FIRE!


The phone rang about four o'clock in the afternoon.

“Jim, it’s Mel, your next door neighbor. I’m in San Luis, and there’s a fire near our houses. Can you smell it?”

“No, and it’s clear,” I said, covering the phone letting Mary know a fire was close. Fire season was directly upon us.

“Okay, Mel,” I replied. “I’ll check outside.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m coming home right now, see you in a half hour. I’ll honk when I pass your place,” she said.

Adam, my 25 year old son, walked in the back door.

“Who was that?”

“Mel, she says there’s a fire.”

“Where?” he asked worriedly.

“Close by,” was the limited answer I gave.

Unsatisfied he grabbed his cell phone. “I’m going up to the water tank, I’ll call you when I see something,” he said.

Sure enough, when I went outside to look, I saw the reports were correct. A large cloud of white smoke billowed skyward somewhere behind the hills that surround our little house. I could see it was growing in size and quickly turning to an ugly, blue-black color.

Mary joined me on the porch. "I think there are two fires now," I said as we watched another cloud gathering on the horizon to the left.

"I'll keep the phone with me. Adam will call then he gets to the top," Mary said.

Here's what Adam saw looking southeast from our backyard into Web Tartaglia's vineyard, the view from the tip-top peak on our property. Adam captured a fire retardant drop you can watch on the video underneath.

Fires are part of the natural cycle in this part of California. The chaparral biome requires fire for rejuvenation, a scientific way to say fire is needed to release the nutrients back into the sandy gravel hills these plants live on.

These plants have adapted to the winter-wet, summer-dry climate of California and to the ravages of fire. In fact, most of them need the force of fire destruction to help them rejuvenate. As the branches from these plants pile up over the years fire is inevitable and living within chaparral plant communities guarantees this imminent threat will eventually descend upon its inhabitants.

The dominant plant carpeting the hillsides is called Chamise, a boring, ugly plant. It is very resinous and highly flammable, and needs to burn to its crown every six, seven, or ten years.

Interspersed among these are Black Sages, Wooly Blue Curls, California Lilacs, and Bush Poppies. These are more interesting plants that put out fragrant, colorful blooms anywhere between January and April. But these beauties are part of this fire cycle as well for their stems and leaves also contain fiery resins and their seeds require the intense heat of a firestorm to generate.

As the weather heats up and the flowers wither the plants send their resinous aroma into the air when the sun's heat hits the hills. The heat is vaporizing volatile resins and these volatile compounds are extremely flammable.

Since 1982 Mary and I have seen six fires close-up and personal. Old timers on Huer Huero Road grimace when a fire ignites, but are ready to face it head-on. The newbies on the road pack up all of their items and run when given the order to evacuate. Below is a pic of Mary as a newbie scared of the oncoming fire in July 1985. Although staying is a dangerous presumption, we have packed every time, ready to go. But we have never been forced to abandon our home. We live in a canyon that backs up into high hills behind and on two sides of us. Luckily, the fire storms have not yet been fierce enough to bridge this canyon, and fire doesn't like to travel down hill. As I said, we have been very lucky.

As you can see from this yellowed article, fires are not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We have experienced fires that have come close enough to cut off electricity for five days, burn the side hill down to the level of the eucalyptus grove before dying out, and on one fire the firefighters set up camp in our front yard, staying for a couple of days.

One person deciding to start a fire or two hastens this inherent flammability of the dead plant buildup. Historically, the natural burns in chaparral occur during lightning storms in winter and spring. In earlier days, the Chumash Indian would start fires to remove brush from around oak trees to gather acorns whick they used as a food source. Periodic fires are be