Tag Archives: fire

Thanksgiving in the mountains

Thanksgiving Day saw us on the road, with some of that time exploring the crest of the Laguna Mountains about 90 minutes to the east of here. The stretch of S1 over the crest hasĀ  one of those wonderfully poetic names: Sunrise Highway.

View from the road towards the east.
View from the road towards the east.

There’s a chance (ever-diminishing as I look at the forecasts) of winter weather on the way, but things were still blooming away here and there… A patch of Corothrogyne (Lessingia) californica, buckwheats, Datura wrightii, with both flowers and seed pods, a living example of optimism and practicality living side by side…

Corethrogyne filaginifolia
Corethrogyne filaginifolia
Datura pod
Datura pod
Datura bud
Datura bud

MtLaguna_Fall color

Patches of yellowing leaves let you know it was fall, but it’s a pretty low-color year this time around. (The California Fall Color blog has the same opinion, and blames it on the bark beetle and drought.) Without the magic of Photoshop this dull photo would have been even duller.

View over the Little Valley Valley
View over the Little Valley Valley

Anyone traveling this route must stop at this amazing overlook down Oriflamme Canyon and over Vallecito Valley (which translates redundantly into “Little Valley Valley”). The valley floor lies more than a mile below the viewpoint, but the atmospherics today were amazingly clear. Since my last visit, the Chariot fire had swept through the area, taking out over 7,000 acres of landscape and almost 150 structures, including the Shrine Camp and one of the cabins at the Sierra Club’s historic Foster Lodge. That was back in July of 2013.

MtLaguna_Chimney remains and flag

Like most California wildfires in this area, this one had a human origin–a BLM Jeep igniting some dry plants beneath it. Natural processes are geared to try to go back to some semblance of where things were before the fire, but the disproportionate number of human-source fires presses hard on the plants. A landscape that can recover from burning every century doesn’t do well when stressed unreasonably. Invasive plants can move in and change the makeup of the vegetation completely.

MtLaguna_Shredded flag

This area can see some pretty extreme wind speeds, and this spot is not far from the place where wind gusts topped 100 mph this past May during our most extreme Santa Ana Wind condition in recent memory. You might guess that from the shredded flag. Add some embers to winds like that and you have the perfect firestorm.

But…it wasn’t doing that on this bright November day, and for that we were thankful, not to mention being thankful for the great scenery and looks at the great plants that live here.

You can take your own version of this trip courtesy Google Street View. I’ve placed the marker right at the big viewpoint. Enjoy your tour along the Sunrise Highway!

sun and smoke

Here’s a quick invite to anyone in the area to check out my piece in the current Juried Bienniel at the William D. Cannon Gallery in Carlsbad. The show runs through March 18.

James Soe Nyun. Sun and Smoke, Video Still (Two Suns), 2010. Pigment print laminated to plexiglass, 18 x 36 inches.

This is a still from a video work in progress that uses still images that I took staring into the sun during the big October, 2003 Cedar Fire that was the largest of several firestorms that burned through this part of California.

This past October we didn’t get the intense dry winds from the desert that often hit that time of year. Instead, we’ve been getting those Santa Ana winds now, making for a warm winter, with humidity down into the teens or single digits.

I’ll take a warm winter over a hot October. But the intense fire weather will be back as sure as this is California. No paradise is perfect.

written with clouds

On Sunday we were working outside on a project and happened to look up at the sky. A plane had been skywriting, spreading some advertising copy in the sky to the north–some sort of ad for Geico insurance, I think. After that text was done, up popped this message:


Here’s the same picture turned upside down if you’re not one of those people who read books inverted:


“Be fire safe?”

Here in San Diego we often don’t obsess about fire until after the end of summer, when the land around us has gone without water for six months and the hot desert winds blow from the east. The end of October is classic fire season for us, the time of year when the firestorms of 2003 and 2007 ravaged this part of the state. But last month’s Santa Barbara fire and this little bit of public-service skywriting got me thinking about the place of fire in the local ecosystem.

Cover of Richard Halsey's book

Three meetings ago, the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society hosted wildfire ecologist Richard Halsey. Director of the California Chaparral Institute, Halsey has been working to try educate the public about new understandings about fire. In addition to the institute, he’s been a strong voice in the media, and has authored the book, Fire, Chaparral and Survival in Southern California. (Town Mouse & Country Mouse did a nice post on Fire this month, which included some good quotes from Halsey.)

Anyone who thinks that plant society meetings are slow, drawn out affairs wasn’t at the meeting I attended. Halsey and one of the other biologists invited to speak went mano a mano over some of the ideas that represented a break from what is still being taught in schools.

I’m no biologist, but at least some of Halsey’s points made sense to me. Here’s a short list of some of what he had to say:

  • The notion that “chaparral needs to burn” is a crock of bat guano. Although the ecosystem is adapted to coming back after a blaze, it doesn’t need fire to thrive.
  • When areas burn more frequently than the plants living there are adapted to, however, many original plant species die out and invasives begin to move in. Type conversion of chaparral into a weedy grassland of exotic species can begin.
  • Extensive fire breaks gouged into a natural area are a magnet for weed species that can take over the ecosystem. (See the previous bullet point.) Of all of these points, the other biologist made the strongest argument against this position of Halsey’s, citing a study where areas with abandoned fire breaks revert almost completely to their previous species after a certain number of years.
  • A new study looking at ocean sediments in the Channel Islands shows that large fires have occurred in Southern California, but were separated by far greater numbers of years than we’re seeing today. Virtually all the fires we’re seeing today have been caused by humans.
  • A legend of the local Kumeyaay people mentions a particularly devastating fire several hundred years before the arrival of the Spanish in California and Mexico. After the fire, the Kumeyaay had to live in the desert for an entire generation before the land west of the mountains was habitable again.

As recently as 2003-2004, when I was working a photography series on the 2003 Cedar Fire, I put together an artist’s statement for that body of work that included the sentence, “The land needed to burn, to regenerate.” Halsey has convinced me that it’s time for me to rethink that position.

James SOE NYUN: Hill with wildflowersJames SOE NYUN. Hill with Wildflowers, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 6 Months Later, 2004. Chromogenic print, 15 x 18 3/4 in.

santa barbara botanic garden has burned

Here’s an update on conditions, taken from the complete press release by the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden:

Fire officials accompanied Botanic Garden President Dr. Edward Schneider through the Garden, allowing him to assess the buildings and grounds. “The good news is that the Meadow, Discovery Garden, Teahouse, Desert and most of the Redwood Exhibits are untouched,” said Dr. Schneider. “Unfortunately, the historic Campbell Bridge, the beloved Pritchett Path, the popular Redwood Tree Ring Exhibit, Oak Woodland and Porter Path Exhibits were either destroyed or heavily damaged.” Further damage was also sustained in the riparian corridor canyon as the fire spread from Tunnel Road down to Mission Creek.

…Yesterday, the Garden confirmed loss of structures on its grounds. The 1908 Gane House, the proposed centerpiece of the Botanic Garden’s building project, the Vital Mission Plan, was destroyed. The Botanic Garden had hoped to rehabilitate the large Craftsman-style home and to seek historic landmark status for it. Also lost in the fire was a deck overlooking Mission Canyon Creek, a lathe house, and the Director’s residence and garage.

Original post:

I’ve been distressed to read over the last couple days that at least part of Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens has burned in the Jesusita Fire that’s tearing through the community. Has anyone heard anything more detailed?

This morning’s Los Angeles Times described how the garden’s Gane House has burned:

In Mission Canyon, the century-old Gane House at the 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was engulfed in flames, leaving little more than three brick chimneys standing.

“We’re very heartbroken,” said Nancy Johnson, the garden’s vice president of marketing and government relations. “We were hoping to restore it to its grandeur.”

Lost inside were all the gardening tools, horticultural materials, the metal shop that made tags to identify plants, the overstock of books published by the garden, and the office contents and computers of the head gardener and facilities maintenance man, Johnson said. Biofuel gardening truck parked outside also appear to have been destroyed.

And yesterday’s Silicon Valley Mercury News ran a news wire story that mentioned:

[Carol] Ostroff said she evacuated Tuesday and stayed with friends nearby until they too had to evacuate on Wednesday.

“The wind kicked up, and we watched this firestorm on the hill,” Ostroff said.

Ostroff, who along with her husband acts as caretaker for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, sells tinctures and herbal wreaths from her home garden at the local farmer’s market.

“My garden is my life,” she said. “If I lose my garden I’m out of a job. My husband’s out of a job too.”

The SBBG has been an important force in Southern California native plant horticulture, having introduced many interesting additions that are a part of many gardens. My garden alone has Salvia leucophylla ‘Amethyst Bluff,’ Galvezia juncea ‘Gran Canon,’ and Artemisia californica ‘Canyon Gray.’ I hate to see such a resource turned to ashes.

gbbd: the garden and beyond



It’s spring, all right. The garden continues to bloom away manically, but the outdoor places around town have been no slouch, either, when it comes to flowers.

This Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day, hosted by May Dreams Gardens, features a gallery of some blooms from the garden mixed in with blooms from Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego.

In the top photo from Mission Trails you can see that the yellow-flowered deerweed, Lotus scoparius, has colonized many of the sunny areas that burned four and a half years ago. As the landscape recovers, other plants will come in and stake their claims. The second image from near the top of Fortuna Peak shows that other areas are also recovering from the fires, though slower than farther downslope.

You can hover over each image below for its name, or click it to see a larger photo. While you can probably tell what’s a wild plant and what’s in the garden, there’s an answer key at the end if you’re into quizzing yourself. (A few of thee are tricky in that they’re local native plants that have been incorporated into the garden.)

Wild, garden, garden;
garden, wild, wild;
wild, garden wild;
garden, garden, garden;
garden, wild, garden;
wild, garden, wild;
wild, wild, wild.