Minnich believes this has been a disaster, effectively restricting fire to the times when the hot winds blow and the fires can't be contained. "Forty percent of the fire in Southern California happens during Santa Ana winds, but in Mexico most of the burning goes on during normal weather conditions, and only one-fifth during the winds," he says. "So they have a lot of slow-spreading fires that burn from June to August, which creates a fine-grained mosaic with properties that are much superior to the managed chaparral landscapes of Southern California."
Halsey allows that the pine forests of Minnesota, Montana and Colorado have suffered because of fire suppression - though not as much as people like to think. He nevertheless insists that fire prevention has been good for chaparral because it's allowed native, old-growth stands of manzanita, California lilac and sumac to flourish. These "redwoods of the south" have been nearly eliminated in Mexico, he says, and we stand to lose them, too, if too-frequent fires wipe out young plants too soon.
"I don't want us to
look like Baja," Halsey gripes. "These national forests, we didn't
make them this way; we preserved them."
If you doubt this, Halsey says, just count how many times lightning has started a fire in Southern California. Over a 60-year period in the Santa Monica Mountains, home of notoriously fire-prone Malibu, not a single fire has been caused by lightning. Of the nearly 300 fires recorded on Catalina Island in the last century, 27 miles off the coast, only six can be traced to natural causes.
Incidents of lightning-caused fires increase to around a dozen a year as you move inland into the higher-elevation mountains, where coniferous forest crowds out the chaparral. "But most of those happen in a thunderstorm, when it's wet, in conditions that aren't conducive to fire spread," Halsey explains. "And for those people who say these forests are so horribly clogged by fire suppression, I would just ask, "Are those few little fires enough to unclog them?' " And if they aren't, "then please explain to me how this continent survived with us, without us lighting all these fires."
That's easy, Minnich says: megafauna. "Before 12,000 years ago" we had large, grazing animals - "mastodons, sloths, buffalo and bison" - controlling the vegetation. He also advises against obsessing over what triggers a blaze. Lightning, cigarette or blowtorch - whatever the ignition source, old-growth chaparral is primed to burn, especially after a record drought like the one much of the Western U.S. saw in 2007. "Ignition doesn't cause a fire," he says. "The cause of the fire is the vegetation."
There is, however, one point on which both men agree: Fire suppression in the chaparral has largely been a bust. As Jon Keeley, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and now Halsey's ally, testified before Congress last November, firefighting efforts "have barely kept pace with the ever increasing number of human-caused fires that has paralleled population growth in the region."
When I first mentioned
Halsey's writing to a local native plant enthusiast, he wondered if
Halsey was working for developers who want to build more homes in
what Minnich calls "gasoline." It turns out, though, that industry
interests - such as the timber and paper companies represented by
the California Forest Foundation - cite Minnich to support their
conviction that forests should be thinned by machines. Thomas
Bonnickson, a Texas A&M forestry professor who serves Cal
Forest as a "visiting scholar," uses Minnich's research to suggest
that chaparral plants could be ground up for biofuels.
In Southern California, as in all of the West, nature is political: The way we interpret its behavior determines how we live in it, and how we treat it. If you accept the notion that chaparral is fire-dependent and eager to burn, you also have to accept that we can't build houses in it. That means no more developments in the coastal mountains. It means kicking people out of their hideaways - not just rich people in Malibu castles, but working people in tiny homes who have raised their children in places like idyllic (and fire-ravaged) Modjeska Canyon in eastern Orange County; or the artists and would-be vagrants who anchor their doublewides in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. Halsey not only believes that a moratorium on development will never happen; he believes it shouldn't happen. We can live in the chaparral, he says; we just have to do it with a sound knowledge of the landscape.
"This is why I'm so mad about people saying things that demonize this chaparral shrubland that I have come to love - their opinions, which aren't based on science, will lead to land-management policies that will ultimately eliminate it. Because that's really where we're headed." If the plant community wants to burn, and your house is on top of it, the only solution is to bring in the chainsaws. "And that's not a reasonable solution at all. You're destroying the place that you love, and you may be creating a more hazardous fire condition, because of the invasion of non-native grasses and weeds.
"The most common denominator in firefighter fatalities is grassy fuels," says Halsey, citing the five who died on the line last year in the Esperanza fire near Palm Springs. "Everybody knows that if you want to start a raging fire, start it in the grass. I've seen grass fires race up to chaparral stands and go out. That's what Rich Minnich will never understand, and when he starts doing this thing about how it's all about the chaparral, all I think about is five of my colleagues in the Forest Service getting killed in that fire, which started in the weeds."
A little more than three years ago, Halsey pulled all of these thoughts, and more, into a solid little book called Fire, Chaparral and Survival in Southern California, which he sells on his Web site. A compendium of essays from biologists, firefighters and Halsey himself, it's a work of passion inspired by the Southern California firestorm of 2003. Back then, it was still possible to dismiss the often emotional and unguarded Halsey as a crackpot or, as the Wall Street Journal recently described him, a "self-promoting gadfly.
Now, as he prepares to publish a revised edition, nature itself has given him a more secure platform from which to opine. The fall of 2007 was a rough season for anyone attached to the idea that firefighting is to blame for more vicious chaparral fires - not least because one of the 2007 fires, the Harris, scorched the very land the Cedar Fire leveled just four years before.
"I would like the chaparral to be appreciated as much if not more than the redwoods," Halsey says, "as part of California's natural treasure. It isn't. It's viewed in a pejorative sense as "brush.' That's the n-word for chaparral, and I'm not going to tolerate it anymore."
On Christmas Eve, a week after we met, Halsey elaborated in a letter. "Why is it wrong to demonize chaparral-covered wildlands as "brush' or view any natural habitat in strictly utilitarian terms? For the same reason labeling particular groups of people with derogatory terms is hostile to the idea of an equal and just society.
"It's my goal to encourage the creation of fire-safe communities in
which people can live in harmony with their environment," he wrote.
"It isn't just about saving a favored place, but about developing a
sustainable, more equal world in which life in all its diversity is
respected." Perhaps one day, he imagines, people will come from the
East to revere the elfin forest, just as they do the redwoods
today. He trusts they will leave their matches at home.
Judith Lewis writes about the environment from Venice, California.