Nature-loving Southern Californians are endangering the landscapes they love
By Ilsa Setziol
Excerpted from Verdugo Monthly
For many people it’s the dream home: a place tucked into the foothills where you can dart out the back door to escape the city. You can clear the smog from your lungs, inhale the spicy-sweet, dusty fragrance of the hillside, and hear the tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker working an oak tree.
But this version of the good life is imperiling some of rarest ecosystems on earth. Southern California is considered a biodiversity hotspot, a place with many unique species that are threatened with extinction. Much of the habitat has been bulldozed and what remains is threatened by another side effect of civilization: fire.
“More people on the landscape has meant more fires,” says Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “Today we have more fire ignition than we ever had historically. And humans account for 95 to 99 percent of all the fires we see in this region.”
California has the largest so-called “urban-wildland interface”—areas where human habitation cuts into wilderness—in the nation. That means more power lines that can snap, more roadsides where catalytic converters can ignite grasses, more barbeques. No foothill community should consider itself protected.
On a balmy fall morning, botanist Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity hikes a section of the Verdugo Mountains near Burbank. She notes that two important plant communities intermingle there: evergreen shrubs collectively known as chaparral, and an even rarer group called coastal sage scrub. “Coastal sage scrub used to be widespread, but it’s now one of our most imperiled habitats,” she says. “Because it grows in desirable foothill areas, it’s been heavily impacted by development.” Anderson points out some characteristic plants: fragrant purple and white sages; buckwheat still displaying dried, rust-red blossoms; and the yellow daisies of California brittlebush.
Examining a hillside that burned a few years back, Anderson is pleased to see new growth sprouting from the base of charred shrubs. “But if they burn again in a few years it will set them back; there will be less energy in the root mass for them to resprout,” she says. “The natural fire rate here is estimated at once every 50 to 120 years. If fires burn every 20 years, it could eliminate them.” Especially vulnerable are plants that regenerate primarily by seed, such as California lilac (Ceanothus). “If the young plants are killed before they drop enough seeds, ultimately no seeds are left to produce future generations,” says Anderson.
Frequent fires will benefit some plants. “What’s going to come back are invasive annual weeds,” says Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. “You’ll get acres of grasses.” He notes with chagrin that these non-natives are highly flammable.
Biologists are beginning to document swaths of southern California that have been converted from native shrublands to fields of Mediterranean grasses and other weeds. These new landscapes aren’t good habitat for wildlife, and they’re vulnerable to erosion.
So Jon Keeley of the USGS was alarmed to learn that, in San Diego County alone, 60,000 to 70,000 acres that were torched in 2003 had burned again last fall.
If you’re an outdoorsy type and inclined to reading the interpretive signs at parks, we’ve probably just confused you. Haven’t those rangers been telling people that forests need more fire? Indeed, in many parts of the American West—especially conifer forests, such as the one around Lake Arrowhead—people have been all too successful at suppressing natural fires. It’s sparked a different ecological problem: overstocked forests of dry bark-beetle-infested trees. For most of the Southland, though, the challenge is too many human-caused fires.
If you’re not discouraged already, contemplate this: Scientists expect global warming to exacerbate the problem. They project that warming temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of fires in the American West. Some say it’s already happening.
Biologist Mike Allen of UC Riverside studies how ecosystems respond to human interference. Much of his research is conducted at the James Reserve near Idyllwild, a graceful spot where wild azaleas and rare lemon lilies bloom alongside a small creek. Western Bluebirds flit among ponderosa pines. Allen says the destruction of native plant communities isn’t just an aesthetic issue. “It’s really a loss of a functioning system that cleans the air and water, and provides food.” He says fire, combined with development, pollution, and invasive species, is putting tremendous stress on local habitats. His big worry is a tipping point: “Ecosystems collapse in nonlinear ways. It’s one of those Jenga things. You can pull out pieces, but all of a sudden you pull out the last piece, and the whole thing tumbles quickly.”
Many scientists say projected population growth is the looming threat—for wildlands and the people who live near them. Already, says Keeley, “Population growth has outstripped the ability of firefighters to protect people.”
Keeley recommends joining a local chapter of the Fire Safe Council. “Homeowners need to think ahead of time, to ensure their community has sufficient [brush] clearance to reduce the likelihood flames will move in. But they need to be aware that’s not enough. In San Diego they cleared. All clearance gets you is reduced fuels to allow firefighters to get in. But often there aren’t enough firefighters.” Strong winds can make it impossible to stop a fire, and new developments are often built on steeper—more dangerous—terrain.
Keeley says municipal planners should be much more conservative about where they permit new development. Halsey agrees: “The  Esperanza fire: That house [where four firefighters died] should never have been built. At the top of steep canyons you get unstoppable waves of fire. The houses literally blow up.” Halsey watched the recent Witch fire in San Diego County devour his neighbors’ homes, narrowly sparing his. He says the fire didn’t die down until the wind ceased.
The Glendale Fire Department has these tips for homeowners: make sure your sprinklers are working, remove weeds and cut grass regularly, dispose of dead vegetation, and don’t place plants too close to structures or eaves. Also, store flammable liquids with care, clear debris from your roof, and create a home escape plan.
Still, making a home safer doesn’t erase its environmental footprint. In the Verdugos, botanist Ileene Anderson strode down a fire road, hopped into her little yellow truck, and headed west along Sunset Canyon Drive. She stopped to check out a cluster of stucco houses perched on a steep ridge. Homeowners had diligently cleared vegetation, leaving only a few buckwheat and Lauren sumac plants. “There’s nothing natural except a few token species that have been able to survive,” she laments. “Brush clearance definitely creates an ecological problem. So do firebreaks; they are highways for invasive plants. Sadly, if you value proximity to the natural world, you have to blitz what you sought to be near.”