Americans in every part of the United States delight in tweaking those of us who live in southern California about our exposure to a wide variety of natural disasters. Earthquakes, of course, come first to mind. If conditions are right, an earthquake could also send a tsunami onto a large stretch of our coast. The big tsunami risks are in the northern part of California (where Crescent City has borne the brunt), but one can see the “Tsunami Evacuation Route” signs posted here, too, just downhill from our house. We Californians have thoughtfully placed a couple of nuclear reactors right at the coast, just for good measure. It’s an easy matter to scoff at tens of millions of people willing to live in earthquake country, but, then, have you ever crouched in your basement during a tornado? Kind of a trade-off.
Then, every fire season (beginning about now, at the beginning of summer), we’re certain to get our share of your evening news coverage with wildfires. While the entire American west is subject to wildfire, we here in greater Los Angeles have made the potential for spectacle more dramatic (entertainment capital of the world, after all) by building a city of ten million people up onto steep, fire-prone slopes of chaparral that absolutely ARE going to burn at some time.
Hard on the heels of fire season, starting in October or so, our rainy season begins — which can be more or less rainy, according to Mom Nature’s whims. Steep hillsides denuded of their natural erosion-preventing vegetation by fire are prime candidates to wash down on houses and roads, in extreme cases not just muddying but carrying away said infrastructure. As each fire season progresses, the news directors at local TV stations are marking significant fires on a map in their office, so that they have a quick checklist of places to send video crews when the rains come. Sometimes these combined disasters could have been prevented or minimized by more careful civil engineering, more assiduous control of brush and combustible material around houses, but sometimes it’s just bad luck. The LA basin suffers particularly because of the nature of the storms that bring rain: they are almost always tropical deluges of 1, 2 or 3 inches dumped out in brief spans of time as the storms collide with the mountain ranges. As it song says, “It pours, man, it pours.”
I always like to issue a caveat when I talk about flood and fire news from SoCal: keep in mind that WHATEVER shot you’re seeing on TV, never doubt that the news crew has gone out of their way to make it look like a world-ending Armageddon, when, in fact, the fire or mudslide may be relatively isolated or minor; THEY are choosing how to frame the shot. That’s not always the case, but remain cognizant of the scope of what you’re being told and shown vs. reality. You might be seeing a tiny slice of a small mudslide that doesn’t really impact many people here. Most of us here may not even know about what you’re seeing on the news until we see it there, too. As the old news saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Add to these natural wonders the sheer scale of bad things that happen in an urban area that extends for a hundred miles in every direction, multiplied by the unfailing ability of the immensely wealthy and privileged people who live here with the means to do all sorts of crazily wacky bad things, and Los Angeles can seem like the land of the lost. Consider the examples of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise and the California State Legislature (the latter of which took over the spot formerly held by O.J. after he moved to Florida).
Let’s face it. Everyone hopes that the PERFECT news story will someday emerge from our town, something like this:
“The head of a Hollywood studio disappeared today when the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron he was driving while talking on his cell phone plunged into a deep crack in the earth that opened up on Wilshire Boulevard in today’s 8.2 magnitude earthquake. At about the same time, his home on Carbon Beach was one of dozens of multimillion-dollar beach pads swept away by the ensuing tsunami, while wildfires sparked by falling power lines toppled by the earthquake consumed the set for his studio’s current $500 million epic, The Life of Oliver North in the Santa Monica Mountains.”
Here in L.A., that story would be headline news for at least a day, until the announcement that Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise and O.J. Simpson are planning to buy the Lakers for $50 billion.
As part of our plan to enjoy the recent 3-day weekend as much as possible, The Counselor and I drove to the southern end of Crenshaw Boulevard at the top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. There, on the tall bluffs at the edge of North America, looking west, Portuguese Bend Preserve provides an open area of trails and spectacular vistas looking out toward Santa Catalina Island. We were off to a jolly weekend hike, looking forward to some exercise, some beautiful scenery, and maybe a glimpse of a rabbit or American Kestrel or two.
Tune your Google Earth or other map-reading application to 33 degrees, 45 minutes, 25.38 seconds N by 118 degrees, 22 minutes, 0.11 seconds west to put yourself at the top of the trail down into the Preserve: Burma Road. Head west, downhill.
Burma Road slopes steeply down toward the ocean. Numerous trails branch out across the sagebrush and chaparral landscape. You can choose some extremely steep paths or others that aren’t quite as vertical. Whichever route you choose, you’re going to get a workout. It’s a glimpse of the landscape at the edge of the continent as it was until the suburbs took over, a delight for weekend hikers, mountain bike enthusiasts and dogs taking their humans out for some exercise (you never see anyone walking their CATS. Cats hate exercise unless they can be guaranteed an opportunity to catch and torture small animals, preferably without wandering far from their water dishes).
Burma Road is the main path through the Preserve. It’s a bona fide Los Angeles County road, although it’s not paved. Seventy years ago, this was farmland, and Burma Road connected the farms here to Los Angeles and the port. The farmers who worked this land moved out just after the start of the second World War, persuaded by our government to relocate to a beautiful holiday camp at the foot of the Sierra Madre called Manzanar. Thanks to their abandoning their farms, we have this lovely bit of pristine Pacific scenery.
Here’s a look at part of the coastline we saw from up at the start of our hike (click on photos for larger view):
It was a lovely day. There was a stiff onshore breeze (that means the wind is blowing from the ocean to the land) that kept it from being too hot. After we’d walked a mile or two down Burma Road, the wind brought us a distinctive scent: smoke!
This is dry, dry land. The just-finished rainy season didn’t bring us even the usual amount of rain. Warning signs are already posted in the local neighborhoods, reminding homeowners that June 1 is the deadline for clearing brush and combustible material from around their property.
It’s a fearsome cry in any place, but especially here in the dry, open brushy land: Fire!
We heard sirens — lots of sirens. We looked, but couldn’t see any sign of fire. Two hikers coming up Burma Road toward us said there was a fire working down below.
On these tinder-dry hillsides, fire can race at terrific speeds, consuming everything in its path. That onshore breeze could blow hot cinders ahead of any attempt to check the main body of a fire, and flames would overtake any structure or person in its path. Fire!
Now we were watching carefully. The wind can carry the scent of fire for many miles, but there was only a mile or two of land between us and the ocean, so it must be close. In another few hundred yards we spotted the smoke, maybe a mile or so northwest and still below us, down in a ravine.
We reached the big turn as Burma Road bends from NW to SE, and there, out across the landscape we saw the big plume of smoke coming from a fire in a canyon. A mile may seem like a long way, but we had at least five or six hundred feet of elevation and 2 miles of walking (or running) to cover to reach any sort of safety. That’s thirty minutes of hard going. I can tell you that the average human will NOT outrun a fire uphill for thirty minutes — fire never stops to catch its breath.
Should something go amiss, and the fire veer our way to overtake us, our alternative would be to lie down in the middle of the broad gravel road and hope the break in vegetation would stop the fire so that we could live to see ourselves portrayed on the evening news as Idiots Who Kept Walking Toward a Fire; our 15 minutes of fame … or infamy.
We deemed it prudent at that point to turn around and walk back up Burma Road. Coming toward us was a sight unique in our years of hiking experience.
These men and women are doing their job. While they aren’t categorically heroes, I’m still glad I don’t have their task: to slog across rough country with a wildfire coming uphill toward me.
We walked back up the steep slope. White flakes drifted down on us: ash from the fire. We reached the top of Burma Road, 1100 feet above sea level. By the time we reached that point, we could see the assembled forces attacking the fire, including two water-dropping helicopters. Here’s one:
This was one fire in a remote ravine on the edge of the continent, but homes and human lives were only a few yards away. Firefighters risk their lives to go up into the rough country. Pilots and crews of aircraft fly death-defying maneuvers at low altitude to drop water or chemicals on the fire. This is a serious business. The few hours it required to extinguish this insignificant brush fire on a remote edge of the Pacific involved multiple fire crews, aerial support and the risk of lives. A mistake in this sort of terrain with a fast-moving fire can equal disaster in many forms.
A few years ago, The Counselor and I traveled through Capitan, a small town in the rain shadow of the Sacramento Mountains in southeastern New Mexico. A few months before we two were born, a local resident of Capitan achieved national prominence: a bear named Smokey. Smokey was a bear cub, found badly burned after a fire in the wild country outside Capitan. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. If you’ve traveled in the national parks or forests of the United States, he’s looked at you from innumerable signs advising you about the risk of fire. Smokey became the National Park Service symbol for fire safety. Smokey lived a long bear’s life — 26 years — in the National Zoo. Smokey is gone now, but I am both his contemporary as well as one of his heirs. I hope that I can represent him here.
This fire on an isolated slope at the far edge of the continent could be anywhere: in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales or the pine forests of Arkansas or the high plains of Alberta when the conditions are dry and vast stands of potential fuel cover open country. Wherever you travel, remember the words we’ve given Smokey, who, himself was a mute but powerful witness: “Only You!” It’s a serious business. Peoples’ lives are at stake, my friends, and Smokey is watching. Start no fire.
To our readers outside the United States: Smokey Bear has been an icon of fire prevention for almost seventy years. Originating as a fictional symbol for fire prevention, there was, indeed, a real bear who became the living symbol and namesake. Anthropomorphized images of Smokey holding a fire-fighting shovel and wearing a park ranger’s hat are ubiquitous in wild places in the U.S. The phrase associated with these images, one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history states simply, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Smokey’s resting place is now a monument in Capitan, New Mexico, near his wild native home: a tribute to one innocent victim of wildfire, and a reminder to the rest of us.
© 2012 Brad Nixon