California Drought: Millions of Trees Lost, Constant Fear of Wild Fires

October 23, 1978: Santa Monica Mountains, Southern California.

The first sign was the smoke, then the phone ringing incessantly, neighbors warning of the fire headed our way.  My husband, who was getting a haircut very near the origin of the fire, raced home.  Together we gathered important papers, clothes for ourselves and our three children, grabbed the dogs and cats and pushed them in the car. I watered down the horses and ponies, as well as the goats. My husband pointed to the north and said, “it’s here.” We both stared for a moment as the fire made its way down the hill. I turned around then and saw that the flames were behind us as well.  As we made a hurried escape, I heard one of the ponies scream, a sound I will never forget.

The 1978 Agoura-Malibu firestorm moved from the valley to the ocean, a distance of twelve miles, in two and a half hours, burning 25,000 acres. It destroyed 250 homes, one of them ours. Our children, whom we thought were safe at school, were in fact brought up the mountain by a neighbor three miles away, who was on our emergency list at school.  To this day we are not sure what she was thinking driving five children toward the inferno. As the fire raced closer to her home, sheriff deputies piled the five youngsters into a squad car and hurried them down the hill to safety. A helicopter dumped water in front of and on the police car. We learned later that the policeman, whose name was Sgt. Pinkerton, told the children to close their eyes to avoid looking at the encroaching flames. Being children, they all laughed when they told us the story, for at the time we had a bloodhound named Pinkerton.

The fire was started by a fifteen-year-old pyromaniac and fueled by sixty-mile an hour Santa Ana winds. An elderly man died in the fire, as did countless animals. We returned to find our animals alive, no doubt due to the wide clearing on all sides of the corrals, though the house was gone. A cat who had escaped the confines of the car while I was shoving other animals in, appeared two days later.  His whiskers were singed, though otherwise he was fine. No doubt he hid in the huge boulders behind what used to be our home.

We were fortunate, as were our neighbors.  Though our homes were gone, we had each other. We lost things but our families were safe.

Today, almost forty years later, sixty-six million trees in California have succumbed to the effects of years of drought. Half of California’s forests destroyed by fire are converting to other ecosystems. The fire season in the west has increased by 78 days in the last fifteen years, the result of no moisture in the brush.  Century old forests have been raised to the ground and may not rejuvenate; the Forest Service fears that two million acres destroyed by fire in California may never grow back, the result of fires they are now calling mega-fires, infernos so intense the heat of the flames create a column that looks strikingly like an atom bomb exploding.

While forest fires are a fundamental part of the ecosystem in California, and while much of the natural vegetation relies on fire to rejuvenate the land, today’s mega-fires burn so hot and so intense that they are creating global repercussions by altering water cycles, at the same time releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Part of the problem is that we’ve altered the terrain by suppressing fires, a practice we now know has done more harm than good. Years ago forest fires burned along the ground removing small trees and vegetation; with fire suppression the forests are overgrown.

Droughts, the result of global warming, also add to the mix.

What fire doesn’t take, bark beetles do. Resin is a tree’s defense against beetles, but without water, trees can’t make resin.  A few years ago bark beetles killed 20-40 trees per acre; now that number is more than tenfold.

Tree density is a primary problem; the best long-term solution to bark beetle attack is the judicious thinning of forests, which reduces the competition for what moisture remains. Bark beetles are opportunistic creatures; they infest weakened trees. And they quickly spread when sufficient food for them is available, their food being drought-stressed trees. The beatles work together, attacking trees en masse.

The best long-term solution for residents of California mountain communities is to reduce tree competition on their land, although it goes against the grain for many folk, who moved to the hills to enjoy the surrounding environs.  Education is the key to saving our forests; to that end local fire departments have joined with the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection as well as Fire Safe Councils to help residents understand the very real danger.  The California Department of Forest and Fire Protection has designated over 80% of Nevada County, a Northern California county, a High Fire Danger Zone; other counties are similarly threatened.

Community preparedness in the form of town hall meetings is one way residents are learning about how to survive a wildfire. Pacific Gas and Electric, one utility that services parts of California, regularly scouts out dead trees that threaten power lines and removes them; if on private property, the utility removes them for free.

Wildfire is a reality in the California foothills; it’s simply a matter of when the next inferno will occur.  Careful planning, part of which means creating a defensible space around homes, helps firefighters protect structures.

Local emergency services are in place to help residents, but it’s up to each family to have in place practiced evacuation plans.  In an emergency, such planning saves lives. The ache of losing a home lessens with time, though as Carl Sandburg said, “the past is a bucket of ashes.” Residents move on, rebuild, and hold in memory what once was.

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