Fire Regime: a pantoume and essay

by Elizabeth C. Creely

for Anne, who always listens
Anne, I said,

Fall in October in California is a disaster
Our autumnal rites are different from fall in New England
In New England the seasons turn placidly and orange is the color of an aging leaf
The orange leaves burn in bonfires built by quiet people.

Our autumnal rites are different from Fall in New England
Back East quiet people collect dead leaves and build fires
The orange leaves burn in bonfires built by quiet people
The orange leaves which do not burn, float away. Are borne away.

Back East quiet people collect dead leaves and build fires
The fires are made from leaves that were green and grew on deciduous trees
The orange leaves which do not burn, float away. Are borne away.
The ash from the bonfires rise quietly. The ruddy-cheeked people tend the fire.

The fires are made from leaves that were green and grew on deciduous trees
The web of a burnt tree leaf with its story of incineration trembles
The ash from the bonfires rise quietly. The ruddy-cheeked people tend the fire
The web of the burnt tree leaf journeys from the distant fire, the sole survivor.

The web of a burnt tree leaf with its story of incineration trembles
Agitated, it shakes and shimmies in the light of the old orange sun
The web of the burnt tree leaf journeys from the distant fire, the sole survivor
Its caught cousins were incinerated instantaneously in a beetle-infested tree

Agitated, it shakes and shimmies in the light of the old orange sun
Hustled out of her home in the canyons by a good-for-nothing gigolo
Its caught cousins were incinerated instantaneously in a beetle-infested tree
The wind, the wind, the Santa Ana Wind, partners the temperamental diva California

Hustled out of her home in the canyons by a good-for-nothing gigolo
Santa Ana de Diego Estaban de Yorba Linda, chingado handsome fickle blowhard
The wind, the wind, the Santa Ana Wind, partners the temperamental diva California
They dance on Mount St. Gregorio, down through San Bernadino, she and her cabellero.

Santa Ana de Diego Estaban de Yorba Linda, chingado handsome fickle blowhard
California sashays over the mountains in the arms of her crazy lover, that excellent dancer
They dance on Mount St. Gregorio, down through San Bernadino, she and her cabellero
California, the season-less flamboyant diva, has no sense of reason. No sobriety.

California sashays over the mountains in the arms of her crazy lover, that excellent dancer
She does her orange on ridge-tops, in coastal chaparral, or million dollar homes, anywhere!
California, the season-less flamboyant diva, has no sense of reason. No sobriety.
It’s October, shouts California. Wake up boys. Momma’s comin’ through!

She does her orange on ridge tops, in coastal chaparral, or million dollar homes, anywhere!
She sez i gottadancegottadance. La Llorona looks up sez whatthefuck, grabs her shit and runs
It’s October, shouts California. Wake up boys. Momma’s comin’ through.
In October, California, the upstart chorus tart with dyed orange hair descends

She sez i gottadancegottadance. La Llorona looks up sez whatthefuck, grabs her shit and runs
In New England the seasons turn placidly and orange is the color of an aging leaf
In October, California, the upstart chorus tart with dyed orange hair descends

Anne, I said, Fall in October in California is a disaster

Wildfire in California

Ignis Pugnator Californicus, the (un)common California firefighter, in the hills of California

On the 25th of October, a week before the Hunters Moon rose full and fat over Santiago Peak, the famed Santa Ana winds rustled through the palm trees and liquid amber of my Mother’s backyard in Southern California. I was excited. “Yay!! The Santa Ana winds are coming! The Santa Ana winds are coming!” I yelped on Facebook. The same wind, also called the “Devil Wind”, had already taken down several carefully groomed trees in the county of Los Angeles. In the San Gabriel Mountains, the winds poured over the crests of San Gregorio and Mount Baldy and whistled through the gaps and gullies of the still-growing range. Who was in the mountains right around then? A hiker? A group of bored teens, seeking refuge from the suburbs below? After drinking and smoking and making passionate teenage love, did they throw their nearly-extinguished butts down on the ground, before leaving their dry sylvan glade?

Mount Rubidoux in Riverside County, CA

Or how about the foothill communities of Azusa, Pomona and Claremont: who among them used an electric lawnmower? Or chainsaw? As they started up their domesticated power equipment (which will start at least 1,600 fires in California this year) did tiny sparks dance away from the clicking metal blades of the apparatus, unseen, and make a beeline for the nearest dry leaf lying flatly on the ground?

In the higher elevations, did a tongue of lightning reach down to slap a tree in the face with its electricity? I saw this once in Bridgeport, Nevada. The tree ignited instantaneously. Its crown of leaves formed a corona of flame that flared orange against the stormy grey sky. My siblings and I gasped in reverent awe.

The fires have not started yet and the winds have since died down, but they will return. And a fire will start. Maybe many. By July of 2012, there had already been twice as many fires in California as there had been in the previous two years.

How will the fire start? What will the ignition source be? It doesn’t matter. Somewhere, somehow, wind and fire will come together, the diva and her lover, the airy forces of the East and the fiery forces of the South and they will recommence their yearly affair. In October, November and December, the ancient fire regime of California is in full force, and rules with a fiery fist.

Pyriscence is the release of seeds through direct contact with fire. Spring is enabled by the fiery Fall in California. “Some seeds in Southern California,” Wikipedia intones, “are coated with a waxy oil…,” which causes the seeds to germinate. The symbol of California is truly that of the Phoenix: the Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum, coming to life as it burns.

Some plants do not have what it takes. When they burn, they die. The California Scrub Oak, Quercus Berberidifolia is a tough-looking shrub-tree that looks like it could take a beating. It cannot, it turns out. It is fire intolerant and gives up the ghost quite easily.

Fires in our shrub-lands: fragrant, necessary, and disastrous for Southern California home-owners who, cuckoo-like, have nested themselves in places they don’t belong: the canyons and slopes of the foothills, where plant communities- fire-resistant and intolerant alike- burn regularly. Southern California homeowners are not Phoenix-like. Neither they nor their houses are re-vivified by fire. They grumble and rage and spend money on insurance and yell at their elected officials about the preponderance of fire and the costs of containing it: $150.00 a year in Los Angeles County.

A lone oak tree in Kern County. Image from the Library of Congress.

Fires in the Southern California Mountains- replacement fires (which destroy everything they touch) or, understory fires (burns that concentrate under the trees) were once described as “natural”. But climate change hybridizes all environmental systems. Drought dries everything: humus, bark, cambium, leaves. California is droughty and water-starved. Is this natural? Has the fire regime been brought down by a political coup?

What is forecast for the 2012-2013 fire season? Uh, well, El Nino was supposed to be a part of it, but the little guy has yet to make an appearance according to the folks at NOAA, who are now backing away from their earlier predictions for a wetter winter. This means the prospect of a warmer, drier winter for the second year in a row is looking like a distinct possibility. California had an early start to the fire season this year. There were three pretty gnarly fires in August 2012: The Chips, the Reading and the Fort Complex fires in Plumas and Lassen Counties respectively.

It’s not looking great for homeowners, wildlife and the California Scrub Oak. In the dispassionate language of the National Interagency Fire Center Predictive Services the “precipitation deficits”, aka the lack of rain, might lead to a fiery fall and winter. Parts of California are rated at above normal for wildfire potential. Five fires have burned 2,975 acres in Southern California since September. The Kenwood, Christmas, Range, Wynola and Shockey fires are all 100% contained, thanks to Ignis Pugnator Californicus, the common (and mostly unionized) firefighter of California. They put out fire and respond to other emergencies, just as their also-unionized sisters and brothers respond to the watery emergencies of the East Coast.

In California, Grandfather Winter is in for a hot time on the old town. Surtr, the mythic fire giant is threatening to run his fiery sword throughout the South. Are the Western States looking at a reprise of the great forest fire of 1910 that devoured three million acres in Idaho and Montana?

I’ve noticed, as I troll antique shops looking for an oil painting of California to purchase, that the scenes of California tend to be coastal studies, or seascapes. Or overly optimistic and wholly untruthful depictions of the foothills at rosy sunset, everything pink and gold, the chaparral weirdly verdantly lush. Southern California is not the fricking Hudson Valley and all the imported Delta water in the world won’t change that.

Where is the California I know and love? Where is a painting of the jagged San Andreas Fault, the 700-mile long topographical scar tissue that rips through the state and shows so clearly at the Olema Trough?

Only once in the last five years, have I found a canvass I liked, because of the verity of the subject matter. It was a painting of a mountain fire, a raging conflagration. Flames leaped straight out from tree trunks. The note said that this painting had been painted en plein aire and that the artist placed himself and his canvass as close to the flames as he possibly could.

He wasn’t a pyromaniac. He just wanted to paint the diva California as she really is: a woman taken by the wind, red-hot and raging.

“Southland Wildfire” by Claudia A. Bear

Elizabeth C. Creely
Oct. 31, 2012
Costa Mesa, California

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