CALIFORNIA DANGERS – WILDFIRE SEASON

As summer heads toward fall, Californians start thinking of fires and what the season might be like. This year was a very wet one—skiers could still use the slopes at Mammoth in July and the snow melt has made the rivers in Yosemite extremely dangerous. But we are a state of great contrasts. In the fall we get the Santa Ana winds that blow from the deserts in the east and blast their way west as temps rise toward and past 100 degrees. Some fires begin accidentally; others are deliberately set.

I’ve experienced many massive wildfires during over 40 years here. I remember one specifically while living in the Conejo Valley area, northwest Los Angeles County. The Simi Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains are considered prime fire territory. I learned a great deal about fires from direct experience and from being the Editor of the local Acorn newspaper.

A fire is an exciting topic when you write the news. Since I knew people all around the area, I could get a variety of personal stories when the October 1982 fire roared into town. Costs were estimated at $5 million then—probably a pittance compared to current fires. This fire started close to Bell Canyon, an exclusive area of homes to the east of Agoura, on a Saturday and burned 54,000 acres and 65 homes before it ended in Malibu on a Sunday. It followed a typical pattern: racing from one set of mountains and a valley before leaping the 101 Freeway, then burning through the Santa Monica Mountains before reaching the beach. Fires in the last few years in Southern California have been even more extensive and damaging.

My family home was spared; we lived in Hillrise, a housing development north or the freeway surrounded mostly by wild grass and some oak trees. Grass burns rapidly if the fire is close enough but it’s easier to control; the fire doesn’t stick around to really take hold, unlike the highly combustible chaparral in the mountainous areas. I climbed the hill behind my house to watch in horror and fascination as the smoke, propelled by strong winds, climbed into the skies and the fire got closer. How people fared depended on where they lived and if they’d cleared the brush around their property.

The photo below is the smoky view from my backyard hill.

 In Old Agoura, a nearby neighborhood north of the 101 Freeway full of small ranches and various animals, friend Rita was terrified in her home, still under construction. “We lost wood, paint, and the hen coop,” she said. “But the chickens lived. I don’t think they will ever lay again!”

Toni, who lived south of the freeway in the vegetation-rich mountains, struggled to keep control of her horses while she hosed down the hill behind her home. Just as the fire seemed to get out of control, a fire engine arrived. The noise spooked a horse, which lost its footing and rolled on top of Toni’s sister. Paramedics took the slightly injured sister to a nearby hospital, and she was fine.

“The wind strength was unreal and the smoke so dense you couldn’t see the flames,” said Fran Pavley, who also lived south of the freeway.  Pavley, who has been politically active for years, still lives in the area and now serves as a California State Senator.

When fires consume the vegetation in the canyons prevalent throughout Southern California, there can be hell to pay for residents of these bucolic areas, and to those who fight the fires. A fire chief told me that one of the fires that had burned through steep and scenic Malibu Canyon was left to burn itself out. The energy generated was more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in WWII.

Nature always regenerates. After a fire, spring brings flowers that hadn’t been seen since the last fire, perhaps many years before.

 

Fire in Malibu in 2007

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

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