout, and public support. This was fuel mitigation as largescale public works. Homeowners and utilities took care of private holdings, although some public monies came from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Forest Service; a program, Forest Care, also with federal assistance, would support upkeep. Otherwise, officials identified for priority treatment such strategic sites as roads necessary for emergency egress and entry and communication complexes. Fuelbreaks widened highways, major forest roads, and boundaries where they abutted houses. Communities created buffers. Then more fires burned in 2007. One, the Slide fire, took out an area still under NEPA review. (The San Bernardino has more T&E plants than any other national forest.) Another, the Grass Valley fire, sent Southern California Edison a hefty bill when one of its powerlines broke and started it – this even after treatment. All in all, Edison spent almost $200 million in mitigation and the Forest Service $100 million. The program began to move into maintenance mode.
Almost everyone associated with MAST regards it as a success. It was a proof-of-concept project that demonstrated what a dedicated program required and could achieve. Yet part of that formula was crisis and trauma sufficient to break through the indifference and gridlock of quotidian life and politics. And its cost has been high: it did to the national fuels budget what Southern California does to the national suppression budget. Once again the nation found itself underwriting the critical infrastructure for a state that long projected itself as an economic powerhouse. What California self-regarded as a source, others saw as a sink.
c Ascending the Angeles
The mountains form a granite berm that bounds the region: for fire purposes, Southern California is what lies west and south of the chain of ranges hoisted up along the San Andreas. They seem as permanent as Earth itself, and their dynamism only that of the rhythms of deep time, irrelevant to the quick tempo of wind and flame. But in fact, they are many and varied, they affect every feature of fire behavior, and they can of their own accord dominate even a large burn.
The mountains each have their own character. The Peninsulars resemble squat fault-blocks, tilting gently to the sea, gouged into mesas and channels. The San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains pivot around giant peaks. The western Transverse resembles a wooden branch flexed enough to break it lengthwise, so that it splinters above Ojai and fans out from the west-trending Santa Ynez upward into the San Rafael and Sierra Madres. The San Gabriel Mountains, mid-way in the Transverse, are most distinctive by being the simplest. They stand as a colossal massif, rudely shaped like a football, separated by major passes east and west.
Those textured terrains influence how fire behaves, braking or boosting other factors. They make the Santa Anas possible by damming and compressing desert air, then directing through the overflow through mountain spillways and weirs. They deform climate by letting air rise and fall over the great berm and fracturing a regional norm into thousands of microclimates and a mosaic of local weathers. What is true on a north-facing slope will differ from a south-facing; alluvial fans, from summits; wrinkled ravines, from exposed ridges. Vegetation will thin and thicken accordingly, display different levels of fuel moisture content, and crumble arrays of combustibles into biotic niches. Fuelbreaks will work when they function like levees, bolstering the terrain, and fail if they cross the grain of terrain-sculpted fire flow. And landscape texture will influence where and how fires begin by influencing the placement of roads and trails.
By guiding the movement of people those routes affect both fire starting and fire suppressing. People will kindle ignitions along routes of travel – literal lines of fire. Those same roads, trails, and fuelbreaks will transport firefighters and become firelines. Terrain will define natural units of fire spread and containment, and it will dictate – or should – how fires might be attacked. Over and over, on a 20- or 30-year rhythm, like a cycle of earthly sunspots, the big fires reappear in the same places, burning in more or less the same way. The vegetation regrew, the winds returned, the terrain-crafted basins that contained fires’ behavior filled with flame. Over-ignition and exotic grasses might quicken the cycle so they burned more often, as in the San Gabriel canyon, but the larger terrain inscribed the pixels that determined how and where fire went. Defy that geographic logic and you risk losing lives as well as firelines.
§ That last cautionary precept is the story repeated sickeningly over and over in fatality fires as crews find themselves on steep slopes with fire below them. That lethal flame might be a reckless burnout. Or a hooking fire, creeping down from one ravine and entering another below a spur. Or a spot fire, from who-knows-where, that plants itself below a chimney and flashes up through anyone unwise or unlucky enough to be in its way.
It’s doubly diabolical because the inclines that can shoot fire upward also slow firefighters to a crawl. Caught on a slope is what happened to a pickup crew at Griffith Park in 1933 and killed 25, to Marines when the Hauser Creek fire killed 11 on November 2, 1943, and to a Forest Service inmate crew from the Viejas Honor Camp that killed 11 at Inaja on November 25, 1956. That is what happened to the El Cariso Hotshots on November 1, 1966 when they tried to cut line across and down a chimney on the San Gabriels and a spark sent a blowtorch of flame upward and killed 11. And it is what happened in August 23, 1968 when the Canyon fire on Glendora ridge of the San Gabriels blew over eight firefighters from the L.A. County Fire Department.
That burn vividly demonstrated the varied but cumulative power of terrain. Fire season was well advanced, but not notoriously droughty or prolonged. Winds were light – this was not classic Santa Ana weather. Fuels were mixed but generally also light – the fire burned through grass, oak, shrubs, and soft chaparral. Instead, what controlled virtually every aspect of fire spread was terrain. Repeatedly, fires burned across Glendora Ridge ravine by ravine. Slowly it crept down, entered a new arroyo, and then rushed up. On the day of the disaster fire “slopped over” the head of an adjacent ravine around 11am, and painstakingly crawled down through litter below the mixed scrub. Approximately 11:24am it flashed in a patch of sumac and scrub oak. What made this flareup similar to the 1959 Decker fire but different from others was that it captured a whirlwind – almost certainly the result of turbulence over the rough countryside – and became a firewhirl. The firewhirl hurled a firebrand below the ravine in which the crew from Camp 4-4 was working. Probably “not more than a minute” later, and perhaps no more than 30 seconds, that flash ignition had blown up, blasted through the ravine, and savaged the crew. The fire’s behavior, a review board concluded, was “almost entirely controlled by the topography.”[i]
§ That tragedy was keenly on the minds of the crews from LACFD and the USFS when, 41 years later almost to the day, a fire broke out on the Angeles National Forest along the Angeles Crest Highway. Again, winds were light and fuels were volatile but not outside norms for age and season. Suppression resources were abundant. The critical circumstance for what became the Station fire was terrain.
It magnified ignition and compromised suppression. An arsonist had craftily kindled the start where it would do the most damage. The highway, the anchor point for a fireline, was mid-slope, which ranged between 33-67%. Visibility was poor, access feeble, foot travel tricky, and the opportunities high for spotting both above and below the point of origin. A board of inquiry concluded that the landscape was “extremely difficult, if not impossible, to traverse without a high degree of exposure to hazard.” It effectively neutralized an impressive initial attack force: nine handcrews, thirteen engines, three water tenders, four medium helicopters, one heavy helicopter, three heavy airtankers, and an Airco helicopter, two patrols, and four chief officers from the two agencies. The setting simply didn’t allow for such massive deployment, like a field army forced to fight in a city of narrow streets and alleys. Spot fires below the highway remained inextinguishable by aerial attack alone and yet inaccessible to ground forces. The serial spotting, which continued through the evening as flare-ups made runs upslope and flung firebrands, overwhelmed any chance at control. By the next afternoon a Type I incident management team had been ordered.[ii]
The Station fire burned and burned. It burned day after day, week after week, basin after basin. It burned the grasses and soft chaparral at the bottom of ravines and the forests at the mountain peaks. It burned from its own momentum and from burnout operations along ridgelines. It billowed smoke behind Los Angeles like Mount Vesuvius outside Naples. It burned until 10 October 2009. It ended, that is, before the season for Santa Anas. At a final tally of 160,577 acres the Station fire was the largest in the annals of the Angeles National Forest and the tenth largest in modern California history.
Something this vast and this visible can be parsed many ways. It was an arson fire, of course. It was a fuel fire – there was more than enough to burn in all directions. But the ignition took because it couldn’t be suppressed safely; the fuels were in no way uniform, unusually dry, or exceptionally heavy, and burned because slopes and narrow canyons channeled flames and scattered spots. The winds that propelled it were largely local, the outcome of diurnal warming and cooling in textured hillsides that guided flow up and down. The fire burned, in brief, because of where it occurred. It was a terrain fire. And it challenges assumptions about the taxonomy of fire in Southern California as much as it did initial attack.
§ But there is more. A fire’s size does not measure its significance. A 100-acre fire in the frontcountry can trump a 100,000 acre fire beyond the ridgeline. What matters is how visible the burn is to the culture; whether houses burn, whether people die, whether someone is present to transcribe the smoke into pictures and words. Little can be hidden on the Angeles. It forms a backdrop to the largest metropolis in the U.S. and to a major media mecca. It is a backlot to Hollywood. As powerful, a state statute known as rule 409.5, unique to California, allows all credential agents of the media full access to any emergency scene and makes the fourth estate a fourth side to the regional fire triangle. No one should wonder that the Angeles has the largest fire budget in the national forest system and co-manages with the largest-budget county fire department in the country.
In some regions, geology obscures. It removes fire from direct contact with society, it renders the flames invisible. In Southern California the reverse holds. The San Gabriels thrust fire against the city with almost no mediating landscape, or media baffles, between them. A fire like the Station or the Gap or the Woodwardia can’t remain out of public sight. It is impossible for an agency to perform without an audience of millions of critics and catcalls. In the case of the Angeles – here synecdoche for all of Southern California – terrain affects not just fire behavior but the behavior of people toward fire.
d Igniting the Cleveland
§ The Cleveland is best known for its epic wind-driven fires – the 1970 Laguna (175,425 acres), the 2003 Cedar (273,246), the 2007 Witch (197,990). So monstrous were the burns that they overwhelmed public memory of fires that would, anywhere else, have been considered mammoth such as the 2003 Paradise (56,700) and Otay (45,971) burns, and the 2007 Harris (90,000) and Poomacha (49,000) fires. What has shaped the narrative for them all is the interplay of diabolically dense chaparral and vicious winds.
But Santa Anas and fuel could act only if a spark was present; otherwise they were simply wind and brush. The fires did not originate spontaneously, as if by manzanita rubbing briskly in the wind. For a fire to get large it had to happen with exactly the right timing: a point of ignition is, literally, the spark that transforms inert substances of earth, air, and biomass into a chemical reaction. The timing of ignition decides whether the other factors that shape fire behavior remain as mountains, ravines, airsheds, woods and shrubfields, or whether they become terrain, weather, and fuel. What might be characterized as wind-driven when it’s moving might be equally typed as ignition-enabled for existing at all. In Southern California spark remakes the fire behavior triangle into a rectangle.
The sources for the big burns display a curious cross-section of regional life in the new millennium. Overwhelmingly, the cause is people; their machines, their demands for electricity, their eccentric mastery over devices designed to replace open flame but which might ignite outside their wrapping, their clumsiness and malice. The Laguna and Witch fires started from sparks cast by a powerline; the Cedar, by a hunter’s signal fire; the Poomacha by a house fire; the Otay and Harris, from border crossers; the Paradise, from arson.
In brief, what is called ignition is no simpler than fuel. It embraces a Pandora’s box of sparks that, when opened in the right conditions, fly out across the landscape like an ember shower. The sides of the rectangle affect one another. Spark is just heat until it connects with fuel and is fanned by wind, but once having kindled a fire it changes the future of the fire environment.
§ Some traditional burning has endured in the ranches and farms that dappled the backcountry. But mostly, the pyrogeography of ignition has been remade as fully as the landscape that receives it.
A typical profile of ignitions for a Southern California national forest looks like this: Instead of landclearing fires by the open burning of windrows, fires start from dozers and chain saws and other equipment (37%). Instead of range improvement burns, vehicles (2%) and powerlines (2%) kindle blazes. Instead of debris burns, the ignition exotica of modern American life, lumped together as “miscellaneous,” call fire into being (14%). A few crossover categories persist. Smokers account for 5%, campfires for 4%, and that old bugbear, children with matches, 5%. Lightning, on the mountainous outer rims, claims perhaps 2%, roughly the same as car crashes. Some 8% starts from arson. The giant LaBrea fire began from a marijuana grower’s propane burner; the Witch fire, from powerline failure; the Montecito Tea fire, from students at Santa Barbara City College who failed to properly extinguish a bonfire. The Simi fire kindled from a long-range firebrand hurled from the Verdale fire. Strip firing by suppression crews can serve as new sources, interacting dynamically with the main fire to warp behavior. The source of a whopping 19% of ignitions is unknown.
While people decreasingly cook and heat houses and work the land with open flame, their hidden combustion more than compensates as a source of sparks. Moreover, the scene bears a deeper imprint, a palimpsest of past ignitions that continue to affect what fuels are available and how later fires burn.
§ Whether a spark on the ground leads to a fire depends on whether it can generate enough power to sustain itself, whether it can give off more heat than it absorbs. Most can’t. In its early stage the heat from a kindling flickers insecurely between source and sink. That logic applies equally to the competition between fire starters and fire suppressors, or the capacity to suppress a fresh spark before it can propagate.
Once again, what appears simple fragments into the complicated. Viewed as a whole, Southern California is a fortress of firepower; of the thousands of ignitions that do take, only 2-3% get big, and of those perhaps 2-3% truly register in the regional chronicle. Around the Cleveland the two dominant presences are the U.S. Forest Service and CalFire. But the BLM is also on the scene; there are scores of cities; Camp Pendleton bristles on the coast; and there are 29 tribes with postage-stamp sized reservations, some lit up with casinos, some vacated. (With 104 tribes California has the largest mix under Bureau of Indian Affairs jurisdiction.) It is a bizarre variant of the WUI – a wildland/reservation (or wildland/casino) interface. Reservations with major casinos, as a condition of their compact with the state, created fire departments, and some have wildland fire capabilities, although most contract with CalFire through the BIA. That few fires break free is an astonishing tribute to the capacity of regional fire agencies to concentrate and cooperate.
Yet the crucial story may be one lost to modern sensibilities. What historically improved the odds for big burns was the fact that, in the past, every fire that took might linger on the land for days, or weeks, or even months. The critical timing that allows a spark to mate with high wind or thickets of fuel rose with each creep into a new ravine or simmering below a potential Santa Ana. Deal enough hands and you will win at solitaire. When crews lose a fire now, they do so quickly, under the improbable, but reoccurring, circumstances that instantly align the conditions that favor a start with those that favor roiling spread. Once the fire has made a run, forces contain it to prevent another. In the past, they didn’t.
So in the reckoning about ignition, the capacity to stop is almost as vital as the ability to start. Probably the full number of ignitions has altered little over the years, if not centuries. What has changed is the capacity of the land to receive them and the capabilities of fire agencies to swat them out. Even under extreme conditions it usually takes multiple starts to overwhelm the system.
§ In the discourse about ignition one theme, for the public, trumps all others. That theme rides the saddle of a fear that masks a rationalization. That theme is arson.
Behind it lies an unease about the absence of organic community, that there is no intrinsic or internalized social control over behavior, only what can be imposed by force before the fact by the police or after the fact by the fire department. The recurring vision of Los Angeles is not only that it burns but that it burns from its own hands. The torch-wielding rioter, the pyromaniac, the arsonist – these rival serial killers in the gallery of public villains. And not without some truth. The Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters was set by a serial arsonist (later convicted of murder and sentenced to death). Of the dozen major fires that constituted the Fire Siege of 2007 two were started by arson and six had unknown causes, of which it is possible to suspect that at least some came from arsonists wily enough to hide their misdeeds. In some places arson is a nuisance, burning vacant lots and empty buildings; in others, an insurance scam, or a pathetic appeal for recognition. In Southern California it is, if done craftily, a lethal threat to the very texture of the built environment.
But an obsession with arson is also a study in political misdirection. It is easy to dismiss intractable problems by blaming the wayward stranger, the border crosser who lights up a campfire and lets it escape, or the madman who responds to some inner compunction, or the serial incendiarist who, like a renegade cop, turns his knowledge to evil. All deflect attention away from the circumstances that give the arsonist his power, for a fire more resembles a riot than a drive-by shooting; it spreads. It derives its power from the power to propagate. What makes arson dangerous is that the setting in which it occurs is prone to burn. In Southern California that setting is not simply the chaparraled-mountains but cities ill-sited and houses ill-designed that make fire a threat. The arsonist can increase the odds of setting a Big One. But even the worst wind or densest brush cannot carry fire through a suburb designed to withstand it. The arson problem is really a problem with how Southern Californians choose to live on the land.
It is a structural failure, and its ideal illustration is the broken or arcing powerline that casts sparks to whatever lies beneath it. That such events occur particularly during Santa Ana winds makes the mountain high-voltage line a significant source of big fires. In the 2007 Siege, across the region, arsonists are known to have started two blazes. Powerlines kindled four. According to CalFire statistics, throughout the state powerlines account for only 3% of fires (about the same as escaped campfires); but these ignitions almost always occur under conditions that favor conflagrations.
What would seem to be a fuelbreak, the swath cut by high-voltage transmission routes, can paradoxically be a long fuse. The utility companies might stand accused of structural arson, which is why they are willing to cut power during high winds or spend obscene gobs of money to clean up around their right-of-ways to avoid obscene liability law suits. So, too, suburbs that ought to break a spreading fire can carry it if poorly crafted. It has taken 20 years of repeated firestorms to finally break resistance to suitable fire codes, even such no-brainers as abolishing shake-shingle roofs. The rules apply only to new construction. As fires take out structures, they will be rebuilt to resist not so much the flames as the wind-wafted embers.
That process – hardening houses – might be likened to a public health campaign for vaccination. The more houses get inoculated, the less likely the spread. The way to best control arson is to take away the propagating power of the torch, to keep an ignition from boiling over or if it kindles a fire that races with the wind to prevent it from combusting houses like an emergent plague killing off a virgin-soil population. Probably it is too much to expect that, in such a celebrity-saturated landscape, arson would not become sought-after and sensational. But the problem will only become truly domesticated when the landscape itself is tamed. At that point, arsonists, like rabble-rousing firebrands on a street corner, can declaim passionately day after day but the passersby won’t pick up and spread the sedition.
e Blowing in the Los Padres wind
Everyone knows that wind fans fires, and almost everyone knows that the winds that matter are the howlers, which in Southern California means the Santa Anas. But a finer-grained scrutiny shows the same complexity for winds that characterizes terrain, fuels, and ignitions. In the South Coast big fires can occur without big winds. The winds that matter are those that push fires against cities or that trap firefighters. Straddling a tangle of mountains, the Los Padres National Forest illustrates that distinction decisively.
During a three year span, from 2007-2009, the LP experienced five major fires. Two giants loped over the backcountry, pushed and pulled by landscapes rugged with ridges and lumpy with chaparral. Three smaller burns slammed into high-value frontcountry. The three were an order of magnitude (and in two instances, two orders of magnitude) smaller than the large but they took out houses in a celebrity-studded coastline. That happened because winds spilled over the mountains and rushed downslope, even at night. Two landscapes, two kinds of fire behavior, two relationships to wind, and two kinds of fire – in Southern California wind is what makes big fires into great ones.
§ The LP sprawls over that granitic splintering where the Transverse Range breaks into a fan of lithic slivers – the Santa Ynez, the San Rafaels, the Sierra Madre. It then, with great gaps, continues leisurely up the Coast Range to Big Sur. Among the four regional ranges it has the largest fraction committed to wilderness (80%). It stands closest to the sea. And it displays the fullest assortment of winds.
There are the local winds – the land and sea breezes that are part of daily rhythms, that rise and fall over the land as tides do for the ocean. Mostly they bring maritime air and frequent fog. Daily, too, on the backside of the mountains, winds strengthen and falter as the sun heats and the evening cools; they interact with terrain and clumps of fuel to sent flames up chimneys, spin them through eddies and firewhirls, and quiet their spread at night. Overlying them are the synoptic winds that accompany fronts, or the rolling in and out of the region by high and low pressure cells. These, too, come from the west, or cause winds to veer from southwest to northwest, and they carry Pacific air to the crests of the mountains. Sometimes they supplement, sometimes they counter, the local breezes. This is all standard fire behavior with a California accent.
What makes robust fires into monsters are the winds that reverse this pattern and blow from the desert to the sea and from the crests of mountains to their bases. Where sea winds moisten, these desiccate; where slope winds rise and fall with the sun, these burn through the night; where normal fire can be flanked on ridges, these can spill over the levees and scatter embers with the abandon of a girandola. Such winds are not unique to Southern California. They belong to a category known, unimaginatively, as strong mountain downslope winds. They are the foehns of the Swiss Alps, the chinooks of the Rockies’ front range, the east winds of northern California and the Pacific Northwest. But nowhere else do they interact with such ferocity or last so long as at the South Coast.
The conditions that make them possible are hardwired into the regional terrain and the software of climate. Every autumn High pressure can stall over the interior basins of the West – on smaller scales, the Great Valley of Central California, or the Santa Ynez Valley – while Low pressure approaches from the southwest. The mountains stall the flow between them, and where the mountains are deep and high, and the pressure difference between centers is great, the gradient effectively steepens and the winds gush explosively. They flow over the mountains; dry, warm, gusting with the untrammeled sprawl of an avalanche or the floodwaters from a ruptured dam. In the Santa Anas the California tendency to exaggerate natural phenomena finds a meteorological expression. If a spark is anywhere around, flames take on the character of those winds. More insidiously, high winds can cause powerlines to break or arc and scatter sparks, thus adding ignition to their gallery of malevolence.
But the winds, even under Santa Anas, are not quite so simple. They are channeled by passes through the mountains, broken and funneled by ridges and ravines, diverted by summit spillways. And they interact with local winds: the bellows that bring prevailing winds from the west and the local generators lodged deep in mountain valleys continue, and the Santa Anas must beat against them, skip over them, or blow them locally away. One can weaken and the other strengthen – how they engage will scatter perimeter flames like leaves in a tempest and shape the contours of the burn overall. Still, there is a logic imprinted on the landscape, much as with floodwaters. There are patterns, although as with all matters Californian, from time to time the norm is meaningless, even when it involves the infrequent. What matters is the rare and the extreme.
§ To all this the Los Padres offers a local codicil. The Santa Ynez Mountains are a cameo of the Transverse Range, the coastal-front mountains for what appears as a granitic wave train. A deep valley behind, steep mountains against an urban complex – this is the South Coast formula in miniature. And what the Santa Ynez Mountains are to the Transverse Range, the Sundowner is to the Santa Ana.
By rushing down to the Santa Barbara coast at dusk the Sundowner winds seem to embody their name. The etymology is otherwise but uncertain. In one version it derives from the Spanish zonda (for foehn wind), while in another, from simoom, a version of scirocco (perhaps via Spanish). Or those may be attempts by the colonizing Spanish to render the Chumash term into something that sounded familiar. The one surety is that English-speakers converted the indigenous expression into something else that loosely related to the phenomenon as they experienced it.
The same seems to be true for its meteorological mechanics. In a loose way the Sundowner is a Santa Barbara Santa Ana. It relies on similar arrangement of air masses that causes winds to pile up against the north slope and then spill over the south toward the coast. As they rush down, they warm and dry. It may be that the Sundowner is what remains after air cascades from the north across the fan of mountain waves. Or it may be outcome of a mesoscale equivalent in which the California interior accretes air and a Catalina eddy tugs them south. In some cases the Sundowner effect means a dramatic rise in temperature (up to 107o). In others, it means a downslope wind particularly noticeable at night.
The history of Santa Barbara is a chronicle of Sundowner fires. Sediment from the channel holds charcoal through most of the Pleistocene. The American record begins when Richard Henry Dana recounted one such episode that dated from the 1820s. In August 1940 the San Marcos fire “provided a thrilling spectacle for the thousands of Santa Barbarans and outside visitors celebrating the annual Spanish Days festival.” Over the past few decades the fires have become less an entertainment and more a threat. The Refugio (1955), the Coyote (1964), the Wellman (1966), the Romero (1971), the Sycamore Canyon (1977), one after another, they burned swathes down the slopes of the Santa Ynez, rupturing along a biotic faultline, and all raised the stakes since the flames no longer passed through the rabbit habitat favored by the Chumash or the ranchlands preferred by Spanish and early Americans. On June 27, 1990 a Sundowner drove the Painted Cave fire through 4,900 acres, 427 homes, 221 apartments, 15 businesses, and 10 public buildings. In July, 2008 the Gap fire washed down toward Goleta and Isla Vista, half of the 9,544 acres on the Los Padres, half on private lands, upending watersheds. In November, 2008 the Montecito Tea fire blew through 1,940 acres and 210 houses, Westmont College, and the Mount Calvary Retreat House and Monastery. In May, 2009 the Jesusita fire rushed down Mission Canyon toward downtown Santa Barbara, taking out 8,733 acres, 80 houses and a commercial property.
The right wind on a smartly placed spark will spread. So, too, even a small fire, measured by geographic size, may spread widely through the culture if fanned by modern media. Such propagation requires as primary fuel not chaparral but celebrities. Actor Christopher Lloyd lost a home. Rob Lowe had to evacuate. Steven Spielberg evaded the flames. Oprah Winfrey was spared but broadcast her feelings on her show. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the burn.
Fire effects, that is, are no longer limited to air, soil, water, flora and fauna. With the right wind behind it a fire can blow ash across national TV. The Sundowner can not only leverage an ember into a conflagration, but blow up a local fire into a national story. It is not the vigor of the wind that matters. It is its ability to shake the right neighborhoods and, through its funneling down media channels, to be made visible.
July 2011 / [pdf]