Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Tale Of Two Fires

Once again, the State of California is dealing with a massive wildfire. Sadly, two firefighters lost their lives. And it is far from being over as the title of this article indicates, Fire burns 105,000 acres with no control in sight.

It is hard to even grasp the breadth of this wildfire - 105,000 acres is a tremendous area, and it includes a fairly substantial community:
A voracious five-day-old wildfire that has churned through more than 105,000 acres of mountainous brush across northern Los Angeles County showed little sign of slowing down this afternoon as it threatened 12,000 homes in suburban tracts and desert communities, along with a historic observatory and major array of television and radio transmission towers.

With afternoon winds picking up, the Station fire, the largest of eight burning in the state, was plowing through dense hillside vegetation and steep terrain toward residential areas of Sunland and Santa Clarita on the west.

As billows of white and black smoke danced ominously close, Chuck Horn ushered his family and his two prized collectors' automobiles out of his home in the Sunland-Tujunga area.

"We took pictures, tax returns, insurance forms, the dog, the chicken, and that's it," Horn, 61, a retired L.A. County public works employee, said as he prepared to drive away in his baby blue 1931 Plymouth three-window coupe. Horn was next planning on moving his black 1911 Buick Model 33 away from the blaze.

My heart goes out to these people, trying to grab whatever they can, not knowing if anything will remain of their homes when they return:
To the east, firefighters were hoping that a concerted effort to cut fire breaks and lay down fire retardant would save the Mt. Wilson Observatory and a key complex of communications towers.

Because of the intensity and unpredictability of the blaze, which continued shifting directions, fire crews had to pull out of the mountaintop area today and wait for the firestorm to pass.

By 3 p.m. the southeastern edge of the Station fire had pushed south against the wind, into the upper west fork of the San Gabriel River drainage. This fire was near the base of Mt Wilson’s north side. Firefighters had begun back-burning brush at the juncture of California 2 and Mt. Wilson Road in order to protect structures, including an American Indian cultural center, from the advancing fire.

The drama of families having to flee their homes -- or risking all to try and defend their property -- played out repeatedly as searing heat and a generation of accumulated hillside growth fed the fires. In Gold Canyon, authorities scrambled to rescue five people who had refused to evacuate.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s helicopter was trying to locate the residents near Little Tujunga Road. They pleaded for help after becoming trapped by back fires set by crews trying to fight the blaze.

Sixty-five firefighters withdrew from Chilao Flats near the Chilao ranger station. "The intensity of the fire was too strong," said L.A. County Fire Capt. Henry Rodriguez. "They were pulled off the lines and drove away in their vehicles. They're safe and all OK."

Another fire in San Bernardino County was spreading completely out of control and threatening 2,000 homes near Yucaipa.

Tragic. Just tragic, in so many ways, isn't it? It encompasses a loss of life, loss of home, and loss of environment on a grand scale.

I have a neighbor who works for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. On more than one occasion he has gone out West to help fight these fires. It is amazingly hot, dirty, exhausting work, and the people who risk their lives to get these raging wildfires under control deserve our respect, and our thanks.

My heart goes out to all of the families who have had to leave their homes. I hope and pray this wildfire will be under control soonest...

And then there is what happens in the time after. You know, the time after the wildfire has done its damage, after it has been contained, after nature has had a chance to regroup.

This article was in my paper on Monday, From The Ashes. You probably didn't hear about a huge (for us) fire in the Myrtle Beach area last year. But it was big, people lost their homes, things seemed bleak. But no more:
The bugs never stood a chance. Insect-eating plants were waiting.

Beetles came out like plague in the cinders of the Myrtle Beach fire earlier this year. They were so thick that if you stood in the forest you could hear them eating the trees, said Deanna Ruth, S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
But the scorched forest was ready for them, little more than a month after one of the worst fires in the state's history.

An astounding profusion of horror-movie-looking Venus fly traps emerged, opening their carnivorous, teethy spikes in a spectacular display of a plant so rare it grows nowhere else in the world natively. They came out in ribbons like runway carpets stretchingfor a half-mile at times along the edge of bogs in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve.(Photo by Just Caroline)

They were so thick biologists found six colonies they didn't know existed.

Isn't that incredible? It gets better:
Alongside the fly traps bloomed sundews, even tinier bug-eating plants that look like something you'd see in the Hubble telescope. Pitcher plants emerged, tulip-shaped bug eaters. They bloomed with white fringed orchids and indigo in an almost fantastic reclaiming of more than 7,000 burned acres in the preserve.

And the animals came out in numbers that the biologists hadn't seen in years -- deer grazing on the tender new shoots of grasses, quail and wild turkey, whose young feed on insects.

The April blaze that consumed 30 square miles of mostly pine stands and coastal swamps, or bays, didn't kill the longleaf pine savannahs. It rejuvenated them.

"It burned. There was plenty of open daylight. (The plants) weren't being droughted out. All the conditions were perfect for these plants to come back and thrive," Ruth said. "It's pretty amazing."

Amazing, indeed! It is incredible how the planet is designed. That wildfires help to cleanse the area, to renew it. But not without a price:
The fire did $25 million damage to some 70 homes in subdivisions cut into the edges of those thick-growing, flammable wilds. Residents still are struggling to rebuild, but the woods already are recovering. And there's a lesson in that for the Lowcountry, which also is home to miles on miles of "fire adapted communities," woods and plants that evolved partly because of occasional wildfires.

"We need to make sure we burn periodically here," said botanist Richard Porcher, a professor emeritus with The Citadel. "You have a normal fire, and everything comes right back. If you don't (burn), when you do have a fire you have a holocaust."

The recovery hasn't been unaided. The nearly 10,000-acre preserve has been closed all season while logging crews tried to remove some 1,800 acres of burned trees so ruined that timber companies didn't want the wood; the majority were sent to the chippers then sold overseas. The loggers managed to cut about two-thirds of that acreage.

Natural Resources plans to re-open the preserve to the public Sept. 16. Guided tours of the fly traps are held in the spring. The plants are a state species of concern, illegal to pick in the wild, Ruth said. Cultivated fly traps can be bought in specialty shops or online.

The fly trap is the piranha of the plant world, eerie and voracious looking. But the plants are so small that Ruth had to point out to a searching preserve visitor that he's standing on them.

They are a wonder found natively only on the rims of isolated coastal wetlands in North and South Carolina, one of a number of rare plants that thrive at the edges of Carolina Bays. The bays themselves are an enigma -- oval-shaped wetlands that pock the entire coastal plain in clusters with an eerie symmetry, each turned northwest to southeast. They are thought to be as old as 100,000 years, and nobody knows how they formed.

The preserve is dominated by one of them, the 786-acre Lewis Ocean Bay. Carolina Bays extend into Georgia, but Venus fly traps are found only as far south as the Santee River.

"Why they never came across the Santee, nobody knows," Porcher said. "If you knew the answer to that you'd be a famous biologist."

Isn't this just incredible? I grew up in NC, and have lived in SC for a while. I never knew that the Venus Fly Trap grew in just this one, relatively small, area. That's just cool.

It may be hard for those in the midst of this extreme wildfire in CA to even consider that now, and rightly so. They have far more pressing issues at hand, I hope and pray that this fire will be contained quickly, with no more loss of life, and little loss of home.

From the ashes indeed, comes incredible beauty, both flora AND fauna. Down the road, in time, Mother Nature will have the opportunity to work her magic. And if it is anything like what has happened in my state, it will be amazing indeed...


Anonymous said...

It is very sad, Rev. I grew up in SoCal, and every fire season we'd hold our breaths, waiting to see where the fires would break out and how bad they'd be. I was living in San Luis Obispo in 1985 when the Las Pilitis fire came right to the edge of the city. I remember the constant smoke, the smell, the ashes everywhere. I remember making plans with family and friends - escape routes, where we'd meet, what to take. It was terrible.

I still have family in SoCal. My niece said she can now smell the fire as well as see it. My heart breaks for the wild animals caught up in the inferno.

My prayers are with the loved ones of the firefighters who lost their lives. My cousin is an EMS Battalion Captain in East L.A. I know he's in the midst of things right now; I worry about him every time there's a catastrophe like this, knowing he's right there in it, the first to go wherever he's needed.

And yet, out of the ashes new life emerges. Mother Earth is so amazing. She recovers so much faster and easier than we humans do!

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

WOW, SF - thank you so much for recounting your own experience growing up with these fires. It is very different to smell the smoke, have ashes falling like snow, and having to make plans (though we have to do that with hurricanes) than just seeing it on tv. I am sure those of us who have just seen it cannot imagine the magnitude of these fires...

Absolutely - I join with you in your prayers for the families of the firefighters, and for all of them out there risking life and limb to combat these fires. I will be praying for your cousin, too, SF.

And the wildlife - I am sure that between the fires and the incursion by people, they are really getting squeezed. I sure hope they can find escape routes...(THat reminds me of that little koala bear when Australia had those raging fires last year - the firefighter gave it water from his bottle. It has fully recovered!)

Thank you so much for your unique perspective...

And it is just a marvel what happens to the areas that are scorched. Next thing you know, green starts showing. In the case of my neck of the woods, you get these incredible species of plants springing up! Just amazing...

Thanks so much, SFIndie!