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Nature Notes: California Ablaze

Tue, 10/29/2019 - 16:51

California is afire. I’m writing this in one of the few safe spots, but for how long? In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada the statuesque ponderosa pines are browning off, and a single spark will light up the outside in an instant.

Southern California from San Bernardino to the northern foothills of Los Angeles is aflame, as is west of Sacramento and north of San Francisco, where the smoke makes it hard to see and breathe.

While Long Island’s famous pitch pines are what they call fire dependent, i.e., the seeds don’t fall out of the waxy cones until heated by a fire, practically all of California’s native flora is fire dependent, especially in the chaparral, that band of shrubby vegetation that extends from within Mexico’s northern border through the foothills of California all the way into Oregon. Consequently, the chaparral thrives on fire, but the foothill homes, tier after tier in straight lines, are not so lucky. A single spark can spell their demise.

To make matters worse, the power companies, particularly Pacific Gas and Electric, have been turning off the electricity whenever the fires seem imminent because the high tension wires can spark if brushed against in the throes of the Santa Ana winds blowing toward the Pacific Ocean off the desert areas, as happened with the 2018 Paradise fire, which wiped out the place and snuffed out the lives of several inhabitants.

As this was being written in the Sierra foothills, there came a phone call saying the power would be turned off momentarily.

Another detrimental effect of the fires around San Francisco, Los Angeles, and cities between the two is the smoke from the surrounding blazes, which can make those urban areas look like Peking or Shanghai during the daily traffic jams.

Many people can’t handle the smoke and drive away from it. As a result, the heavy traffic that has plagued the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas becomes even worse. Fire, smoke, and traffic make for a terrible, terrible time.

Birds can fly from the fire, but reptiles, amphibians, and many mammals succumb to the rapidly spreading flames. They fare no better than humans when engulfed by fire.

Yes, California is beautiful, enshrouded in redwoods, high deserts, foothills, and mountains, not to mention almost a thousand miles of coastline, but there is a downside, like having heaven and hell in the same midst.  

Long Island’s highest hill would be dwarfed by California’s lowest mountains, the Coast Range. If it were placed in front of the Sierra Nevada, you would have a hard time making it out.

In other words, Long Island’s East End is not so badly off, after all. It has a wonderful ocean, sandy beaches, farm fields, and woodlands. Why not “Go east, young man!”?

Larry Penny can be reached via email at [email protected].

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