Sunday, September 09, 2007

Fire Season

September is often the hottest time of the year in Northern California. During the cool, foggy summer, every morning starts with a soft overcast known as the marine layer, which may take hours to burn off. Although the bright summer days are never spoiled by rain or drizzle, they tend to stay cool. But September has the same exuberant sunlight without the swaddling layer of cloud to limit its force. During day after day of brilliant blue skies, the temperature climbs into the 80s or 90s or higher, and playful winds may gust to 30 miles an hour. It's still not as bad as the East Coast, where such temperatures are often accompanied by dead calm, high humidity, and nights that never cool off.

But this idyllic weather carries an implicit threat. The woods and hillsides are parched after a hundred days without rain. The heat dries them still further. A campfire, a stray cigarette, a lightning strike in the mountains (where thunderstorms occur), or a hot engine parked on tall grass can make a forest or a hillside explode into flame.

"Explode" in the right word, too: the chaparral that covers so many hillsides is a dense thicket of chamise, toyon, manazanita, and scrub oak bushes, all waxy with combustible oils, and they burn like Molotov cocktails. Grass fires burn out quickly; chaparral fires at least offer space to fight the flames and only moderate amounts of fuel per square yard. Although forests catch fire relatively slowly, the enormous amounts of available fuel mean the fire can keep burning in the same space for a long time. Moreover, the fire itself changes the weather, creating patterns of airflow that feed and spread the flames. The result is a blaze that can consume tens of thousands of acres of forest—as well as the animals and people who live there.

The names are beautiful: Cherry. Grouse. Mariposa. Stevens. Fletcher. Bayne. Banner. Streets in an upscale development? The roster of a Montessori kindergarten? No, they're a few of this year's California wildfires.

Other fires sound like a series of bodice-rippers, a multigenerational saga of brooding men and passionate women: Moonlight Fire. Lazy Fire. Snow Fire. Italian Fire. White Fire. Honey Fire.

I don’t even want to think about what kind of books would be named after the Lick Fire, the Wallow Fire, the Tar Fire, the Seven Eleven Fire, or the Highway Fire.

Right now, the Bay Area is getting smoke from two great fires: the nearby Lick Fire south of San Jose and the Moonlight Fire, 200 miles away in the northeast Sierra.

The smoke rises and spreads. This week's sunsets have been ominously orange; the morning skies have been gray with smoke, the sun a brassy glow behind the haze. Asthmatics wheeze and clutch their aching chests, and people with allergies sneeze, cough, and wipe their burning, teary eyes.

The Lick Fire (named for the nearby Lick Observatory) is burning just a few miles from my old house in southernmost San Jose. Like the Uvas Canyon fire, which I blogged five years ago, it's a chaparral fire burning in low hills. These can generally be brought under control within a few weeks; the timber fires in the steep slopes and high valleys of the Sierra Nevada can rage for months.

The Moonlight Fire is a timber fire in the Sierra Nevada.

It started on Labor Day; during the week it has grown from 300 acres to more than 42,000 acres. A team of 2300 firefighters are bulldozing firelines, dropping fire retardants from planes (when the smoke clears enough to permit), and out on the steep slopes fighting the fire, which is chewing up forest and the logging debris--dried-out branches, bark, needles, and sawdust--known as slash.

At that, it's dwarfed by the Zaca fire, which burned from Independence Day until the day before Labor Day. It destroyed 240,207 acres—more than the size of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, DC, Scranton, and Manhattan combined. Oh, it also destroyed one outbuilding.

Many of these fires are wildland fires—and the acreage consumed is astonishing partly because California, home to one of every eight Americans, still has so much wildland left. But as California’s population grows and spreads, more people are moving into the red zone where wildland and cities meet. That puts more people and property in the way of fires.

The forest in the days after a fire looks devastated beyond hope of recovery. (Note the red fire extinguisher: that's a color photograph.) And if the fire burned too hot--if there was too much fuel accumulated, if it had been too many years since the previous fire--the soil can be sterilized completely. Then the result is hopeless devastation.

But fire plays an essential role in California’s ecosystems. (These days even Smoky Bear is in favor of "prescribed fires," which used to be called controlled burns.) A few years after a fire, a burned-over forest looks like a neglected graveyard. Acres of blackened stumps stand like rickety tombstones amid fountains of exuberant saplings. Without fire to clear the way and awaken seeds, no new growth could occur. Rebirth is the gift of fire.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I've got stills on my computer, RAW files of Tim's for me to process. He spent most of last week at the Lick Fire and the Moonlight Fire. I've also seen most of his video. There is no way to really give a sense of scale to that kind of fire. The flames he shot are probably at least 100 feet tall, but you just can't tell.