Beyond the River Fire

Although this blog is about our move and relocation to San Diego backcountry, I realize now how much my heart still resides north of here. These past few days, the mountains of Salinas and Monterey, or the Santa Lucia range, are on fire. Our old neighborhood is evacuating. Friends in the yellow zone, or the evacutation warning zone, are packing up. The Monterey Zoo is relocating animals. And I feel guilty because I am conflicted.

A part of me celebrates fire as an important part of nature (some plants, such as sequoias, need high heat to regenerate), but another part of me fears losing a home and everything in it. I suppose firefighters must feel the same–a mixture of excitement and reference for the untamed beast. I miss our home of thirty-some years, but I celebrate where we live now. We are blessed, and yet. And yet, I feel sad. I feel sad for the neighborhood, our friends, our old home. If you live long enough in California, you know that this land is meant to burn. Our new house is a rebuild from the Cedar Fire in 2003. The hills of Salinas will not be as verdent as they once were, at least for a season, so I remind myself to just breathe and wait. The flowers and greenery will return.

As of the latest report on 8/20/2020, nearly 80% of “my” Toro Park has burned. I cherish memories of hikes through the years (decades, really), and the views from Eagle Peak, Mount Ollason, the Airplane Trail, Cougar Ridge, and Simas Peak. On Eagle Peak with my three girls and friends, we watched two behemoth cows ram their massive skulls into each other, like live colliding bumper cars. We ran and hid behind some trees, fully expecting anyone of us to be their next target. After all, turkeys in the Sycamore picnic area were known to chase people. Who is to say that cattle might mistake us for free hay?

Many times, I hiked alone, if no one else was available, but I always carried my hiking sticks, especially helpful in encounters with mountain lions or snakes. On East Cougar Ridge, one afternoon with my daughter, a three foot rattler warned us and then slowly made its way to the side of the trail. As a biologist, I was intrigued with its coloring, rattle size, and girth. I gave him/her wide berth, and tried to capture him on camera while he slithered away. I excitedly said to my daughter, “Isn’t he beautiful?” only to find she had sprinted back down the hill and never heard a word I spoke.

I often hiked the back side of Toro, off Harper Canyon, with Sandy and our dog-BFFs, Nika and Sky. My dog Sky, a Heintz-57 Variety of a dog, hunted ground squirrels, and there were a few. When we returned home, Sky slept soundly for hours, dreaming of missed opportunities. Nika, a very vocal Alaskan husky, felt her calling was herding cattle. The poor dogs never understood why sometimes they could run wild and free, and then other times, when cows were nearby, we kept a tight leash.

The airplane trail, usually overgrown with poison oak, no doubt is in the fire zone. Many times, I needed Tecnu for days following a hike in that ravine. According to fire fighter Rick, the 1970s fatal crash of the small two-passenger plane, triggered a fire, which likely was the last time it burned. Mountain doves would flit among the tall oaks. Spanish moss concealed nearby predatory birds, like red tailed hawks, who swooped down and plucked their next meal, some poor unsuspecting dove, from the sky.

I remember conversations that accompanied long hikes. One special hike, an eight-miler at least with my best friend, Wendy, took us up Cougar Ridge overlooking Indian Springs and Las Palmas. Past the springs, we headed northeast to Valley View Peak, which overlooks the valley floor (appropriately named) and spotted our homes, looking like tiny match books far down the hill. Black Mountain casts its massive shadow early over our houses–by 3:30 pm in fall and winter–and so our hikes began in morning, by 8 am at least. As we wove our way down the switchbacks, past thick stands of manzanita as far as we could see, I recall saying to Wendy, “Boy, does this stuff need to burn.” Most of the manzanita plants towered like oaks above our heads, indicating they had not seen a fire in decades.

On that particular hike, we discussed hopes and dreams for our daughters–all the same ages and all going through the same boyfriend/girlfriend drama and work angsts of twenty-somethings. I remember the exact place where Wendy told me her cancer had metastized to her spine. She didn’t know how much longer she had. She buoyed me with “I can live a long time with meds, like a diabetic.” And “You’re a good Mom, you know,” when she knew I worried, as did she, about our girls. Ever the nurse. Ever the caregiver. The fires are burning and I am crying, but it’s all about the memories.

Wendy died August 18th. My mom died the very next day, and for some reason, I don’t believe that was a coincidence. My last words to Wendy were, ” I love you,” and those were the same for my mom. We all have expiration dates. My mom’s date was longer–she died in her mid-80s, Wendy–she died at 57, far too young, like a peach that is ripe for just days. Five years ago this week, I lost both my Mom and my best friend, and now I feel as though I am losing my mountains, too, but not really. The mountains have their own times, too. They need to burn. A reminder that everything eventually returns to ashes. For now, as long as I can remember, I will hold on to “my Toro Park,” and all the good times it gave me.

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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