NOVEMBER 7 - 13, 2003
Ecology of Fire
Driving the black highways with Mike Davis
by Joshuah Bearman
Suppose the rains didn’t come, she thought . . . And now that men were hunting quail through the brush the hills might burn. There were always more fires in hunting season.
November Grass, by Judy van der Veer, 1940
“This is where we used to drag race,” Mike Davis said, pointing out the blue-collar flatlands of double-wides and modest houses on the streets of El Cajon. Ringing them were small knobby summits sprouting a crown of hilltop trophy homes. “Now they’re putting up all this crap,” he said, gesturing at the McMansions. Davis is at the wheel of his “fascist” black Ford Tundra 4x4, and up ahead, nearing the city of Crest, we can see the path of the Cedar Fire, still burning some 30 miles east.
The quick spell of Halloween rain had passed when I met Davis in San Diego on Saturday, the day the fires were finally slowed by a long-awaited weather shift. The incendiary wind had cooled and swiveled back to prevailing. Davis, who has written extensively about the dangers of our fire ecology, is well-acquainted with the burn area. He grew up in eastern San Diego, spending a lot of time in the backcountry. Watching the fire erupt last week, he realized that the countryside of his youth and his adult fascination with the science and politics of fire had merged in what had become the largest forest fire in the state’s history.
A little further along Interstate 8, some of those McMansions were now piles of ash. The damage worsened in Alpine, the town where Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter’s house had burned to the ground. (Hunter’s district, the 52nd, contains almost all of the Cedar Fire.) Alpine is a small but rapidly growing town in the foothills near the edge of the Cleveland National Forest, a vanguard settlement of one of San Diego’s many suburban tendrils. Twenty-eight miles from San Diego proper, Alpine is close enough for a commute but pastoral and cheap enough to own a nice-sized piece of manifest destiny surrounded by oak and eucalyptus trees and manzanita chaparral.
Which also makes it the vanguard of the “fire-belt frontier,” the developmental sprawl that fire historian Stephen Pyne has called “a lethal mixture of homeowners and brush.” What we saw had clearly been the scene of a fierce struggle between incredible natural savagery and heroic human effort. Some houses were reduced to neat rectangles of foot-high rubble. Others were saved, often at the last minute. You could see where hills were burned bare and black right up to the very walls of the white and cream and ochre palaces roosting on every peak, some of which were still under construction. Davis had been through this area a year earlier with his daughter and a friend. “I showed them all the fuel on the hill and the houses that will burn down,” he said. “And this must have been a hell of a place to fight a fire, with these deep canyons and windy roads. I was on a fire line once, as a teenager, and that was nothing compared to what these guys were up against. This fire front had 200-foot flames, things firefighters had never seen before.”
It was Chapter 3 of Davis’ notorious (and, despite questions about the veracity of his footnotes, clearly sagacious) book Ecology of Fear that foretold of this destruction. Davis described the mounting fire danger that comes with urban development and total fire suppression that leaves homes nestled among vast stores of fuel on the hillsides. “Prescriptive burns are what’s needed,” Davis said, stopping his truck to look at some cars whose aluminum rims had melted into silvery pools. The air was sweetly redolent of burning pine. “It reminds me of camping out here as a kid.”
The biology of chaparral, Davis explained, entails flame. There are many types of chaparral, which is what the Spaniards first called the dense tangle of bushes, scrub oak and manzanita that cover our hills, and they are all so environmentally successful that they quickly crowd out their competitors. Eventually, the chaparral becomes so thick — “Try to bushwhack through it,” Davis said, “and you’ll see what I mean” — that its own seedlings can’t survive, and the aging stands deplete the soil, whither and die, at which point the clock must be reset by combustion. “There is a simple rule in the backcountry: Where there is chaparral, there will be fire.”
But the arrival of luxury homes and subdivisions into this environment has put a stake between this timeless wheel’s spokes. “The landscape is metabolically dependent on frequent, small-scale burning,” Davis said, as we drove past the Viejas Casino, where, the radio assured us, Don Rickles will still be appearing next week. “And when you stop that cycle, you set yourself up for doomsday firestorms.”
Add to that a four-year drought, the bark-beetle infestation, 100-degree heat and the dry Santa Anas blowing in from the Mojave, and you have ideal conditions for pyrogenesis — and the reason why the Cedar Fire went from 1,000 acres to 115,000 acres in half a day.
And yet, the devastation was not complete. The eucalyptus trees, which Davis likens to stacks of napalm, are gone, but many sycamores and tall elms survived. As did the sturdy, drought-tolerant sages of all kinds. And everywhere oak: Davis was excited to see that Descanso and its dense oak forests were spared. Blackened tips of Jeffrey and ponderosa pines rose like incense among singed but healthy Engelmann oaks. “Oaks are the least flammable,” Davis said. “Their acorns need fire to germinate, actually. It takes real firestorm conditions to kill them.” This we did see eventually, on the dolorous road through Cuyamaca, a little town all but burned out of existence. Here were ashen oak stumps and hills that looked like Hiroshima.
Further north, near Julian, the pine forest and oak savannah blends with groves of apple trees whose fruit fills the apple pies for which Julian is famous. Of course, the shops in downtown Julian were still closed, so no pie was to be had. Nor could we go to the soda fountain where Davis got his first fountain drink some 50 years before. But we did, he thought, find his agent’s house, up a windy road outside of town. “If that’s it, she’ll be very excited to hear that it’s still here,” Davis said as nearby, less-fortunate residents surveyed their ruins. In the distance, fire crews — almost eerie figures in safety-orange aramid standing out boldly against the charred background — scoured the deep valleys for live embers.
Which is how 11 firefighters died in this same area in 1956: A tiny remnant fire kicked up and enclosed them in a ravine. Those men are memorialized at the nearby Inajo Monument, a small stone and plaque that itself was surrounded by fire this time around but emerged unscathed. When we reached the monument, two information officers from the Forest Service were there, and one remarked that they’ll be “adding a name to this monument soon,” referring to Steve Rucker, the firefighter who was killed earlier in the week near Julian. Davis agreed, suggesting the monument’s profile should be raised to remind people of the area’s intrinsic fire danger.
What’s frustrating to Davis is that the loss of life out here is avoidable, if only people would rethink the development patterns in Southern California. It’s not impossible: Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, with similar landscape near the Los Padres National Forest, have sensible-growth policies. But this lesson is lost on people like Representative Hunter, who, as usual, have twisted themselves into an audacious intellectual contortionist act in order to blame the fire on a conspiratorial Gray Davis rather than the lack of fire-fighting resources in a county that opposes the taxes that would pay for them. “It’s a form of parasitism, really,” Davis said as we pulled into a bakery that looked like it might be open and selling pies. “This is a culture that wants to live in a known fire ecology but not pay for fire protection. Then, when fire breaks out, state and federal resources get pumped in at an alarming rate because wildfire costs explode as rapidly as the flames. It’s an enormous social cost, a subsidy really, to luxury suburbanization.”
San Diego, Davis noted, is the only urban county without its own fire department. “Instead they have these little fire-protection districts,” he said. “It’s has one of the biggest fire dangers in the country, but they’re operating like volunteer fire departments from the 19th century because after Proposition 13, every bond issue to equip fire departments has been voted down. This is something the firefighters have complained about for years.” Davis also pointed out the retroactive irony of all the “Repeal the Car Tax” bumper stickers you see around San Diego: “That tax is to pay firefighters. It’s what stood between residents and the flames.”
Following a big fire, there are always discussions about potential techno fixes, like more supertanker planes, better foams and incombustible construction. Representative Hunter’s solution, which may have to do with his chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee, is to militarize firefighting, as he’s done with the border patrol. But what about the root cause: slowing down development?
“Not likely,” Davis said, suggesting I have some pie. “The pull is too strong. The sheer scale of this fire could give a boost to the Rural Lands Initiative, which is an attempt to control growth. But every major fire has been an opportunity to address development, and it never happens. In two weeks, people will say, ‘What fire?’”
A little while later, we stopped on a descending western slope overlooking a wide valley lit golden by the sunset. Where the hills were burned, the soil was already moist and fertile-looking. There will be lush wildflowers there after a few more rains. In the spring, the stumps will grow buds. In a year, the chaparral will return. “This is one of the most beautiful places in Southern California,” said Davis. “And it will all come back.” As will the suburban pioneers, like those of Ramona some miles down the highway, where you can see the inexorable future of Southern California: subdivisions and office parks punching deeper into the countryside. They will be built, and eventually burn, as residential growth solidifies what has become the new urbanized and explosive life cycle of the chaparral. As Davis had put it earlier: “Here, humans and the landscape have co-evolved in a conversation of fire.” And so the dialogue goes on.