Fire on Middle Peak

Dale and Sky the dog drove to our “new” house as soon as escrow closed. Together, the Master slept in a sleeping bag in front of the fireplace, with faithful dog snuggled close enough to share ticks, but that’s another story. I stayed behind at our Monterey-Salinas house and packed, while Dale plumbed, caulked, painted, etc.—making our new home livable. Every day counted as we did not want to pay two mortgages for long. By Thanksgiving 2016, we had much to celebrate; we bought the house of our dreams in Cuyamaca, and we’d nearly sold our other home, in escrow at least. The week before Thanksgiving, when weather changed to cold and cloudy—a precursor of the upcoming months—Cuyamaca State Park officials prescribed a burn on Middle Peak. We learned how close to the wilderness we were living. And it scared me.

Firefighters and trucks from Cal Fire, Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Department, and Cleveland National Forest Fire Department waited at the base of Middle Peak.  The purpose of this burn was to eradicate stands of Palmer ceanothus (Ceonothus palmeri) which swallowed the whole mountain. California is meant to burn—it’s intimately tied to its ecology. And for many plants, such Sequoias, fires remove the underbrush, which heats the cones which disperses the seeds, and which starts the next generation. I know this rationally, intellectually, and I welcome a small fire here and there. That is, until it’s a smoking distance from my house. I admit I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, but more the vicarious kind—from a comfortable couch in my living room. I enjoy watching America Ninja Warrior, X-Games, and Olympics; however, watching a burning mountain from your living room window provides a thrill, more like sitting in the back seat of a bobsled. You just go along for the ride.

When the 2003 Cedar Fire scorched Middle Peak and much of the back country, it sterilized the soil from its high heat. Sort of like volcanic eruptions on Hawaii, where everything, every last little seedling or seed died in its path. On our mountain, and most of Middle Peak, the Cedar Fire created prime conditions for Palmer ceanothus to thrive, so much so that now you stroll through twelve to fifteen foot tunnels, branches encroaching on all sides. Creepy, actually. That invasive shrub, albeit a native of Southern California mountains, survived everything and reproduced as there was no tomorrow. No fires have touched these mountains since that massive inferno of 2003, leaving this virulent evergreen to take over, choking out pines, firs, cedars, or other plants that need sunlight to grow or survive. For a few weeks in spring, ceonothus which grows over six feet wide and ten feet tall, bursts out in dense clusters of white or lilac flowers, appearing from a distance like fresh snow. Their sickening sweet fragrance is enough to give a non-diabetic person a sugar headache. In summer, Ceonothus plants survive, even thrive, with—get this—no water, making it the “perfect” plant for any hillside in Southern California. Too perfect. I wonder if the Native Americans ever used this plant. I only know they controlled it with seasonal burns.

We watched the “controlled burn” from our living room those nights in November, sort of like sitting around a massive campfire.  A year later, new trees emerged from the burn scar. The forest is returning, and we’ve done our part on our little slice of North Peak by lopping and removing ceonothus, replanting 60 cedars, pines, and firs. As for the public lands surrounding us, public agencies adopted a new approach to eradicating this monoculture. A massive masticator now mows down these offensive plants—chewing up and spitting out mulch along the route. The plus is less chance of an uncontrolled wildfire, although that still can happen. The minus is a slow, arduous process, as the masticator moves only over “even” terrain and mere inches at a time as compared to a controlled burn.

In those first few weeks of living on the mountain, we learned about the California Fair Plan, the only way people who live on the edge of wilderness can afford insurance, which is collectively. We also learned from Cal Fire how to improve our chances of survival. Their visit to our property gave us direction and allayed our fears, as we could take steps, such as:

  • sealing our eaves
  • sealing under our deck
  • replacing broken pieces of fireproof siding
  • painting our steps and deck with fireproof sealant
  • and most importantly, cutting back brush.

The latter is a never-ending process, as is photosynthesis. As long as plants grow, the weed whacker is whacking.

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