§ The Transverse Range is long as well as high. Cut it in cross-section and it exhibits one suite of fire regimes and management styles. Such an approach characterizes its national forests, perched as they are on the bounding mountains. Each forest replicates the other, with some local spices stirred into the common stew. Cut the Range lengthwise, however, and it suggests other ways the regional fire regimes are organized and might be administered. This is the case with its national parks, which anchor its flanks east and west and claim a prized patch in the middle. Each park differs mightily from the others.
Geographically, the Forests divide desert from shore, and urban from wild. A cross-section would go from high desert or Great Valley over the hump of the range, rising into rich woods, and then plunge down the other side into chaparral, grasslands, and suburbs. It would pass through fringe settlements, multiple-use forest, wilderness, and city. A thin slice passes through, as it were, the life zones of the region’s fire management. One administration must deal continuously, seamlessly with the whole gamut, just as one fire might spread from bottom to top, or top to bottom. Fires burn, so to speak, with the grain of the country.
The Parks offer a different perspective. They run east-west along the arc of the Range. To the east, Joshua Tree National Park sits atop the Little San Bernardino Mountains, grading into the famous high desert that rises behind the Transverse Range as it makes its great kink westward. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a tumbled sequence of hills and valleys that replaces the San Gabriels to the west, spans from interior to seacoast. Channel Islands National Park is an archipelago of five islands, separated from California by a rising sea, but otherwise identical in rock and biota to the mainland. They are literal isles, small worlds unto themselves – chips from the Transverse block.
To traverse across the three parks is to sample the fire options of Southern California. They assemble the pieces of the regional fire scene into distinctive regimes, from desert to mountain chaparral to arid maritime; and although administered by a common agency, they have devised dramatically different programs. In simplistic terms, Joshua Tree has a problem with its flora, particularly the competition between pyrophytic invasives and indigenous species; the park is sprawling but coherent, though it bleeds into the world beyond. Channel Islands has a problem with its fauna, particularly the competition between invasives that strip out fire and an indigenous habitat that needs it; the park is sharply delimited but scattered, and each isle is isolated from its surroundings. Santa Monica Mountains, by offering a pastiche of a biota and a settlement pattern, has a problem determining what its true needs are amid a tangle of research studies that stumble over one another, and if it can decide what to do, how to implement a coherent vision amid its jumble of jurisdictions.
Collectively, the three parks show how many combinations are possible among the pieces that make up the regional fire scene. What, at first contact, would seem to be a coherent fire province fragments into a pile of child’s blocks that can be assembled into many patterns. The parks accent the need for particularized solutions to particularized problems – and the advantage that accrues to an agency that lacks a defining organic act. The National Park Service has a founding charter, passed in 1916. The national parks do not, each being the outcome of a separate act of Congress. What results – a politically feudal organization that would seem out of round for the digital cogs of modern society – is actually well machined to accommodate local idiosyncrasies.
§ Cheating fire
Joshua Tree National Park straddles a mountain, but the Little San Bernardinos (and its echoes, the Hexie, Eagle, and Coxcomb) run east of the Big Kink and so lie in the immense rainshadow of the Transverse. Two desert biotas converge, the Colorado to the south and the Mojave to the north. The Colorado is lower and drier, the Mojave more elevated and somewhat wetter. The mountains have juniper, blackbush scrub, and the fabulous Joshua Tree, an arboreal-looking relative of the lily found only in the Mojave, and the reason why the area was declared a national monument in 1936. The sparse vegetation, standing like runes in a graveyard, argued for a large (860,000 acre) reserve.
Joshua Tree was then a forlorn and other-worldly place, heaps of rocks and strata like crustal scabs, lightly marked by vegetation, like a pointillist painting, visited mostly by prospectors. In 1950 pressure from mining interests succeeded in redefining the monument, removing 300,000 acres. Recreationists, including rock climbers, gradually discovered its peculiar charms. Travelers on the way to L.A. (or the Palm Springs casinos) made Joshua Tree a kind of motorized nature trail, easily accessible from I-10. Then the desert tortoise got listed. In 1994 the Desert Protection Act raised the monument to national park status and added 234,000 acres.
But if access brought public interest, it also brought ills. Like the Spanish missions that helplessly introduced disease and decimated indigenous populations, these new pilgrims carried exotic grasses, notably Bromus – red brome and its better known cousin, cheatgrass. The grasses brought fire. A place that had known fire as it had earthquakes, continually but rarely, got more of it and more often.
The character of the natural regime is unknown. The desert is not gregarious with combustibles; its woody constituents stand apart, desert pavement and boulders separate them, and nothing connects the patches. A fire would flare and go out, like a flaming matchhead. Surely, in El Niño years, when even the great peaks could not stop rains pushing into the desert, the flush of moisture would cause the desert to bloom, and the blooms would then wilt into stalks, and sometimes burn. No record of scarred trees or charcoal varves chronicles such events; but it seems plausible. It’s hard to imagine the place immune from fire. It’s equally difficult to envision it routinely swept by flames. The species show few adaptations to fire, certainly none that indicate that fire might be necessary. The signature Joshua Tree recovers poorly and painstakingly.
Then the missing fuels arrived. From its roadside infestation the brome filled the porous biota like water flooding a landscape of shallow depressions and pockets. A fire could carry from patch to patch, and more insidiously, since the brome cured earlier than indigenous grasses and forbs, it could burn again, and again, in a positive feedback, and gradually drive out the indigenous flora. Meanwhile, along the north, spreading out from highways, military bases, and watering holes like Twenty-Nine Palms, houses, strip malls, and other industrial tentacles twisted and squirmed through the passes and into the high desert. Together, like an invading virus, they commandeered the nucleus of the old fire regime.
Fire became possible, and then inevitable. Since 1965 fires propagated beyond their old quarter-acre allotments. In 1979 the Quail Mountain fire burned 6,000 acres. In 1995 the Covington fire scorched 5,158 acres. In 1999 the Juniper Complex blasted over 13,894 acres. The idea that modern fire management meant restoring fire became itself threatening. If the fires did become self-aggrandizing, they would wipe out the raison d’etre for the park. The real fire revolution of the Sixties had argued to match fire with land. In many places, this meant restoring fire. In Joshua Tree it meant excluding it. The future demanded a return to the past.
Fire management plans evolved accordingly. The latest calls for aggressive suppression – catching 95% of all ignitions during the first burning period; this for wilderness, recreational sites, or visitor centers. Although for very different reasons, Joshua Tree is thus moving in the same direction as so much of Southern California. This kind of initial attack, however, requires an apparatus that the park cannot maintain in-house, so it has joined the larger regional consortium. Fire dispatch in fact is handled out of the Federal Interagency Communication Center in the San Bernardino National Forest. Beyond that, the park will protect structures, but by crushing vegetation, not burning it. And it will promote the old stand-by, “further research.” Even the scientists of the Western Ecological Research Center of the USGS, however, are subject to strict limitations as to the size (“minimal”) and seasonality of their experimental burn plots.
Ultimately, Joshua Tree imagines a biological control over fire, not by a cycle of burning and fuels, but by the ecological stabilization of the flora. Fuel loads mean little; the exotic grasses, everything. What would seem an administrative atavism when agencies were scrambling to get fire back into the land is exactly what this particular place requires. Fire exclusion is a means to limit the invasives. Until the theory and practice of biological control matures, fire prevention remains, paradoxically, the more progressive option.
§ Channeling fire
The Channel Isles are a cluster of Transverse miniatures. They formed geologically from the same tectonics, they share a similar biota, and at lower sea-levels during the glacial maxima, they were joined to the mainland. They have chaparral and Santa Ana winds. They have, in brief, the same traits that the fire regimes of the Transverse have. But historically they came together less intensely, and today, they come together hardly at all.[i]
Some of the distinctiveness is simply the outcome of being islands. They are surrounded by sea, which makes them more maritime; fog is more pronounced, air is more humid, and during the higher seas of the glacial minima Santa Barbara, Anacapa, and San Miguel were likely submerged outright. Unlike the Transverse, fires cannot burn into them from elsewhere. They exhibit even less lightning ignitions than the Santa Ynez – only three in 140 years of records. The isles are further removed from the Santa Anas. Until roughly 1840, humans set fires, although how often and in what patterns is unclear.
Then fires virtually vanished. Recently they have returned from accidents (rescue flares set 600 acres aflame on Santa Cruz) and prescribed burns, one of which escaped under Santa Ana winds. What caused the fires to disappear was the introduction of vast herds of cattle and feral flocks of sheep and goats. The abolition has been so thorough that species have even shed some fire-adapted traits such as serotiny.
The isles are a borderlands. Two ocean currents – two maritime regimes – merge here, much as two deserts do at Joshua Tree. But the profound border is historical. For 4,000 to perhaps 13,000 years humans have occupied the Channel Islands. The fires of record are overwhelmingly theirs; they co-evolved with the biota to sculpt a distinctive fire regime, one in which large and savage fires were apparently uncommon. Then both fires and indigenes disappeared in a handful of years. Russian fur traders, hunting sea otters, probably arrived in the early 1820s. The first colonizing whites appeared on the largest island, Santa Catalina, in 1824. The indigenous Pimugnans ceased in the early 1830s, probably from a combination of disease and emigration. By the 1840s most of the larger isles had resident populations that herded cattle, sheep, and goats, along with some horses. Among the isles there were further transfers. Santa Catalina eliminated its sheep by 1930, but brought in mule deer, black buck, bison, and pigs. Santa Rosa also got pigs, which went feral and stymied many fruiting species.
Stocking islands with domestic fauna, particularly goats, was an old practice of voyaging Europeans. The Portuguese did it with every island they discovered, letting the animals, now without predators, to breed wildly and create a living larder for future mariners. Other explorers did likewise. The flocks went feral. Even deserted islands like Juan Fernandez (famous as the place where Alexander Selkirk was dumped, and the inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) had goats. The long term outcome was to drastically restructure ecosystems. Islands like St Helena became textbook exemplars for the terrors of overgrazing, deforestation, and desertification.
Slow combustion replaced fast. What fires had previously consumed the livestock now ate. They ate in such quantity that fire had little to burn, and plants that assumed a shrubby habit on the mainland, now became arboreal as branches survived only above the browse line. With astonishing speed and ruthlessness the fires vanished. Here and there, from time to time, a small burn escaped, or an accidental fire started, or perhaps in the early years ranchers set fires to expand pasturage. But the old fire regime was trampled, chewed off, and eaten up. Without a change in its physical matrix – climate and terrain remained constant – the fire regime turned inside out. It was a magnificent if horrifying demonstration of biological controls. What an invasive flora did at Joshua Tree, an invasive fauna did on Channel Islands.
The wreckage was self-destructive: even cattle and goats struggled to survive. By the 1950s, as the Southern California economy shifted from agriculture to services, particularly tourism, the cattle were taken out on Santa Catalina. In 1980 Congress created Channel Islands National Park which added the charge to restore something of the natural conditions. Formal programs commenced to removal the feral fauna and reinstate a more native fire regime. But early experiments, including several under cooperative programs with The Nature Conservancy, failed. They burned poorly because the habitat was no longer one to carry fire, or because they burns escaped under Santa Ana conditions. More fundamentally fire officials realized that repeated burning on the model of the southeastern U.S. only lead to another type conversion, from what remained of indigenous flora to annual weeds. So long had fire been excluded that portions of the biota were no longer adapted to it. On the mainland, chaparral ecology required a suitable regimen of burning. On the islands, it required an absence of flame. The only way to restore a fire regime from which fire had been extirpated was, paradoxically, to continue to exclude fire.
Fire suppression is the official policy of the islands. On Santa Catalina Island, under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, all-out control prevails. In 2007 LACFD actually sent engines to a bad fire by requisitioning a flotilla of Marine Corps hovercraft. On the other isles, where fire management is a collaborative enterprise with the Los Padres National Forest and The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service considers all fires as wildfires and will suppress them using minimum impact suppression tactics. Both fire and fire control are subordinate to the larger park mission. Fire protection means killing off the metabolic combustion of feral fauna.
§ Mediating fire
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is not a distinct landscape. Joshua Tree is more or less isolated in Mohave Desert, and the Channel Islands are outright isles. But SMMNRA is a tumbled terrain between the San Gabriels and the Santa Ynez – in the thick of the Transverse Range -, and a pastiche of private and public lands assembled in 1978 without a core, thus offering a landscape mirror to the centerless city. It embraces 20 different types of landowners, some 70 stakeholder groups, and a melange of fuels that make fires inevitable and largely unmanageable without full type conversion to exurb. If the fire scene at Joshua Tree was the result of exotic plants, and that at Channel Islands the product of exotic animals, the peculiar dynamic at Santa Monica Mountains was an outcome of exotic humans. As nowhere else the NRA concentrates the fundamentals of regional fire.
The mountains are crusted with chaparral over which the Santa Anas rush like water cascading through a rapids. Where gorges exist, they run roughly with the grain of the wind, creating fire flumes or the flaming equivalent of floodplains. Malibu Canyon is to wildfire what the Red River is to flooding. A Mediterranean climate, a fire-flushed biota, rude mountains, and gravity winds – if any place might demonstrate that fire is inevitable, and therefore essential, and that might illuminate the folly of arrogantly muscling suburbs into a landscape foreordained to burn explosively, the Santa Monica Mountains should be it.
When the NRA was founded, it accepted the prevailing wisdom of the day. For the Park Service this meant it should seek to restore the natural regimen of fire, or where complications from politics and development made that impossible, to use prescribed fire as a surrogate. Fuel reduction burning could quell unruly chaparral. Broadcast fire could allow a traumatized ecosystem to begin healing. These notions embodied the most progressive scientific thinking available. Research confirmed that chamise – the most emblematic of the chaparral constituency – underwent a seasonal and secular cycle of burning. The later the season, the more prone it was to flame out, with ideal conditions coinciding closely with Santa Ana conditions. The older it got the more likely it was to burn, and to carry the rest of the complex with it. The longer fire suppression continued, the larger and more savage fires got. The solution was to turn chamise’s propensity to burn against it and do the burning when people favored.
These concepts were embodied in the first fire plan, approved in 1986. By 1994 the plan received a thorough overhaul. The primary purpose of fire management, it stated, was to reinstate a more natural fire regime, but given the magnitude of “urban interface” and “private inholdings” at Santa Monica Mountains, there could be no “natural fire program,” only a prescribed fire program used “in lieu of” nature’s way and to “duplicate natural ecosystem processes lost as a direct result of fire suppression actions.” The plan imagined a five-year program of prescribed fire to burn inherited fuelbreaks and to create “mosaics” among the brush. It refused to designate any fire management units since both suppression and prescribed fire objectives remained “constant on all NRA lands.” Cynics thought the program was based in equal measure on unattainable ideals and an assumption that all actions taken would be subject to lawsuits.
But the court of opinion reversed itself. Research into fire history suggested that the large, high-intensity fires for which the Santa Monicas have become notorious may be more recent innovation. It may be that exurban development did not move into a conflagration zone so much as it created one. The off-shore sedimentary record documents a long period of soot and deposition, which could only have come from fires burning under Santa Anas; but these were rare because there were few ignitions in the interior mountains. Lightning starts fires, but sparsely, and the indigenous Chumash burned often but mostly in coastal sage and grasslands, not inland chaparral; their fires would burn against the offshore winds. It was modern settlement that cracked open the mountains with roads and brought fire-starters inland. The odds of such ignitions capturing a Santa Ana increased hugely. At the same time, the peculiar development of the mountains by the rich and famous made it difficult to conduct traditional burning by ranchers or to substitute other kinds of controlled fire.
The only fire allowed was wildfire. The wildfires came more frequently. Along the coast they pushed the biota into grasses, notably invasive annuals. In the mountains they shortened the cycle of chaparral burning. Fires burned out to their newly inscribed boundaries. The fire departments of Ventura County and Los Angeles County fought them. Then came the NRA. It protected the native biota, but it also, not incidentally, protected the property values of those who already resided within its capacious boundaries.
By 2000 experience and research both determined that the plan no longer worked – could never work because it was based on flawed assumptions. To be effective mosaic burning would have to assume a scale that would consume the entire landscape; and there would never be enough money or political will to undertake such a project. Nor was it needed. Wind, not fuels, drove the characteristic fires, and the fire history was one of escalating, not dampening, burns. Dense stands were the norm, not an aberration created by misguided fire suppession. In fact, introducing more fire would further unhinge the system. It would spread exotic grasses, it would lessen the age of chaparral that needed to grow older, and it would surely lead to lawsuits. The best solution was to back off, try to prevent fires, and when a big one occurred, to stand aside and let the flames wash over hardened structures. The Park headquarters at Thousand Oaks, built into a hillside rather than on top of it, was probably intended to embody ecologically sensitive design features. In truth it resembles a bunker. It could survive a 7 or 8 on a fire Richter scale. It cast into concrete the future of fire management.
In a famous essay later included in The Ecology of Fear (1998) critic Mike Davis made the case “for letting Malibu burn.” His argument evolved out a sense of public economics and social justice, that it was outrageous that the entire country should subsidize through its colossal firefighting efforts the life of a financial and celebrity elite who chose to live in a fire flume. The climax was the 1993 fire siege that made Malibu burning (again) primetime theater. The argument went unanswered. It seemed that the public was willing to pay for the spectacle, not only of panicked celebrities fretting over the safety of their horses, but of an insouciance of privatizing profits while socializing losses, and a confirmation of assumptions about life in California. Los Angeles is, as Davis noted, the place critics love to destroy. After fires again swept through in 2003 and 2007, the spectacle lost what little charm it might have had. For decades the state had relied on subsidies from the nation to support its indulgence. Now the country could no longer borrow to keep up pretenses.
Yet Santa Monica Mountains NRA did answer Davis’ thesis. It said, in effect, it would no longer guarantee blanket fire control – could no longer justify it on ecological grounds, quite apart from economics or notions of social justice. It would help with hazard reduction around private inholdings; this was neighbor helping neighbor. But it would not fight fires where they were unfightable and it would not light them in the name of fire control where they would damage the greater good of the park. It made the NRA a higher good than celebrity ranches. It is an idea as radical as Mike Davis’, and it – not some hypothetical past state of nature – will likely determine the future of Santa Monica fire.
July 2011 / [pdf]