Living in Chaparral Country
The First Element of Fire - Fuel
“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 .: 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 STARTED in the dry heat of the Great Basin. In the air above Utah, a zone of high pressure began to build. Simultaneously, a band of low pressure began to develop on the western side of the mountain ranges, sucking the wind toward the Sierras. As it swept across the desert floor it was heated by compression. Increasing in speed, it raced across the Central Valley, through Santa Barbara County, and over the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, funneling down into the city as a searing heat that raised temperatures rapidly toward a flash point.
On the day of the fire the wind had been hot and dry, increasing steadily throughout the afternoon until it became 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 began a death-curl, many of them dropping off.
By 4 p.m. the temperature had risen to 108 degrees; by 8 p.m. that evening it had fallen only 6 degrees – a pattern that had repeated on the previous three days. By September 24, the tinder-dry brush was ready to explode. A careless fire in the Santa Ynez drainage ignited this Santa Barbara wildfire.
Steadily the flames creeped up the north side of the mountains, cresting them as the wind built in velocity. That evening town residents witnessed an incredible fireworks display. “No Fourth of July celebration could compare with this,” the Santa Barbara Morning Press reported. “The fire came down the 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.”
The fire burned for several days, at times threatening ranches and associated structures, though sparing the city. Gradually, as the high pressure shifted and the intense winds dwindled the fire laid down.
This was not a 1980s or 1990s wildfire – the year was 1885 and is not an isolated event, but part of a larger pattern. Fire has been a natural part of the Santa Barbara landscape 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. The concepts are simple ones: put people near fuel and the flammable material will eventually get ignited, especially when the wind is roaring down canyons off the mountain crest.
However, dealing with the consequences of living in close proximity to a tinderbox and managing wildfire are enormously complex. Over the past 40 years there have been four major fires in the hills immediately behind Santa Barbara, each with tragic and terrifying consequences and several others that could have turned into huge disasters.
As I sit here at my computer writing these words, staring out my window at a magnificent view of an oak forest, chaparral hillsides, the urban front blends subtly into the chaparral-covered hillsides. With no clear boundary separating the homes from the brush it may not be a matter of if a wildfire will burn through them, but when.
The fact that fire is an overwhelming necessity in the chaparral is not something that is immediately comforting. We have chosen to live on the border of a fire-prone land and though the fires do not often occur, last year’s Zaca Fire reminds us how close to the edge of catastrophe we live.
All have one thing in common: they were human caused. The Coyote Fire was ignited by a faulty muffler; the Sycamore Canyon blaze by a kite arching on a power line; and the two others by arsonists. If there is one thing that is sure: the hills will burn. How we deal with this fact is critical.
THE CHAPARRAL CANOPY is like a closed book from town. The coloring is an ever-present and uninspiring dull green and it covers the rocky mountains like a suit of clothing. Nor from the roadside do the meshed branches and tangle of thorny limbs provide easy access. Only from the close up perspective of the trails – Tunnel, Jesusita, Cold Springs and Rattlesnake – is there an opportunity to check it out at any level of detail.
The chaparral is what is known as the first element of fire. It provides the fuel needed for a wildfire to burn.
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 pointing to 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 re-supply 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 a half century since the Refugio Fire (1955), 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 sculptures. 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 GOVERENED 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 ago 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 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 that 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 are well adapted to this instability, and are able to regenerate quickly.
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 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 build up of dead fuel serves to ensure the continuity of fire; in the coastal sage it is the volatile and highly flammable oils that 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 APPEARED along the South Coast perhaps 10,000 years ago, lightning had 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 the chaparral doesn’t burn?
In the early 1900s the predominant belief was that the chaparral wasn’t a result of natural processes, but man’s careless introduction of fire into the Southern California landscape. At the turn of the century scientists theorized that pine forests had once been the dominant community, and that by eliminating fire, they could be restored to their former glory.
Suppression of each and every wildfire not only became the official State and Forest Service policy, but in the 1930s hundreds of thousands of pines were planted by Depression crews to encourage the return of the pine forests. More than 30,000 of them were planted along the Santa Ynez Mountain crest and remnants of them still exist today. Unfortunately, most of the pines died, a few of them remaining on the cooler, more moist slopes of La Cumbre Peak as a reminder.
To the dismay of the scientists, the chaparral does not die back as they had theorized. Later, it is discovered that when fire is withheld the chaparral 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 dead plant material the heat equivalent of a Hiroshima-type atomic bomb.
This first element of fire – the chaparral – is for the Forest Service a cause of intense frustration. If they keep 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 realistically can’t be done near the edge of civilization – thirty years later the chaparral returns, ready to burn.
Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, the Independent will be taking a closer look at the causes of wildfire, the historical fires that have shaped our management of it as well as the ways in which we can best prepare ourselves. It has already been 18 years since the Painted Cave Fire; 37 years since the Romero Canyon Fire; more than 31 years since the Sycamore Canyon Fire; and 44 since the Coyote Fire burned from Mission Canyon west to Highway 154. With prolonged droughts over the past several years and one of the longest dry periods this spring, extreme vigilance will be needed to avoid another big fire.