Another Day

Notwithstanding my assurance in Mission Statement that I was going to get out more, sometimes the story comes to you; it doesn’t take much: just a little smoke and rain during one weekend in July.

Friday. Fire in the desert’s forest fringe has darkened the valley; the smoke haze reached Upper Ojai at about 6:30 am this morning and it was as though someone had pulled down a shade screen. The sun rose an orange orb in a sky smeared with soot; later, as its rays were no longer angling horizontally through the low blanket of smoke, the day brightened and regained some sense of normalcy.

But come evening, the sun set as a fiery red disc over the Nordhoff Ridge. Filtered through the brown haze that now lay on the western horizon, the reactive processes of our expanding, nucleo-synthetic star were lent a brilliant, Kodachrome 64 cast.

For five days, the so called Mountain Fire has raged across 25,000 acres of dry chaparral and forest in the rugged San Jacinto range about 150 miles southeast of Ojai. The mountains rise steeply out of the surrounding desert floor and provide habitat for a relict forest of mixed conifers.

Growing at the southwestern margins of their range, these trees date back 50 MYA to the warm humid climate of the Tertiary period. The uplifting of the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade ranges isolated them from the rest of the continent and they spread southward, ideally adapted to survive cold, heat and drought. Low intensity fires occurred frequently, perhaps as often as every ten or twenty years, but the rich mix of species limited their intensity. Now, more homogeneous forests and a forest service history of fire suppression have resulted in high intensity conflagrations like the Mountain Fire.

Although fire has become intrinsic to the planet, conditions for its existence did not exist before about 400 MYA – by then oxygen was sufficiently dense to support combustion and land plants sufficiently fibrous to supply fuel: the earliest charcoal finds date back to that era. The beginning of man-made fire has now been pushed back to over a million years ago. Paul Goldberg and Francesco Berna report finding animal bones and charcoal in the earliest occupation floor of Wonderwerk Cave, in South Africa, dating to 1.2 MYA. (National Academy of Sciences, 2013)

 Our development as a species is intricately entwined in the story of fire. As M. Kat Anderson points out in Tending the Wild, Southern California Indians set deliberate fires to manage the natural build-up of fuels and provide advantageous conditions for hunting and gathering. Their settlements were protected by fire-breaks – the lands upon which they hunted and harvested and regularly burnt. In Fire: A Short History, Stephen J. Pyne, explains our co-evolution thus:

 “What began as a chemical event evolved, in humanity’s restless hands, into a device for remaking whole landscapes. No human society has lacked fire, and none has failed to alter the fire-regimes of the lands it encountered. Equipped with fire, people colonized the earth. Carried by humans, so did fire.”

 In the historic period, California has been plagued with the regular occurrence of firestorms in both urban and wildland environments. Today, fire suppression and species homogenization have created ideal conditions for high intensity fires in the forests, but in many areas of chaparral high intensity fires have always been the norm because the rugged back country has never known any permanent human settlement thus neither Indian burning nor fire suppression have been factors. The frequency and intensity of these fires are exacerbated only by the usual suspects of extreme drought, heat and wind (the severity of which anthropogenic climate change may now be worsening). In addition, the development of housing in the wildland-urban interface has both expanded the scope of ignition sources and increased the human costs of wild fire.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo arrived in Southern California in fire-season in 1542, and promptly named what is now the Los Angeles basin, Bahia de los Fumos or ‘Bay of Smokes’. Given the density of Indian settlement at the time, It may have been nothing more than the bay’s notorious inversion layer preventing smoke from their cooking fires escaping into the upper atmosphere (as it now traps smog) that prompted his descriptive naming, but it is also likely that he saw one or more chaparral fires, either deliberately set or ignited by lightning.

George Vancouver, the English explorer, was more explicit. When he arrived off of Bahia Todos Los Santos – just south of present-day Ensenada - in 1793, he describes seeing “immense columns of smoke arise from the shore… these clouds of smoke, containing ashes and dust, soon enveloped the whole coast”. Less than a hundred years later, the California State database (CALFIRE) provides details of the Tujunga Canyon Fire in the western end of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles in 1878, which consumed 60,000 acres. In 1889, the Santiago Canyon fire in Orange County may have been the largest wildfire in California’s history. It burnt between 300,000 and 500,000 acres and spread across over 30 miles of the Santa Ana Mountains.

The twentieth century opens its account in April 1906 with the earthquake induced urban firestorm that burnt 2,600 acres of San Francisco and utterly destroyed 490 city blocks of what was then the west coast’s greatest city (Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World). The combination of highly flammable wooden buildings, multiple ignition sources post-earthquake, a fresh westerly wind and the broken pipes which caused a complete absence of fire-fighting water, left the city helpless before the inferno.

Closer to home, the 1932 Matilija fire consumed 220,000 acres of chaparral and oak woodland north of the Ojai area and in Upper Ojai burnt across Koenigstein Road towards Sulphur Mountain. There are oaks on our property that almost certainly bear the scars. The local live-oaks have a life span of a hundred years or more and we are now bumping up against that limit – in the last couple of years we have had three fire-damaged old trees lose one or more of their multiple trunks. In the remote, steep areas of the site there remain dead oak hulks that presumably date back to the nineteenth century, surviving fire in life and maintaining a soulful, sculptural presence in their slow decay in death.

Major Ventura County fires in 1970 and the Wheeler Fire in 1985 may also have touched Upper Ojai. The December 1999 Ranch Fire began on Koenigstein Road and threatened Ojai’s East End, but prompt VCFD response limited it to less than 5,000 acres. Fire storms in 2003 and 2007, when multiple fires raged over the shrublands of Southern California, were each driven by hot, Santa Ana winds, but Ojai was spared. Santa Barbara, however, has experienced multiple major fires from 2007 through 2009 with the devastating Zaca, Gap, Tea and Jesusita fires.

In the early hours of Monday morning it began raining and at first light a blanket of white cloud lay in the valley. Above, there was a yellow cast to the lowering monsoonal clouds. Around six, when small patches of blue sky appeared in the east, a rainbow rose above Sulphur Mountain ridge, arced over the valley – still shrouded in mist – and grounded itself, to the northwest, somewhere beyond Nordhoff ridge.

Over the weekend, it had rained in the San Jacinto Wilderness.

Thunderstorms brought one and a half inches of rain to the Mountain Fire's active north and northwest edges and by early Sunday fire crews achieved the upper hand. A fire-regime incident had been contained by human and meteorological intervention: un-burnt forest remains on its San Jacinto perch to ignite another day.