By Tommy Hough
Wildland firefighter and fire ecologist Rick Halsey returns to Treehuggers International to discuss the impact of the Station Fire, which has been burning in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles for the last month.
The founder and director of the Escondido-based California Chaparral Institute, Rick is a member of the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum, and the author of Fire, Chaparral, and Survival In Southern California.
With large wildfires having already scorched thousands of acres across the Golden State this summer in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Gold Country and the Sierra foothills, along with major fires in the counties of Santa Barbara (four times in the last 12 months), Mendocino, Sonoma, and Sacramento, it seems every season has become fire season in California.
But few in the Southland were ready for the size and duration of the Station Fire, already the largest wildfire ever in Los Angeles County, which swept down the canyons of the San Gabriel front range into Altadena, La Cañada Flintridge, and Tujunga.
After claiming two lives, destroying over 80 homes, and burning through 154,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, the Station Fire is at last nearly under control, and conservationists, fire professionals, outdoors advocates and political leaders are beginning to take stock of what was lost, and what can be done.
Of concern to Treehuggers International are the dozens of prized outdoor recreation spots in the Angeles National Forest now consigned to memory, obliterated in the furnace of the wildfire. Locales like the famous Vetter Mountain Lookout served as havens for generations of Southern Californians eager to recharge in the "good tidings" of the San Gabriels' chaparral-covered slopes, meadows, streams, forests, and Mojave Desert and L.A. Basin views.
While the Station Fire did not make major penetrations into the San Gabriel high country, thousands of acres of old-growth chaparral were lost. As is the case with the increasing frequency of fire in Southern California, our all-too frequent fires have burned away native species and cleared the way for more aggressive, non-native grasses and other plants to move in, thereby increasing the risk of fire in the near term, and making it more more difficult for the region's natural ecosystem to re-establish itself.
As fires become more frequent in our ongoing drought, it seems California's chaparral wildlands are burning themselves into oblivion. But is all of this a calamity? Are even more firebreaks and brush clearing in the backcountry necessary to avoid another disaster? Should these fires simply be allowed to burn themselves out when they're not threatening private property?
Rick Halsey explains why the solutions to avoiding disaster in California's year-round fire season come first with the understanding that large fires are not unusual for our environment; the frequency is the problem. Fire is a natural, normal part of western "dry forest" ecosystems, but humans are causing far too many fires for even nature to handle.
Wise management and an appreciation for the Mediterranean climate of Southern California is the cornerstone to respecting the region's wild side, and understanding fire is a natural, normal part of California's ecosystems.
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Photos by Tommy Hough
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.