After the big LA fires, terrain looks like a post-war moonscape: death, charred remains.

Video: "Angeles Crest Highway after the Station Fire," by Hal and Susan McAlister, who were joining staff at the Mount Wilson Observatory.

We were escorted by LA County Sheriff's deputies. We were stunned by what we saw, and inattentive to keeping the little Flip video camera stable and accurately pointed. The devastation speaks for itself.
(via YouTube user Lndacurtss)

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  1. Or, alternatively:

    After the big LA fires, terrain looks like Palm Springs for nine months out of the year.

  2. Having grown up in La Crescenta, this really hits home (actually, my old house was in the mandatory evacuation zone). I recognize every mile of that highway and it is indeed strange to see it almost completely denuded.

    Within five to six months a great deal of that bare soil will be flowing down the mountain, into neighborhoods from rains created by the El Nino that’s brewing right now. Stay tuned.

  3. Wow. Watching that, I kept fearing that they would drive off the highway, what with all of the guardrails burned off. Freaky landscape. Thanks for sharing this.

    Ok, worse thought: what happens when next it rains? Those incredibly steep hillsides will just wash away, won’t they?

  4. I live in La Crescenta too, and last weekend I went hiking up into the burned area. The ground is all covered with about a quarter to half an inch of ash. One half inch times about 250 square miles equals a HUGE amount of dust-fine material that is going to turn to slippery mud the moment the winter rains hit it. I think we are in for some SERIOUS mudslides.

  5. Now would be the time to spread hemp seeds to grow some healthy robust hemp to help keep the top soil.

    Either way the new growth in a couple years will be gorgeous.

  6. Uhm, aren’t you people forgetting that forest fires are a natural occurrence and necessary to the sustained health of California forests?

    Did you know that forest fires are required for the germination of Giant Sequoia seeds?

    I guess the glass is half empty, eh?

    1. Anonymous,

      The nearest Giant Sequoias are hundreds of miles away. This is not a naturally forested area. If you watch the video, you’ll see the occasional stand of a few trees. Much of the fuel that feeds these fires comes from introduced Old World grasses.

  7. A bio-stabilization company, like Salix, could help mitigate future erosion damage if they were willing to be paid in IOUs. Of course, maybe the mudslides should be allowed to happen (when they won’t effect populated areas) so as to let nature take its course.

    (full disclosure: I don’t work for Salix, nor have I been a customer, but I was impressed by a workshop that they headed on biostabilization. True story.)

  8. re #6, no one’s saying they’re not natural. But if you live directly downhill from the fires (as I do) you’re not jumping up and down with joy at the prospect of mudslide season this year. I also live in an earthquake zone (another natural phenomena), but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to the Big One.

  9. Some people, many “fire ecologists” that is, believe that fire suppression leads to large fires because many of the fire ecology plants have flammable oils in their leaves. The strategy is that after a hotter fire has burnt and area they can disperse their seeds in a less competitive environment. Now burning your house down with a larger fire or a smaller one won’t matter to a homeowner but its interesting to note.

  10. Antinous, you’re partially correct about being a naturally forested area. The lower elevations are (or should I say were) fairly dense chaparral. However, most of the canyons were at one time heavily forested. Most of the trees at these lower elevations were cut down to build Los Angeles over 100 years ago. In fact, the trees were cut down so quickly that the area was declared the first national forest in the U.S. in order to protect what was left.

  11. @11: Speaking as one of those fire ecologists, sorry, that’s BS. End of story. When a plant’s canopy is at ground level, it can’t help burning. Some plants take advantage of the open post-burn areas and sprout, many do not, and in fact need 50-100 fire-free years in order to reproduce. Those species are now in decline in southern California.
    –Some things to know about chaparral and similar scrub communities:
    1. Most of their biomass is in the belowground roots. The moonscape, postfire shots have a visceral punch, but in the chaparral, most of the plants survived the fire. They will resprout with the rains.
    2. The pine forests are a different story, and we will have to see how the tree seedbank is. If there are seeds, there will be new pines.
    3. If we have decent rains, there will be a spectacular spring wildflower display in the burn area. Look for it next spring. Unless…
    4. Someone starts spraying hydromulch or aerially seeding ryegrass in a misguided attempt to stabilize the slopes. Some of the simpler slope stabilization materials are basically straw and glue mixed with a dye, and laying a coat of glue on the soil doesn’t encourage living plants to resprout. The grass seed, either by itself or because of the chemicals coating the seeds, is pretty good at killing the roots of the living plants on those bare slopes. Since those roots are holding the slope together (unlike ryegrass roots, which are short and ephemeral), spraying seed is a good way to set up landslides. That’s why the California Native Plant Society opposes it.
    I’m not saying that downslope communities shouldn’t prepare for mudslides. They should, and some other slope stabilization technologies are reasonably good at channeling runoff. If we deploy them sensibly, everything should be fine.
    Bottom line is that it’s always a moonscape after fires. We should pray for a good, wet year, because next spring, it will result in green hills with the best wildflower show that area will see this century.
    Life comes back, if you let it. I hope that the state decides to spend its limited funds protecting houses at risk, rather than spraying seed or trying to glue the slope in place.

  12. I grew up in the foothills just off of Route 2, and have spent a lot of time hiking in those mountains. I recognized most of the road along the stretch videoed.

    The chaparral loss is not that big a deal, as has been stated above. It happens. It grows back. Yes, there will be mudslides, but probably not as bad as they’d be in many places, simply because the San Gabriels are soil-poor to begin with. The roots will still hold down a lot of the decomposed granite.

    What’s heart-wrenching to me is to see the damage to the remaining forested areas. I dread what it’ll be like at some of my favorite retreats: Switzer’s, Bear Canyon, and Colby Canyon.

    Yeah, the mountains will recover. But some of the places I love may never be restored during my lifetime. Intellectually, I know that’s simply the way of things. Nothing is permanent. But emotionally, it’s really, really hard.

  13. Heteromeles

    So the flammable oils in leaves do not have an evolutionary purpose? My understanding is that the plant will of course die but it’s offspring will thrive from the lack of competition. But that is “…BS end of story”? Or is the idea that fewer fires lead to bigger fires that is “…BS end of story”? Im sure you didn’t mean “end of story” but rather that there is in fact a reason for it being BS but that that reason is not debatable. Im just trying to broaden the conversation here past jokes, not be a debate jocky, so no need to come out swinging. I just want to know more.

    1. So the flammable oils in leaves do not have an evolutionary purpose?

      Resinous plants are generally more unpalatable to animals.

  14. So anyway.. I want to apologize.

    This thread is about loss and devastation, not “fire ecology”. I saw poster #6 get slammed and so I did some Wikipedia on the retort (by the mod) which I knew to be an unfair retort on scientific grounds as I remembered a Botany class wherein most of the midwest was described as a fire ecology too (now much of it is ranches and farmland). I subsequently learned from Wikipedia that chapparal areas are fire ecologies as well, and there was a subsection under Wikipedia’s “Fire Ecology” titled “Immediate Biotic responses and adaptations” wherein the first three sentences immediately begin to describe how flammable oils in some plants foster a competitive advantage on their part.

    “Plants have many adaptations to fire. In chaparral communities in Southern California, some plants have leaves coated in flammable oils that foster an intense fire. The heat will cause their fire-activated seeds to germinate and capitalize on the lack of competition in the burnt landscape.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_ecology#Immediate_Biotic_responses_and_adaptations

    So now that I knew that I had links to sources about non-forest fire ecologies and additional information about fire-ecology adaptions, I felt it useful to present the possibility that LA fires are a natural phenomenon (poster #6’s original point). Also it appears that much of the area IS forest, but contrary wise what about the non-native species (maybe the fires ARE unnatural)?

    However I don’t think it matters what the truth is because really we are debating about whether or not we have the right to feel devastated as we do, and that poster #6’s presentation, given the circumstances of the grieving and anxiety surrounding this incident, comes off as nerdy schadenfreude. So for arguing in favor a scientific snark instead of a human emotion, I apologize.

    I’ll let Heteromeles worry about the scientific debate about fire adaptions in the LA county area (is fire natural or unnatural, and does the knowledge have consequences). That isn’t the subject here anyway.

  15. This looks exactly like Mt. St Helens did after it went nuclear back in the 80’s. It’s shocking how quickly plants (as mentioned above, the root system is probably fully intact still) resume growth after what seems like a catastrophic event. Even six months after St Helens blew it’s top, it was grassy and already repopulated by bugs and wildlife. If you’ve ever had a garden, you’d know how hard it is to kill weeds, with roots that dive six inches or more into the soil.

  16. I hiked a goodly portion of the PCT in 2006 (all of California) and a good third of Southern Cali looked like this one way or another. It was astonishing how much difference a year or three made in what had grown back versus the “moonscape” you see in the video. While the recent burns were certainly washing away, the roots of the trees remained and clusters of new growth were using them as anchors with which to colonize the hillsides.

  17. It’s really amazing to check out these kind of places. To all on the west coast: if you have the opportunity to check out regions where forest fires were in the past, it makes a neat day trip. You can find them in all stages of regrowth.

  18. @19: I understand the feelings, as I grew up in the LA hills and went through a fire as a kid. I also lived in the Midwest, so I know quite a bit about prairie fire too.

    The real issue I get concerned about is the “OMG IT’S DEVASTATED, WE’VE GOT TO DO SOMETHING TO FIX IT!” Often it isn’t broken, but the attempts to “fix” it cause more problems than the original fire did.

    Devastating fires are something we simply have to live with in southern California. Ideally (from the natural perspective) they should be monster fires that happen once or twice per century. Unfortunately, we’re having way too many fires right now, and it’s bad for plants,wildlife, and people alike. Living without fire in the mountains isn’t an option. What kind of fire and how we live with it are things we CAN control, and that’s what we need to focus on.

  19. This looks like my neighborhood and the plot of land where my house once stood before the Montecito Tea Fire in November. Seeing these images makes me want to vomit and reminds me of how I lost everything.

  20. What the hell are these people driving, an Abrams tank? Maybe I had the volume up too high.

    This video curled my toes, not because of the devastation (or the noise) but because I’m a certifiable acrophobe. The only way I would drive on that road is if I was being chased by a raging firestorm. And I would probably die anyway because I’d be having a panic attack.

  21. Chaparral is as close as it gets to an evil biome. These are communities of plants that require, and thus do everything possible to create, fire. Plus they have thorns and poison oak in the mix.

    We come along and make it even worse with our smokey-the-bear attitude- the fires become less frequent and more intense.

    What we really need are drought-resistant plants that don’t give off flammable aerosols or are themselves extremely flammable by design.

  22. I grew up in the CA inland chaparral (and now gladly live in a rainsoaked PNW temperate zone). Those who have lived there know that SoCal does indeed have four seasons: drought, fire, flood and earthquake.

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