California’s raging fires fuel one man’s fight for the much-maligned “elfin forest”
Each autumn in Southern California, a hot wind pushes out of the desert and over the mountains, racing down canyons before spreading out into the urban wilderness that surrounds the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. It scours the hillsides of humidity and raises seaside temperatures, which barely hit 70 all summer long, into the triple digits.
And often, when that wind picks up, something else happens: A live wire drops into the dust-dry manzanita; a welder lets loose a shower of sparks among the sumac; a child drops the match he was using to torture ants and whoosh! Fire explodes across the chaparral-covered landscape, taking out everything in its path - stucco, shake-shingled roofs, minivans, horses, oaks and even the sinuous eucalyptus and string-bean palms planted by locals to make Southern California fit their idea of beauty.
This meteorological phenomenon, called the Santa Anas - not, some say, after St. Anne or the Santa Ana Mountains but rather in honor of Satan (Satana) himself - has been blamed for murders, suicides, divorce and destruction. It has also been known to drive sane people crazy, and none more so than an outspoken biologist and sometime firefighter named Richard W. Halsey, who in the aftermath of the winds and the subsequent infernos suffers from a peculiar kind of isolation: Almost everything everybody around him is saying about fire, he believes, is wrong.
"I get enraged," admits Halsey, a former high school biology teacher who quit 10 years ago to educate a broader audience about Southern California's plant communities. "I go into orbit. So many people out there create a sense of fear and misconception about the natural environment, which to me is just so wrong. We're disconnected enough as it is." The 53-year-old Halsey, who now runs a small nonprofit called the California Chaparral Institute, has dedicated his life to defending the chaparral against its detractors. He likens chaparral-haters to climate-change deniers and flat-earth believers. "I've chomped down on it," he says, "and I'm not going to let go until either I die or I can get some kind of validation, so that land-management agencies aren't proclaiming the need to cut it all down."
For context, he reads out loud from the latest issue of his quarterly newsletter, The Chaparralian, which features a picture of a miniature Smokey Bear in chaps: "Smokey Bear and wildland firefighters have been maligned long enough in California," he intones, mimicking a filmstrip voiceover from the 1950s. "It's time for the public and journalists to begin thinking for themselves and stop mindlessly accepting one of the most common group delusions in the last 25 years: Decades of fire suppression in chaparral are to blame for all the large wildfires in Southern California."
As Halsey sees it, this delusion has been loudly promoted by the chorus of experts who dominate the media every fall and winter. It begins well before the smoke clears: Authors, professors, botanists and biologists infiltrate the news reports and editorial pages, all of them fixed to the notion that fires wouldn't burn like this if we didn't allow our hillsides to become overgrown with brush. And while California burns, the reporters conclude, there exists a chaparral paradise south of the border, a world without professional firefighters, where small fires spark and then daintily smolder until they die away in the succulent green of all the young growth. Why can't we be more like Baja?
Listening to this, the sandy-haired Halsey becomes apoplectic. He sits in his basement office, firing off opinion pieces to the local newspapers, blasting out e-mails, trying to persuade the public of what he first figured out over a decade ago on hikes with his students: Chaparral, the idiosyncratic system of shrubs and oaks that dominates Southern California's protected wildlands, is not pine forest. It is not choked by dog-hair thickets; it does not need regular clearing by frequent fires. True: Hot smoke triggers the germination of some of its seeds. But the "elfin forest," as it was dubbed by mid-century naturalists, does not need to burn to thrive. Without human intervention, chaparral burns only once or twice a century. And when it does, it burns fast and hot in crown fires that leave only scorched earth behind.
Fire suppression, Halsey insists, has nothing to do with it.
When record-breaking Santa Anas blew across Southern California in late October 2007, so many fires sparked that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger literally had to revise his count upwards in the middle of a press conference; the final tally hit 14 before the wind abated and the burning stopped. One of those fires, the Witch, named for a local creek, licked the backyard of Halsey's home. Halsey and his two sons, 12-year-old Jake and 17-year-old Nick, ignored evacuation orders to defend it. A significant stand of mission manzanita, one of the oldest around, was destroyed on an incline just to his north.
Halsey's home survived in part, he says, because it sits on the top of a hill instead of in a saddle or canyon, which serve as funnels for wind-driven flames. But it also stands because he was there with a hose to protect it from embers. From his back porch, he can point to the blackened foundations of less-fortunate structures.
"I've heard rumors that they want to clear all the vegetation from this hillside," Halsey says of his neighbors. "But their house didn't burn because of that plant community. It burned because the house was in the wrong location. It wasn't designed properly. They had stripped the landscape all around their house, but it didn't help, because they've got this myopic view that it's all about the native landscape."
This narrow thinking, Halsey claims, has been largely sustained by one man: A geography professor named Richard Minnich, whose scientific papers on native chaparral have overtaken local discourse as thoroughly as cucumber vine climbs through chaparral during a rainy winter. In a landmark paper written 25 years ago, Minnich used satellite imagery to compare fire patterns from 1972 to 1980 in Baja with those just over the border. He concluded that on the Mexican side, where there was little organized effort to beat back fires, a lot of smaller fires had occurred causing little damage and no loss of life; in California, by contrast, huge swaths of land had burned in far more massive, and deadly, conflagrations.
"Yeah, they have smaller fires in Baja," concedes Halsey. At 6 and a half feet tall, he seems uneasily confined within his spacious home on this rainy day. "The reason they have smaller fires is because the ecosystem in Baja is absolutely devastated. What they've been doing down there - the grazing, the farming, the burning - is basically destroying the natural habitat to promote ranching."
"That's crap," answers Minnich. "California's past is embodied in Baja California. Opponents of mine deny that record, but denial is no way to proceed in science."
In part, Minnich is right: Early settlers in Southern California, as well as the Native Americans, practiced the same kind of land management Mexican ranchers do now, albeit on a much smaller and less-destructive scale. That changed in the early part of the century, when the federal government started cordoning off wildlands for protection. One of the things land managers protected them from was fire.
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.