Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wildfires forge bonds

Coming home from San Luis Obispo the other day was like driving into a Stage 3 smog alert in the Los Angeles basin. Smoke and ash melded with fog into a brownish-gray haze hovering over our usually air-pristine canyons, hills and beaches.

A remarkably early wildfire season surrounded us with disasters to our north, east and south. The only good, smoke-free wind was one from due west, and there were precious few of those.

Even so, we're all devoutly counting our blessings and keeping our fingers crossed. May our good, fire-free fortune continue.

With smoke filling our eyes, noses and lungs, and sticky ash blanketing our cars and homes, everybody got a little crankier than usual.

"It's probably our cavemen ancestry," husband Richard said. "Smoke means danger, which triggers the 'fight-or-flight' response. We can't get away from it, and most of us can't fight the invader, so our bodies are at war with our emotions."

We also were fretting about our neighbors in Goleta, Lake Isabella and, especially, Big Sur.

Cambrians are inextricably linked to Big Sur-ites by much more than the 70-some miles of gorgeous scenery between the two communities.

Both seaside towns are magnets for tourists. Each is laced with hills, canyons and trees, and has a Mediterranean climate subject to drought.

There also are shared attitudes all along that stretch of Highway 1, not the least of which is a "Please, Mom, I'd rather do it myself" mindset born of living on purpose so far from metropolitan touches like movie theaters, Starbucks and even an X-ray machine.

Paradise may not be convenient, but it's worth it. Until tragedy strikes.

Some Big Sur residents told Bob Putney, Cambria's fire chief, "We thought it couldn't happen here." At the time, he was leading a strike team as part of the defense against the Basin Complex Fire that, as of Tuesday, July 8, had consumed 23 homes and 80,474 acres, closing 20 miles of world-famous Highway 1 during the peak of tourist season.

The blaze got to the back door of the famed Henry Miller Library before firefighters fought it off.

Despite the best efforts of determined firefighters, National Guardsmen, homeowners, volunteers and complete strangers, the fire rages on.

Officials estimate it will be at least the end of July before the huge blaze will be contained.

Not stopped. Not out. Contained. But who expects lightning or a big wildfire in Big Sur on June 21, or for that matter, in its sister community to the south?

Since mid-June in California, more than 500,000 acres have gone up in smoke. Fire analysts already are calling the 2008-2009 fire season "a monster."

"It can't happen here."

Guess again.

Now some Big Sur residents are seeking help (especially from those adept with their own chain saws) in clearing wide swaths of land to create defensible space against the voracious fire-fiend.

As Jack Ellwanger of Big Sur said July 3, "We have so much incendiary dead oak around that the whole region is like a tinder box."

In Big Sur, "The steep canyons explode when ignited, fire jumps fire breaks and prances along ridges. The fire has accelerated at an unparalleled pace because of excessive fuel loads...brush that has not been cleared or burned to too long."

Defensible space. Hmmm.

Sounds familiar.

In Cambria, deadline for weed-abatement chores was July 1. Knowledgeable property owners and residents already have cleared away brush and grasses, downed trees and dead leaves to help prevent a wildfire from devouring all that fuel and heading for homes along the way.

Cambrians who skirted the deadline soon will find a services- district-hired contractor in their yard and a sizeable charge for the clearing on their tax bills next year.

"It can't happen here."

Don't bet the farm on that, Charlie. The cost to Big Sur and other areas has been huge, no matter how you calculate it.

As the lung-choking smog here gradually fades back to our normal, white summer fogs, don't let the memories, the fear and the fight-or-flee instinct fade with it.

Be grateful, be aware and be prepared.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

1 comment:

firefighter08 said...

Hooray for the KNOWLEDGABLE property owners who do brush clearance. I live in Malibu CA where we have disastrous fires every year. Last year we had a fire set by arson, which destroyed $400 million worth of homes. The sad thing is that most of these people had not cleared a defensible space, and they should have known better, No one living here can be ignorant of the fire danger.
With global warming and other trends -
> Accumulated brush which hasn't burned in 20+ years
> Increased development on the urban-wildland interface
> Power poles over weighted with fiber-optic cable
> Everyone everywhere expecting full fire protection at no cost
> Lunatics who think it would be fun to set something on fire.
brush clearance is going to be an important part of the defense. As they say, JUST DO IT!

(I write wildland fire novels. http://www.kurtkamm.com/