The burning season

Mediterranean climates, such as the one that much of California experiences, are characterized by two distinct seasons: a mild, moderately wet season and a warm/hot dry season. In most of the state the majority of precipitation falls between Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, with very little in the other months. At this time of year the dry season is in full swing. I’ve heard of a few reasons why California is called the Golden State: (1) the Gold Rush that began in 1848; (2) the carpets of California poppies that blanket the state in the spring; and (3) the drying up of the summer grasses, which covers much of the state in a golden mantle dotted with oak trees.

We are definitely in the golden season now. We had a good, colorful spring with a banner crop of wildflowers, thanks to the El Niño rains, and it was green well into July. Given the drought, we hadn’t seen that much green in years. But now the annual vegetation has dried out and most of the state is on high alert for wildfire. Fire is a seasonal event in the arid west, and every year several thousand acres burn in California. July and August are the worst months.

This year the most devastating fire in my region of the state is the so-called Soberanes fire burning near Big Sur. As of today the fire has blazed for 23 days, scorched over 71,000 acres, and is 60% contained. Almost 60 homes have been lost and over 400 other structures are threatened, all because some idiot lit an illegal campfire. Up here in Santa Cruz we are over 60 miles away from the fire, but the entire region has been affected by the smoke. Until recently the typical summer onshore winds have blown most of the smoke eastward and while we’ve smelled smoke here we have been spared the worst of it. This satellite photo was taken two days after the fire started:

Soberanes fire, image captured by satellite. 24 July 2016 © Jeff Schmaltz, NASA

Soberanes fire, image captured by satellite.
24 July 2016
© Jeff Schmaltz, NASA

This morning when I woke up the smell of smoke seemed stronger. It was foggy, enough so that water had condensed on the ground and cars, but instead of smelling like ocean the fog smelled like fire. The sun came out for about an hour in the mid-afternoon, showing a sky that wasn’t as blue as it is when ordinary for recedes. Air quality is pretty bad so I’ve been staying indoors with windows and doors closed.


Last week I was in the Lake Tahoe region, on a short vacation with my family in South Lake Tahoe. On our first day there we went on a short hike in the Angora Lakes area. Let me tell you, being at altitude makes a concussion headache worse–I had been weaning myself off the ibuprofen, but had to go back on the full doses for the handful of days we were at altitude.

On 27 June 2007 an illegal campfire ignited a wildfire that eventually burned 3100 acres and destroyed more than 300 homes and commercial structures in a populated area near South Lake Tahoe. The Angora fire was fully contained on 2 July and 100% controlled on 10 July.

Map of the Angora fire. 28 June 2007 © Phillip Wooley

Map of the Angora fire.
28 June 2007
© Phillip Wooley

On the hike out to Angora Lakes you see a few burnt trees off the trail, but don’t really get a feel for the scope of the area affected by the fire. So on our way out of the Tahoe basin we drove through one of the neighborhoods that had burnt. Almost 10 years after the fire now, all of the burnt homes have been either rebuilt or completely torn down. It was interesting to see that the fire’s damage had been spotty: in a neighborhood of mostly older houses there would be a couple scattered here and there that were obviously new construction, likely post-fire rebuilds.

In the years since the fire there has been a lot of restoration work in the Angora region:

Post-fire restoration work at Angora 8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Post-fire restoration work at Angora
8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It is quite easy to see exactly what the fire did and did not burn.

8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

But even a burnt tree possesses a stark beauty that living trees do not have:

8 August 2016 © Allison J. Gong

8 August 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Fire is, or used to be, a significant part of the ecology of much of the western United States. Some plants’ seeds require the heat of fire to germinate, and fire opens up the canopy to allow low-growing plants access to sunlight. When a fire burns through a wilderness region the clock is reset on ecological succession, allowing different species of plants to take their turn thriving in the habitat. We humans experience ecology as a snapshot in time, the duration of our own lifetimes. In the aftermath of a wildfire we have the opportunity to observe the early stages of succession that will likely result, decades down the road, in a mature forest. Even now, only nine years after the fire, it is clear that plants, especially grasses, have been thriving in areas that had been burnt down to charred soil. It will be interesting to watch how succession proceeds over the next several years.

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