A hundred years after the creation of the Forest Service, the chaparral setting looks much the same as it did in the 1880s; we live in a state that is built to burn. Though we have only recognized this in the past several decades, fire is part of our ecology. With tens of thousands of acres of thick chaparral brush, a hot, dry Mediterranean climate, and millions of people who might either accidentally or intentionally light them, California is the most flammable place on earth.
The chaparral builds in density, deadwood slowly accumulating on the lower parts of these fire-prone plants until, after 25-30 years, it is ready to burn. Throughout the late spring and summer months the dry wind robs the remaining live portions, the overstory, of its moisture, building the conditions under which a wildfire may thrive. And on certain days, when the santa ana winds build and a spark is present, the wildfire begins, often raging out of control until the weather pattern changes.
A hundred years later, however, the impact of wildfire is dramatically different than it was when Santa Barbara was just becoming a Spanish-style tourist town. Homes have steadily encroached, and now fill the canyons behind Santa Barbara and much of the lower slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Once ignited, wildfires can easily burn through brush, and from rooftop to rooftop right down into town, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in structural damage. Though the Sycamore Fire in 1977 only lasted about seven terrible hours, in that time 195 houses were destroyed.
The Painted Cave Fire in 1990 was vastly more destructive–500 homes and at least $250 million dollars in damage occurred in less than four hours. Even though it started high in the Santa Ynez Mountains, at the intersection of Highway 154 and Painted Cave Road, it reached homes in just 27 minutes, and Highway 101 in only three quarters of an hour.
“This thing could have taken out 2,000 homes, easy,” said Don Perry, who was then County Deputy Fire Chief. “We could have lost Hope Ranch.”
Perhaps more importantly, after a year of sustained drought, and with a less-than-optimal amount of water in Lake Cachuma, we are now more than ever dependent on the back country, and its chaparral mantle, for our most important natural resource–water.
How we deal with the fires that will surely come has a real and immediate impact – as those who lost their homes in the Lake Tahoe can testify to.
For the century in which the Forest Service has existed, our relationship with fire our relationship has been primarily an attempt to dominate it through massive suppression efforts. Since 1898, when the Forest Service was created, its job has been to protect vital water resources through the elimination of wildfire. Suppression of every and all wildfires has become a main preoccupation.
Ironically, it is people who have made the task a difficult one. If fire is made inevitable by the nature of the Mediterranean conditions in which we live – whether through carelessness, by criminal intent or by accident – they occur when people allow them to occur.
Despite the soaring cost of suppressing wildfires, the Forest Service has been extremely successful in its job. More than 90 per cent of all wildfires are held to 10 acres or less in size. Despite advances in equipment, and the coordination of the County, State, and Forest Service forces of Southern California into the most efficient fire fighting army yet known, the domination has not been complete.
Today, the realization has come that to live in Santa Barbara is to have to learn to live with fire. The question is how.
There have always been ambivalent feelings about fire in man. Fire is both a vital and powerful force, one which has the potential to terrify and to destroy. There is nothing more hypnotic than the spell of a campfire; nothing more heartbreaking than the story of a family who has lost their home and the irreplaceable things that a fire takes with it.
Fire is the first of the natural forces harnessed by man. From nomadic beginnings fire has occupied a central place in the rise of civilization. Today, harnessed atomically, and packaged in ICBM containers, it has the capacity to eliminate the civilization it helped to create.
I remember the Coyote Fire vividly and my own feeling both of horror and intense fascination. Each night I would sit out on the cliffs by Campus Point or in town with friends and watch the fire’s progress.
I was a Junior at UCSB when it broke out on September 22, 1964. I saw the plume of smoke just before going into a class, but didn’t think much of it; I had never experienced a wildfire before. When I emerged from class at 3 pm I was surprised to see the size and intensity of the plume. It had become thick, a tower of smoke rising high into the sky, and I could hear the steady wail of sirens as fire fighting forces raced madly toward it. At the airport huge bombers lumbered down the runway, their sound a steady rumble, vibrating the glass panes in nearby windows, flying low across the Valley toward the city and into the dense smoke. I thought the fire would be out soon.
I was wrong.
During the day the fire would lie low, but in the evening, almost as if by devilish design, so as to provide the most spectacular show, the flames would reappear, eating their way up the hillsides. The flames would spread out horizontally across the Santa Ynez Mountains in long lines, deep orange-red in color, like armies of soldiers marching across a wide front. Occasionally fireballs would arch out of the inferno, like shooting stars. One seemed to leap across the gulf of an entire canyon, igniting the far wall, and in seconds it, too, was ablaze.
From my viewpoint, ten miles separating the campus and me from the fire, it seemed more beautiful than destructive. I didn’t realize until more than a decade later, when I was helping provide support services for a fire crew on Old San Marcos Pass as a member of the Los Padres Search and Rescue Team, how terrifying a wildfire could be up close.
The wind blew in gusts of more than 60 mph, shifting direction in seconds, buffeting me back and forth, and from side to side, so that it was almost impossible to keep my footing. The wind stoked the glowing embers and the silhouettes of the charred chaparral had an orange cast. Overhead, football-sized fireballs swept past, igniting new fires, making the job of the fire fighters seemingly impossible.
Incredibly, due to the heroic efforts of Forest Service crews, this blaze, known as the Twinridge Fire, was held to a few acres in size.
Wildfire has been, and always will be, a fact of life for Santa Barbarans. Since 1955, when the Refugio Fire broke out at Rancho La Sherpa near Refugio Pass, there has not been a period of more than nine years between major wildfires in the Santa Ynez Mountains – that is until the Paint Fire. It has been seventeen years since it roared down the mountainside and terrorized our community. If anything, we are far, far overdue.
In the last half century eight fires have destroyed various parts of the Santa Ynez Mountains – all terribly destructive: The Refugio Fire (1955); the Coyote Fire (1964); the Wellman Fire (1966); the Romero Fire (1971); the Sycamore Fire (1977); Eagle Canyon (1979); Wheeler Fire (1985); and the most recent and costly of all, the Painted Cave Fire (1990).
Even as hot spots in the Painted Cave Fire were dying out, fire experts were reminding people that this could happen again.
In 1955, when the Refugio Fire broke out, firefighting forces and inter-agency coordination were amazingly unsophisticated. There were no aerial bombers, no helicopters, no unified command structure or training programs. Fire fighting was mainly grunt work – development of a perimeter to contain it through the use of dozer crews and thousands of men who wield axes, brushhooks, chainsaws, and shovels.
Today, firefighting forces employ the most advanced technology known to man, and through a program known as FIRESCOPE, a command structure has been developed that allows the local fire agencies–the Forest Service, City and County Fire, the Montecito and Carpinteria/Summerland Fire Departments, and the California Department of Forestry and the State Office of Emergency Services–to operate in a highly efficient and effective manner.
Hundreds miles of fuelbreaks have been constructed since 1955, and prescribed burning is now used to help reduce fuel loading. Despite this, on average 20,000 acres of Los Padres National Forest chaparral burns each year. In some years the acreage is small and attention to the dangers of wildfire slackens; but in others such as this past fall 2006, the Day Fire alone burned more than 160,000 acres in one two-week period.
Whether global warming is the culprit, or we were just due one of those abnormally dry years, we are in for a tough 4-5 months until fall rains reduce the risk. Until then it is up to all of us to take every precaution to reduce any possibility of wildfire.