Tags: california | bruash | fires

Life Fragile on Fires' Front Lines

Thursday, 25 Oct 2007 05:52 PM

By Lowell Ponte

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For days, the sky here in Carlsbad, Calif. has been eerily white, as if lit only by a dim fluorescent bulb. Is this how an unearthly sky looks on Venus or Jupiter?

Less than 15 miles northwest of the massive Witch Creek fire — one of more than a dozen major wildfires that have forced the evacuation of more than a million Southern California residents — the sun burns a faint dull red through the haze. The moon rising over Carlsbad last night was as crimson as blood.

These fires can move with astonishing speed, and all of us here live down brush-covered canyons that follow ancient stream beds that flow to the coast. At one point the fire was less than hour from overrunning my neighborhood before shifting winds intervened.

We never see snowfall here at the beach along California’s Riviera. But for much of the past week, snow-like flakes of ash have sifted down, covering the leaves of our bananas and avocado trees, turning our white cars gray.

In an odd moment yesterday, I thought it might be fun to go outside with my dust mask, lie down on our ash-covered driveway, and move my arms to make a snow angel. I pondered whether the fragile ash could be formed into a snowman.

But such moments have been rare during this catastrophe. Even those far from the fires ravaging Southern California are coughing from the dense smoke. Here along the shore we have been warned to stand by for possible evacuation if a shift in the wind pushes the blaze our way.

These throat-searing hot, dry Santa Anas that come each fall are known as “witches winds.” Charged with positive ions, they deplete brain levels of the soothing neurotransmitter serotonin and turn people irritable, angry and accident-prone.

Caused by clockwise-swirling high pressure zones above inland deserts, these Santa Anas reverse the usual onshore moist ocean winds that kiss Southern California. The witches winds blast this region with parching desert air, gusting at up to 85 miles per hour, drying the fragile brush.

If a single spark ignites this brush, the blowtorch winds can whip it into a firestorm with temperatures topping 1,000 degrees and hurl blazing hunks of brush up to two miles downwind to spread the conflagration.

Southern California is a desert, turned into a human paradise for 24 million residents. Most live within a dozen or so miles of its seashore. It is made livable only by cooling Pacific breezes and aqueduct-imported water. Even so, native Californians like myself are shocked when they first travel east of the Mississippi to see how lush and green those states are . . . and how rainy.

The Santa Ana winds, in effect, return Southern California for a few days each year to its arid desert state, a moonscape that naturally could sustain only a few thousand Native Americans who survived by eating acorns and cactus pears. These latest fires threatened several of their reservation casinos, which thrive from neighbors who love to gamble.

Brush fires here are part of the ecology. The oily natural brush, known as chaparral, emits vapors that suppress other plants’ seeds, which depend on fires to singe off chaparral leaves long enough to make possible their own germination.

Residents have been remarkably patient and helpful, at least in San Diego County, home to the Navy’s Pacific Command Center and largest Marine base, Camp Pendleton (where two new fires erupted Wednesday).

The feeling has been one of isolation, with all local radio and TV programming devoted to fire coverage. This has meant no Rush Limbaugh or other national talk shows on San Diego or Los Angeles stations.

In an odd sense, the nation has vanished as local residents have rediscovered the courage, goodness and generosity of their neighbors. Long-suppressed seeds of kindness have germinated as the firestorm burns.

These days of fiery hell are the price we pay here for years of renewing our lease on heaven in this fragile paradise.

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