I have spent all my adult life, 43 years, living in Santa Barbara's chaparral-oak woodland environment. I lost my home in the Painted Cave Fire and have evacuated many times over the years here at the Trout Club and at
my old place on Mountain Drive. Fire is a natural part of the chaparral ecology. In a typical year, after the winter rains, we see a flush of new growth that covers the mountains with flowers and leaves. There is also something unseen. Beneath the new growth the previous year's growth has died back, smothered by new growth so that the sunlight no longer penetrates it.
Normally this process goes on for about 30 years or so until it is described as "decadent". This is when, since ancient times, lightning-caused fire naturally sweeps through and removes all this dry material. In a temperate forest with heavy rainfall this process is accomplished through moist decomposition and the old leaves and branches becomes forest humus. In Mediterranean climates such as ours it is accomplished by fire. The detritus of previous years growth is turned to ash, which then becomes part of the soil and nutrients for the regeneration of plants.
The chaparral and oak woodland plants have adapted to this process over millions of years. Drought and fire have evolved plants with smaller leaves and denser wood that will grow back from stumps if they are severely burned. Some seeds will not germinate until they are parched by fire. After a fire we see the the process of new growth that begins with wildflowers and vines, and is followed by regrowth of ceanothus, oaks and other large plants.
We can imitate this fire-induced process mechanically with weed whackers, chainsaws and chippers to help reduce the intensity of a fire if it were to come close to our homes. In future columns we will look at creating
defensible space in our neighborhoods, plants to cultivate, and more about life on the mountain.
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