by Linda Thomas
It is October in southern California. I know this because this morning I awoke to air so dry that the graze of my nightgown against the down comforter created tiny orange sparks. The winds that blew all night snapped branches from the black pine in my neighbor's yard. The temperature is already seventy degrees at 6 a.m. I have a roaring sinus headache. And as I make the drive to work, I find myself beneath a smoky sky the color of fire.This is chaparral country. "Chaparral" is a common word here in the lower third of the state, and it refers to the vast expanses of low-lying brush that naturally cover the hills and canyons. Chaparral foliage ranges from ground-level wild flowers that require a magnifying glass, to eight-foot scrub oak and sage bushes. In its most undisturbed state, chaparral is gorgeously beautiful--from the crooked red-brown wood of the manzanita, to the sturdy shaft of the yucca topped with spikes of creamy blossoms, to the brilliant orange threads of the dodder vine.
In October, chaparral burns, usually during three to five-day periods of strong dry northeast winds, known as Santa Ana winds. The burning of chaparral during these winds is natural. Some plants in the chaparral--such as the padre's staff--require the heat of a flame to crack open their seed pods and prepare for germination. Most of the plants store water in their root systems, and the roots--undamaged by fast-moving, wind-driven brush fires--send out new growth in the spring.
Fire in the chaparral is an amazing sight. The Santa Ana winds pass over desert and arrive in the foothills of southern California in hot, bone-dry, ten to forty mile-per-hour gusts that lower the relative humidity to three percent. The condition is perfect for fire that can rush up a canyon like a locomotive, roaring and exploding brush as it rages. After a particularly wet spring, chaparral shrubs such as buck brush, ceanothus, and coast lilac can grow so densely that with the heat of summer and the moisture-sapping Santa Ana winds, they are kindling for the fire that devours them in whirlwinds of flame. During such fires, chamise lives up to its common name--greasewood--by burning with an intense, waxy heat that can smolder for a day and longer.
As a native, I know that within six weeks of one of these brush fires, I can walk in the blackened path of the fire and find new shoots already pushing up from the burl of a chamise. And by the following spring, the same swath of fire-blackened land will be burnished with blue lupine and red Indian paint brush.
All of this would be no more than the stuff of natural history were it not for the land developers who have bulldozed chaparral zones in southern California to make way for homes, schools, and businesses. Right in the path of natural fires. This development is nothing new. As long ago as forty years, developed canyon areas of Riverside and Orange Counties burned in Santa Ana wind-driven brush fires that consumed homes right along with the clumps of mistletoe that hung from the upper branches of scrub oak. The fires make no distinction between natural assemblies and human construction.
But neither have the fires deterred developers from building in deep, once isolated canyons and ridges that have a history of burning down in October. A few years ago, places like Bee Canyon and Peters Canyon in Orange County were accessible only by dirt roads or horseback. Now, elaborate toll roads and corridors border and lead right into such chaparral areas.
As a result, on days like this when the sky is dark with smoke, not only can I smell the odors of burning sagebrush, brush the ashes from my clothes, and down another sinus tablet, but I can also drive to the intersection of a local thoroughfare and watch the flames lick up a hillside.
And I am not alone. On this evening, my neighbors have arrived, too, their dogs and children in tow. Some have brought soft drinks. Most have cameras. In the backseat of a small import car, a teenage couple has lost interest in the brush fire and, instead, is lost in embrace, passionate kisses no one seems to notice. We are here to watch the orange flames color the sunset. Later, on the TV news, we will hear what has burned down. It will be more than the chaparral that has burned, but in the spring, only the chaparral will return.
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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.