“With attention to the widespread damage which results to the public from the burning of the fields, customary up to now among both Christian and Gentile Indians in this country, whose childishness has been unduly tolerated, and as a consequence of various complaints that I have had of such abuse, I see myself required to have the foresight to prohibit for the future... all kinds of burning, not only in the vicinity of the towns but even at the most remote distances....
Therefore I order and command all commandantes of the presidios in my charge to do their duty and watch with the greatest earnestness to take whatever measures they may consider requisite and necessary to uproot this very harmful practice of setting fire to pasture lands [and] exorcize equal vigilance in trying to advise the Christian Indians and the Gentiles of the neighboring rancherias about this proclamation and impressing upon them that those who commit such an offense will be punished, and in case some burning occurs, they are to try immediately to take the most appropriate means to stop the fire....
“I beg and charge the Reverend fathers, priests of the missions, that they do their part in instructing the Christian Indians not to commit such transgressions.... I order that this decision of mine be published by proclamation in the presidios as well as the missions and towns of this province which is in my charge....with the full understanding that whatever lack of observance may be noticed in this matter [which is] of such great interest will be worthy of the most severe punishment.”
May 31, 1793
Jose Joaquin de Arrillaga
THE WIND STARTS in the dry heat of the Great Basin. In the air above Utah, a zone of high pressure begins to build. Simultaneously, a band of low pressure begins to develop on the western side of the mountain ranges, sucking the wind towards the Sierras. As it sweeps across the desert floor it is heated by compression. Increasing in speed, it races across the Central Valley, through Santa Barbara County, and over the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, funnelling down into the city as a searing heat that raises temperatures rapidly towards a flash point.
On the day of the fire the wind is hot and dry, increasing steadily throughout the afternoon until it becomes a gale, filling the air with dust devils, bits of plant material and an oven-like heat. In the chaparral, with precious little moisture in its system, the leaves begin a death-curl, many of them dropping off.
By 4 pm the temperature has risen to 108 degrees; by 8 pm that evening it has fallen only 6 degrees—a pattern that has been repeated on the previous three days. By September 24, the tinder-dry brush is ready to explode. A careless fire in the Santa Ynez drainage ignites this Santa Barbara wildfire.
Steadily it creeps up the north side of the mountains, cresting them as the wind builds in velocity. That evening town residents witness an incredible fireworks display. “No Fourth of July celebration could compare with this,” the Santa Barbara Morning Press reports. “The fire came down the 9
mountainside with the speed of a horse; and soon the mountain seemed a vast furnace painting the heavens with its lurid crimson hues.
“The awful roar of the voracious element, plainly heard a distance of five miles, the sheet of flames sweeping along the mountainside and leaping high in the air, the immense volumes of black smoke rolling skyward, rendered the scene grand and appalling.”
For several days the fire burns, at times threatening ranches and associated structures, though sparing the city. Gradually, as the high pressure shifts, and the intense winds dwindle, the fire lays down.
This is not the 1980s or 1990s—the year is 1885. It is is not an isolated event, but part of a larger pattern; fire is a natural part of the Santa Barbara landscape and has been for the last several million years, a fact, curiously that we have not really understood until recently.
WHAT IS IT that makes for such fires? Simply put, it is chaparral plus wind plus people. As I sit here at my computer writing these words, staring out my window at a magnificent view of an oak forest, chaparral hillsides, Figueroa Mountain in the distance, the fact that fire is an overwhelming necessity is not something that is immediately comforting. I have chosen to live in the midst of this fire-prone land.
The view is private and the feeling is special. The mountains are my home and I would live nowhere else. In an area that is becoming increasingly crowded, the mountains are my retreat, the place I like to call my home.
My feelings are something like those of Roger Horton, whose house is destroyed in the Sycamore Fire. “I lived here so long,” he says, “the possibility of a natural disaster has become pretty deeply ingrained with me. In a short period of time we had an oil spill, an earthquake, floods, and three major fires. I knew by living here disaster was a possibility. I never had the sense that fate dealt me an evil blow. I knew it could happen.”
Like Roger and the chaparral plants, I have adapted.
The First Element of Fire — Chaparral
From above the chaparral canopy, like a closed book, yields little—nor from the roadside do the meshed branches and tangle of thorny limbs. It is an environment that seems more to say Keep Out, No Trespassing than to invite closer inspection. But from beneath the chaparral cover, the clues which point out the necessity of fire are more readily apparent.
The ground is littered with leaves and other detrius. On the surface the soil appears to be rich. Digging down a few inches it is possible to scrape up a handful of blackish-brown, loamy soil, the smell full of decomposition, seemingly good stuff to resupply nutrients needed by the nearby plants. A few inches deeper, however, the soil turns lighter and more sandy; a half-foot down the sand is yellowish, just below that bedrock. There is little below ground level to sustain the chaparral. On the steep mountain slopes, the rocky soils are thin at best. Most of the nutrients are washed away during the short rainy season.
Though it has been 35 years since the Refugio Fire, fire-blackened burls remain on the hillsides above Goleta, still hard enough to be turned on a lathe and made into flower vases or exotic sculp10
tures. I have several of these at home; the black has penetrated several inches into them, testimony to the intensity of the fire. Yet a generation has passed and they have yet to decay. In the dry Mediterranean climate which is characteristic of the Santa Ynez Mountains, nature cannot decompose these remains fast enough to be of value to the plants—this job is left to fire, which the growth of the chaparral vegetation and soil fertility depend on. In the middle latitudes, this is the most effective way to recycle this material.
IF THERE IS A characteristic which seems to mark this country, it is a sameness—there is little here to differentiate one mountainside or plant community from another. Even in its most colorful months during the springtime, the mountain wall behind Santa Barbara is remarkably dull—both in character and color—looking the same today perhaps, as it did to the Chumash 5,000 years earlier. Despite this appearance, it is nevertheless a land of inherent instability
It is a region still governed by the great forces of nature, a land of deep time, events occurring at a geologic pace. The history of these mountains dates back perhaps 250 million years when the movement of gigantic tectonic plates caused the shifting of entire continents and the breakup of what was then Pangaea. Built upon a succession of marine layers—sands, siltstones, and clay—they have been thrust skyward by tectonic movement measured not in generations but in the thousands of years.
Forming a continuous crest from Ojai to Gaviota, the Santa Ynez Mountains are steeply tilted to the south at an angle of nearly 50 degrees. At one point in their geologic history they have been as much as 7,000 feet in elevation. In the intervening period since Pleistocene mountain-building processes dominated, erosion has taken its toll. The Lookout Tower atop La Cumbre Peak today is at 3,985 feet.
If the collision of the huge tectonic plates has forced the Santa Ynez Mountains steeply into the air, water and gravity have worn deep canyons into the mountainous faces, forming a series of vertical headwalls and narrow chasms.
The vegetation which clothes the mountain wall has responded to this instability well. While the land changes, the chaparral remains as a constant. What is seen from the valley floor is more a coating of outer clothes than the plants themselves. The life force is in its burl, where nutrients are stored, and in its long tap root, which reaches deeply into the recesses of the sandstone to gain enough moisture for survival. Remove the outer clothing and the plant responds with a surprising vitality. Chaparral dominates where mountain-building and erosive forces are at work, not because the plants are long living, but because they have adapted to this instability, and are able to regenerate quickly. Maturity for the chaparral is measured in cycles rarely longer than twenty-five or thirty years.
Seldom more than fifteen feet in height, the chaparral is an elfin forest named after the chaparro, a scrub oak that grows in Spain. Though lacking in stature, el chaparro makes up for it in orneriness. There is a delicate aroma to the chaparral, the sweet-smelling oils in its leaves adapting it well to fire. This causes a curious juxtaposition of opposites—of toughness and delicacy—which marks chaparral country.
Though not so easily distinguished in a casual glance, properly speaking, there are two distinct elements to the chaparral: coastal sage; and hard chaparral. Coastal sage is rarely found above 1,500 feet in elevation and is composed of low herbaceous shrubs, rarely more than seven feet tall, and are 11
found along the lower foothills. The hard chaparral is found in the higher elevations and is composed of the duller green plants such as chamise, manzanita, scrub oak and ceanothus that give the mountain wall its characteristic color. Despite the less-than-appealing aesthetics of these plants, they are well adapted. Poor soil, lack of water, and intense summer heat would kill off any other plant community, but in a Darwinian sort of way there is a grace to their ability to survive in such conditions.
Survival is due to their sclerophyllous nature, which means they have characteristics allowing them to resist water loss. For the scrub oak this means a heavy wax cuticle on the leaves and stems; those of the manzanita are tough and leathery. Others have extremely small leaves like the ceanothus, barely a quarter inch across, or the chamise, whose leaves are equally tiny and needle-like.
Its main adaptation, however, is to fire, which initiates a new cycle of plant succession. In the hard chaparral the buildup of dead fuel serves to ensure the continuity of fire; in the coastal sage it is the volatile and highly flammable oils which do so.
Viewed on a linear scale, the chaparral life cycle can be seen as a series of pulses, each initiated by fire. Removal of the older brush by wildfire is not an adversity that must be overcome but a biological necessity.
Before the Chumash appear along the South Coast perhaps 10,000 years ago, lightning has been the chief cause of fire. If core samples taken from the Santa Barbara Channel are indicative, large wildfires have raged through the area on the average of every 66 years.
What happens if it doesn’t burn? In the early 1900s the predominant belief is that the chaparral has resulted from man’s careless introduction of fire into the Southern California landscape. Scientists theorize that pine forests have once been the dominant community, and that by eliminating fire, they can be restored to their former glory. Suppression of each and every wildfire becomes the official State and Forest Service policy and in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of pines are planted by Depression crews, more than 30,000 of these trees in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Most of the pines die, a few of them remaining on the cooler, more moist slopes of La Cumbre Peak as a reminder. The chaparral does not die back as theorized. Later, it is discovered that the chaparral, when fire is withheld, progressively turns to dead, woody material until, by age 30, as much as 90 per cent of the plant may be composed of dry fuel.
This is known as fuel loading and because of this policy of fire suppression, by the 1950s each 1000 acres of chaparral on the front side of the Santa Ynez Mountains has a fuel loading that is the heat equivalent of a Hiroshima-type atomic bomb. From 1955 to 1971, in three major wildfires which burn the entire length of these mountains from Refugio to Casitas Pass, more than 160,000 acres of chaparral are consumed.
This first element of fire—the chaparral—is for the Forest Service a cause of intense frustration. If they eep it from burning, all they’ve done is to create the conditions for a major wildfire. If they burn it in a safe manner—which probably can’t be done near the edge of civilization—thirty years later the chaparral returns, like the little girl in the popular horror movie, saying, “I’m baa-aaaa-acck.”12
The Second Element of Fire — Wind
THE SUN COMES UP bright that day. It is a Friday—June 17, 1859. There is a little breeze from the northeast, a clear sky, and the promise of a warm day. The morning temperatures are normal, 75-to-80 degrees, with an offshore breeze that prevents the ocean from having a cooling effect.
By noon, people begin to notice something unusual is happening. The temperature has quickly risen to almost 100 degrees and the mountain breeze is becoming stronger and stronger. About 1 pm a heavy blast of hot air sweeps through the Goleta Valley from the direction of Santa Ynez Peak, driving even the hardiest into the shelter of their homes and filling them with terror; they think the end of the world has come.
The superheated air continues to pour down on the coast for the next hour. By 2 pm the temperature is an incredible 133 degrees! Many of the people take refuge behind the thick walls of Daniel Hill’s adobe, who is owner of Rancho La Goleta, where they pray fervently for the oppressive heat to be lifted.
For the next three hours the temperature hovers at 130 degrees; by 5 pm it has cooled off only slightly, to 122 degrees. The inhabitants wonder if this will ever come to an end. Then suddenly, as fast as it has come, the hot breeze dies and a cool marine breeze washes over the land. By 7 pm the temperature is a comfortable 77 degrees and the half-baked citizens emerge from their houses to see what damage has occurred.
“Birds had plummeted dead from the sky; others had flown into wells seeking cooler air and drowned,” says Walker Tompkins, describing the event in his book, Goleta the Good Land. “A fisherman in a rowboat made it in to the Goleta sandspit with his face and arms blistered as if he had been exposed to a blast furnace.”
“Calves, rabbits and cattle died on their feet,” adds a government report. “Fruit fell from trees to the ground, scorched on the windward side; all vegetable gardens were ruined.”
Did this really happen? There are no doubters among those who are here in Santa Barbara on Wednesday, June 27th, 1990, when the Painted Cave Fire starts and the temperature a sizzling 108 degrees.
“THE SEASONS HERE usually change slowly, some say not at all,” Russ Spencer writes in an article in the News & Review in 1986. “But Santa Ana winds can turn a brisk, 60-degree winter day into something resembling the inside of a clothes dryer.”
There are times in the mountains when the wind seems to blow incessantly. In the morning, at first light, the breeze begins to kick up. As the sun warms the mountain slopes the air begins to heat, and to expand, rising upward. Cooler marine air moves across the valley floor, a soft wind that replaces the ascending air, and it, too, moves up the mountain wall. By afternoon the columns of air tower over the mountains, once again cooling, and condensing to form billowing cumulus clouds, a picturesque backdrop for the city.
In the evening the wind reverses itself, the clouds disappearing, the cooler, heavier air falling from the sky, down canyon, and into the sea, off-shore breezes that fill the sails of the small boats just off the edge of the harbor.13
But these winds do not threaten. It is the cruel and capricious santa ana, or sundowner, which does—this the second element in fire—causing the severe fire weather which determines whether a fire will lay down like a docile dog or whip up into a frenzy of uncontrollable fury.
These devil winds are known by many names—simoon, santa ana or sundowner in Southern California; chinook in Colorado; ghibli in the Middle East; zonda in the Argentinian Andes. It is a condition initiated by conditions a thousand miles away, where high pressure on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains forces the dry, hot desert air toward the Pacific Coast.
These viscious winds can reach speeds of from 20 to 90 miles per hour and last for 2-to-3 days. They occur most often in August, September, and October, at the end of the long, waterless summer, when the chaparral is at its most vulnerable. Under such conditions the chaparral can explode like a bomb, burning through the mountains at a rate of four-to-six square miles an hour, an amount equivalent to about 4 million gallons of gasoline.
THE SANTA ANA WIND is born in the Great Western Basin, an area between the Rockies and the Sierras, when high pressure systems of warm air build up there. When a zone of low pressure develops near the Pacific coast, this mass of warm air will begin to move westward towards the Pacific Ocean, eventually reaching very high temperatures by the time it descends on the Southern California.
It is in the nature, or the physics, of wind that this occurs. When it is warmed, air rises, and as it does cooler air slides across the surface of the earth to fill the void left by this rising air. As this air moves across the land we feel it as wind. The speed of this current often increases when traveling from a place of high elevation to a lower one, as is the case when it moves from the Great Basin to the coast.
Once generated, the santa ana winds swoop out of the desert, often without warning, howling through canyons and mountains, spilling through the coastal passes and funneling into Southern California along several main channels. The volume of air being carried toward the sea is phenomenal, and the velocities attained can reach gale force in minutes. Powerfully hot and dry, they are capable of fashioning a major firestorm from what might have only become a small brush fire.
According to the Glossary of Meteorology published in 1959 by the American Meteorological Society, a santa ana is “a hot, dry desert wind generated from the northeast or east, especially in the pass and river valleys of Southern California, where it is further modified as a mountain-gap wind.”
Is a santa ana the same as a sundowner?
Definitely not says Gary Ryan, who is a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Santa Maria. “They differ in several ways,” he says. “The sundowner is a localized phenonmenon while the santa ana generally affects the entire region.
“The santa ana also draws most of its heat from high-pressure systems over Nevada and Utah,” he adds, “while the sundowner pulls its heat from the other side of the Santa Ynez mountain range.”
Part of the answer, again, is in the nature of wind.
When it reaches a barrier, such as the Santa Ynez Mountains, the air rises as it goes over the mountains, cooling somewhat in the process. Once over the mountain crest, this cooler air then tumbles down the other side and is warmed by compression as it reaches lower altitudes.14
This compressive pressure cooks the air, raising its temperature as much as 5 degrees for every 1,000 feet in elevation it drops, often causing temperatures 15-to-20 degrees hotter in Santa Barbara than in the local mountains.
When santa ana conditions occur, the wind that reaches the Santa Ynez Valley is already blistering hot. It can then become a sundowner as it is superheated on the north slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains. By early afternoon the air begins to force its way up and over the mountains, and by dusk, or sundown, the hot downcanyon winds begin to blow into town, typically lasting until about 11 pm to midnight, when cooler marine air moves in.
Whether called santa ana, sundowner, simoon or foehn, descriptions of these winds have been around for more than a hundred years. Newspaper accounts mentioning santa ana winds first appear in the 1880s. Some believe the name stems from an Indian word—santanta—or something similar, meaning devil wind. Others argue Spanish explorers who were blasted by unusually hot winds coming in from Santa Ana Canyon have named it. Still others contend that it stems from the Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, whose cavalry stirred up clouds of dust during military campaigns such as the one which crushed Texans at the Alamo in 1836.
Or perhaps it is simply due to the explanation given by A.J. Wilson, the city manager for the town of Santa Ana. “Santa Ana just happens to be the oldest town around here,” he says with a shrug, “and there wasn’t any place else to name the thing after.”
“City of the Santa Anas” isn’t something that the local residents are proud of. In 1901, after a particularly disastrous fire fueled by these winds, and plenty of negative publicity, the Chamber of Commerce tries in vain to have the santa ana winds renamed, citing undue fears which they are afraid will hurt business.
Whatever its name its characteristics are truly devil-like; it is a wind whose affects are not limited to hot furnace-like blasts of wind, low humidities, and fire-prone conditions.
The dry air can irritate lung tissue and nasal passages, and is extremely serious for those with emphysema. The dust it kicks up can add to the woes of those with allergies.
“It gives fine hair an uncontrollable life of its own,” News & Review writer Russ Spencer adds, “and turns curly hair into something resembling a Brillo pad.
“The skin gets flaky and itchy. Socks stick together and powerlines crackle and spit in the conductive air. People in bars up and down State Street toast in delirious glory to their new found ability to drink five beers and not go potty.”
It can even cause tempers to flare.
“There is a long history of experience, particularly in Europe, that intense dry winds tend to affect the degree of irritability,” says clinical professor of psychology at UCLA Medical Center Charles William Wahl. “For 200 to 300 years if someone committed a murder during the wind called a foehn it was considered partial exculpation. In Egypt any contract signed during the khamsin is not binding, and if a crime is committed the courts take the wind into consideration.
“I think we see a similar phenomenon in our own santa ana winds. The major change is a massive drop in the humidity. During these periods of the santa ana my patients describe to me larger feelings of irritability and irrascibility.”15
Wahl and C.D. Mason, an Associate Professor of Psychology at USC, both agree that the santa ana may affect arson behavior as well. “I think perhaps not in terms of mood,” says Wahl, “but if you are an arsonist this is the best time. Everything is tinder dry and the winds can fan the flames into a large and gratifying result for the arsonist.”
“If a guy emotionally needs to see a big fire he’ll get it when the winds blow,” Mason also notes. “The arsonist is a person who has a lot of suppressed power needs. Usually, he is a person who’s not successful in life.
“It can be a symbolic expression of power. It makes loud noises. Now the guy who sets a fire or acts angrily because of the wind, you might say, is identifying with it. He is going towards this power stimulus.”
Occasionally, these winds are actually blessed. Their ability to clear out smog and make island views crisply spectacular is phenomenal.
The Third Element of Fire — People
I HAVE OFTEN wondered what it must have been like to have been the first Chumash Indian to gaze upon this coastline—no houses, no powerlines, no freeway, no city lights at night. It must have been a very powerful sight, full of magic and spirit.
Soon, after their coming, a scattering of campfires and villages would have appeared, along with a handful thin trails leading into the backcountry and the hypnotic rock art. Incidences of wildfire must surely also have begun to increase.
Among man’s oldest tools, fire is the first product of the natural world he learns to domesticate. Though it is difficult to be sure how much effect the Chumash have on the coastal environment, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sails into the Southern California area in 1542, there is a wildfire burning on the Southern California horizon. The sky is filled with so much smoke that he names a large bay near what is now Los Angeles. Bahia de los Fumos.
Like the chaparral, people are a key ingredient in the recipe for fire.
In 1769, as Spanish soldiers and mission fathers travel northward, passing through the Santa Barbara area in late August, Friar Juan Crespi takes copious notes. His diaries later provide much of the insight we have about the Chumash and the environment these first Europeans encounter.
Near Arroyo Burro Creek he sees “very large clumps of broad grass, burnt in some spots and not in others;” in Goleta “fine dry grasses; [which] in many places had been burnt off.” At the site of a village in what may have been Tajiguas Canyon the rich soil is “well covered with very fine grasses that nearly everywhere had been burnt off by the heathens.
A year later, on a second trip northward in May 1770, as Crespi surveys the wide expanse of grassland along the coastal plain, the “fields [are] all abloom with different kinds of wildflowers of all colors, so that, as many as were the flowers we had been meeting all the way and on the Channel, it was not in such plenty as here, for it is all one mass of blossom.” Rather than the charred fields seen the previous year, he is stunned by the beauty and the “great quantities of white, yellow, red, purple, and blue ones; many yellow violets or gilly flowers of the sort that are planted in gardens...and what graced the fields most of all was the sight of all the different sorts of colors together.”
The Chumash must also have noted the increased number of flowering plants, grasses, and other potential food sources following a fire and used this to their advantage. Burning the grasses and 16
coastal sage becomes a valued means of promoting the growth of grasses and herbs that are important to their diet, and a way to chase game from the fire-scorched brush. As long as the Chumash are able to harness the regenerative powers of wildfire, agriculture is not needed in their culture; in fact, in terms of efficiency, it would represent a step backwards.
If the Chumash altered their environment somewhat significantly through the use of fire, the California landscape undergoes an even more radical transformation in the late 1700s when cattle are introduced by the Spanish missionaries. Seeds brought from the European continent, along with overgrazing, change much of California from perennial grassland to annual shrubs and hasten the spread of fire-dependent annual grasses. What we like to call “golden California” is the result of this environmental transformation.
“The combined effects of the tamed and wild livestock,” UC Santa Cruz Professor Raymond Dasmann explains in Destruction of California, “were to change the nature of the California rangelands, to destroy the old California prairie, and replace the native plants with alien species. This was the first major destruction of the wildlands of California to be charged against the influence of the white man.”
Loss of native vegetation is the most visible sign of the European invasion; a more subtle, though equally important change, comes when fire is removed from the landscape. In 1793, because of “widespread damage which results to the public from the burning of the fields,” Governor Arrillaga introduces the state’s first fire control policy, marking the beginning of a policy oriented towards the elimination of wildfire from the Southern California. In 1872, the California Legislature passes a state law making it a crime to set a fire on public land or “to fail to use every effort to prevent the spread of a fire caused accidentally or through carelessness or neglect,or to permit a fire to burn through wooded country or forest.” In 1891, the first national forest lands are set aside and the Forest Service is created by Congress in 1898, making it the nation’s first rural fire suppression force.
These have little effect on the number of destructive wildfires that occur in the mountains behind Santa Barbara.
In 1831, Alfred Robinson, a Santa Barbara resident, describes a fire in Life in California that is typical of those which occur in the 1800s and still occur in the 1990s. “About this time we were much alarmed,” he writes, “in consequence of the burning of the woods upon the mountains. For several days the smoke has been seen to rise from the distant hills of St. Buenaventura and gradually approach the town.
“At last it has reached the confines of the settlement and endangered the fields of grain and gardens. Soon it spread low upon the hills, and notwithstanding a strong westerly wind was blowing, the flames traveled swiftly to windward, consuming everything in their course.
“It was late at night when they reached the rear of the town, and as they furiously wreathed upwards, the sight was magnificent, but terrible. The wind blew directly upon the town, and the large cinders that fell in every direction seemed to threaten us with certain destruction.
“The inhabitants fled from their homes to the beach, or sought the house of Senor Noriega, where prayers were offered and the saints supplicated. The vessels at anchor in the bay were also much endangered, for their decks were covered with burning cinders, and their crews incessantly employed in keeping them wet. 17
“During the entire night the ravages of the fire continued, and when daylight broke it had seized upon the vineyard belonging to the mission. Here the green state of vegetation somewhat checked its progress, and it passed over to the mountains again, to pursue its course northward. On the uplands everything was destroyed, and for months afterwards, the bare and blackened hills marked the course of the devastating element.”
BY THE 1980S lightning-caused wildfires, nature’s way of igniting the chaparral, are the exception, not the rule. After almost two hundred years of efforts to the contrary, the policy of excluding fire from the hills has done the opposite of what has been desired; there are far fewer small fires, but those which do occur burn even larger, and are much more destructive than those which once occurred in pre-historic times.
Thus the paradox of wildfire: the exercise of extreme vigilance during periods of high fire danger, and prompt suppression of fires while still small may be successful in the short term; but over the long term, it is always done at the expense of storing up a tinderbox of material for future fires.
“The longer an area remains unburned, the greater becomes its potentiality for fires of uncontrollable fury,” a UCSB Professor of Biological Sciences warns in the late 1960s. “The reason is simple. In our very dry climate, the accumulation of combustible debris becomes thicker with each passing year and as the fuel accumulates, the difficulty of quenching a fire also mounts.”
In the 1970s the Forest Service becomes receptive to the idea of using prescribed burning, which involves the use of fire under closely monitored conditions, to short circuit this build up of fuel, but there is a great deal of emotional baggage which goes with this shift in policy. After several decades of resisting the idea of using fire in the chaparral, the Forest Service must now convince the public that not every fire is bad. In an agency that has given us Smokey the Bear and the slogan “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” this is not an easy sell.
Smokey is a product of the 1940s. During the previous decade the emphasis has been on labor intensive means of suppressing wildfires. Road construction, firecamps, fuelbreaks, fuel modification, and other means of providing access to the backcountry rely heavily on CCC manpower.
By the end of the 1930s, as the labor pool begins to dry up, officials begin to focus on fire prevention and the use of the mass media to popularize it. In 1937, artist James Montgomery, creator of the Uncle Sam poster (and the slogan “I want you”), is hired to create a series of posters with patriotic overtones. The fire officials hope to equate forest protection in the public’s mind with the nation’s defense.
In 1944, the Wartime Council licenses use of Bambi as a symbol for a second series of posters. But when licensing problems develop, the council decides to conceive its own symbol. In 1945, the first Smokey the Bear poster appears. Named after New York city fireman “Smokey” Joe Martin, it is drawn by Albert Staehle.
The slogan, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires” is added to the poster in 1947, and in 1950, in a stroke of pure genius, a live bear is used in the advertising campaign. When an orphan cub is discovered after a large wildfire in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, firefighters there adopt “Little Smokey,” and shortly afterward it is flown to a permanent home at the Washington National Zoo, where the cub is used to film a number of television commercials based on the theme developed in the poster campaign.18
The symbol becomes so popular that, by 1952, Congress is forced to pass the “Smokey Bear Act” to regulate commercial exploitation of it. After 40 years, Smokey is still as popular as ever.
While the Chumash and first Spaniards cause a significant alteration of the natural landscape, the change potentially the most difficult to deal with does not occur until much later, in the 1960s, when the South Coast population begins to expand dramatically. In 1960, the Goleta Valley is home to 19,000 people; a decade later 75,000 people live there. Tract housing absorbs much of this boom, but the expanding population also begins to expand up into the fire-prone canyons and hillsides.
Hundreds of large, sprawling ranch-style homes covered with wood shingles, custom designed around clusters of oak and other heavy vegetation, invade the flanks of the mountain wall. The roads are narrow and winding, privacy guaranteed by lush gardens, graceful eucalyptus, and rich, green forests of pine. The views from these beautiful homes are spectacular.
By 1964, when the Coyote Fire occurs, wildfires no longer burn just the chaparral. Now they consume houses, and people too.
Profile of a Wildfire
The typical fire begins on a sunny afternoon in August or September. It has been hot for several days in a row and by mid-afternoon the santana winds pick up, blowing downcanyon and across the dry grassy foothills. A car parks nearby, its muffler straddling the grasses. There is a wisp of smoke, then suddenly a burst of flame. The grass catches quickly, the wind fanning the flames. By the time it is spotted several minutes later, the scorched area has grown to 50x50 feet in size.
The smoke, visible from County Fire Headquarters, gets them into action. A pumper is dispatched immediately. Meanwhile the Forest Service, monitoring the radio frequency, begins to roll, and at Goleta Airport the B-25, which is there on standby, is in the air within 10 minutes of the fire’s ignition.
A base of operations is set up in a schoolyard near one edge of the fire. Depending on where it occurs, and in whose zone of responsibility it is in, one of the City, County, or Forest Service officers is appointed fire boss. In the more up to date terminology he or she is known as the Incident Commander, or IC to the fire personnel. The plan of attack is developed within minutes by the operations officers assigned to the IC and the logistics officer makes a call to the Southern California fire operations office in Riverside requesting mutual aid.
Though the response is incredibly quick, the fire’s edge reaches a grove of oaks and the fire crowns, the trees crackling with intensity. The wind takes the burning embers, which are falling everywhere, and hurls them back up in the air, scattering them ahead of the fire line and across the road, expanding the fire dramatically.
Within an hour, racing from ridgeline to ridgeline, it has burned to the edge of a score of homes just above the foothill road. Firefighting forces are now faced with a difficult decision, to save the structures at the cost of losing the fire line or to abandon the houses to the whim of the wind.
The roads are choked with people, making access to the fire very difficult for the firemen. Some of the people are spectators; most of them are hurrying to their homes, either to try a last ditch effort to save them, or to get one carload of valuables out before everything else is consumed. Almost every roof has someone on it, hoses watering them desperately. The water pressure drops and this, too, inhibits the fire control effort.19
Everything is chaotic. Some lead frightened horses from the smoke and fire; others cry frantically, shouting out the names of favorite pets, hoping they have survived the holocaust. Police barricades are hastily set up, and people scream at the officers, who will not let them pass through.
When the wind shifts, the neighborhood looks like a war zone, bombed-out houses black with soot and the grime of ash. Some have been burned to the ground, others are only partially destroyed. There is no visible pattern as to why some went while others are spared. The next morning people awake to hills of black and plumes of smoke rising from hundreds of hot spots which still smolder. Everything looks dead.
That afternoon the pattern is repeated again, the fire creeping back down the hillside to threaten new homes, only this time a thousand men and women are there to fight it. Overnight forces have been mobilized from throughout Southern California. They work hard to establish a perimeter around the fire.
Hot shot crews cut small hand lines around the most inaccessible parts of the fire’s perimeter. Helitankers are busy making water drops on the fire’s edge. Men and pumpers line highways and smaller roads. High above, a solitary plane mounted with what is called a probe eye takes infrared pictures which are developed, printed, and in the hands of the fire boss within a half-hour. The aerial tankers are guided by smaller planes onto the hottest of the hot spots which have been spotted on the infrared film, disgorging thousands and thousands of gallons of red fire retardant.
Small victories are gained when the wind dies down; there are heavy losses when it surges. In the command center updated weather reports are received every half hour. There are prayers for a shift in weather.
The next day they are lucky. The wind lays down and cool marine air begins to flow into the fire zone. Within a day the line around it is secure and containment is announced.
Stories appear in the paper in the following days, detailing not only of the fire’s progress, but those about people—the heartbreaking losses, the courage, the terror, of the thousands of volunteers who stepped forward to soften the blow.
The losses are totalled. The firefighters go on to the next fire. People wonder what they will do when the next fire on the hills breaks out.
On the hillside not everything is dead. A few weeks afterward a picture appears in the same paper of an ashen hillside, long black fingers of fire-burnt manzanita all that stick out of the ground. At the base of one a small apple-green shoot has emerged from the burl, a spark of life, an affirmation of the chaparral’s response to fire.
The ground is covered with what looks like a volcanic ash, six inches thick, powdery, seemingly a place where no other life will exist again. But looking more carefully the tracks of the small creatures are there, the ones who have burrowed. While on the surface the temperature has reached 2,000 degrees, the fire has passed over their subterranean homes quickly and many of the snakes, spiders, ants, rats, and other creatures have survived, as have many of the more mobile animals such as deer, bear, coyote, raccoon, and bobcat, though these will not return until the vegetation does.
By November, when the first rain comes, a thick cluster of greenery surrounds the base of the manzanita and the hill is dotted with many more of them. Though they are as dense as teakwood, the burls store nutrients, a supply of water, and buds that are dormant until heated sufficiently. 20
In December the seeds begin to sprout. Some of them have lain buried in the layers of leaves and decomposing material for 20 or more years. They are called fire followers, or ephemerals, a group of grasses, herbs, and colorful wildflowers which have a coated seed that must be burned off in order to germinate. It is these plants which the Chumash have harvested after a fire.
Some of them are golden poppies; others lupine, chia, tidy tips, gold fields, and cream cups. By spring lilies and other bulbous plants begin to send up shoots, covering the hill with a carpet of loveliness unimaginable in the aftermath of the fire.
Though they last only a few years, the fire followers are rich in nutrients. First they supply food for burrowing rodents, small rats and mice; as they reach 2-3 feet in height birds begin to migrate back into the area, as well as the predators which feed on the smaller creatures. By May the deer return, browsing on the sweet-tasting food.
After about seven years, the chaparral has filled in the gaps between the individual plants, and as they do, they drop leaves which contain chemicals poisonous to those outside their own species, causing many of the fire followers to die back. As the canopy closes overhead, it also chokes off the light, further limiting the ability of the herbaceous plants to grow.
At age 10 the chaparral approaches maturity. New shrubs still appear from seeds that are dropped on the ground, though now they find it difficult to compete either with their parent plants or others for space, light, and water. The chaparral now forms a dense layer of vegetative cover, its canopy continuous, and has become a closed community.
Some of the smaller plants die, unable to endure the harsh summers with insufficient supplies of water. Those which survive begin to reach over each other in search of sunlight. Lower branches, deprived of sun and no longer capable of photosynthesis, shrivel and die, the plants conserving water and energy for those branches at the top which are still useful.
By age 25 most of the chaparral plants are composed of dead, woody material. While they are 15 feet tall, life exists only at the outer edges of the chaparral. The environment below is relatively sterile, the fuel load accumulating year by year, the plants no longer capable of much vegetative growth.
They are ready to burn again.