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The Valley of Smokes

Valley of Smokes

By Christopher Nyerges

1979 fire on Echo Mountain

Altadena resident Daniel Macpherson, stands at Echo Mountain, surveying the extent of the 1979 fire. In the foreground are burnt yucca plants.

In 1990, I was standing in the parking area, which leads down into Switzer's Camp. A land-management expert and I were standing there, talking, looking out over the sprawling terrain. My friend told me that due to the abundance of dead wood and other accumulated flammable material, the Angeles National forest was "ripe" for a massive fire. There years later, I recalled that sobering forewarning when I watched the firestorms rage through Southern California - including Eaton Canyon, and other front-country areas of the Angeles National Forest.

I recall years earlier in 1979 when Daniel McPherson and I hiked up to Echo Mountains a day after a fire "cleaned" the area. It was quite a sight. Yucca plants appeared as blackened pineapples, and they still smoked. All the underbrush was gone, and we could actually clearly see the outline of the old buildings that once resided there. Charred blackness was everywhere, yet it would be a matter of weeks before we had rains and a revival of the land.

The southern California chaparral regions - which include about three-quarters of the Angeles national Forest - are similar to such eco-systems as the Great Plains, the longleaf pine forests, the Australian "outback," and numerous other habitats in that they all require fire. Fire is what made the Great Plains. And fire is what germinates certain seeds that live in these unique environments. Fire is what creates the conditions for rejuvenation and allows various flora and fauna to thrive.

Let's turn back the clock for a moment. Before we all moved into this coastal desert plain we call Southern California, various Amerindians (the Chumash, the Gabrielinos, and others) lived here practicing what can be termed "land management" or "passive agriculture." There were no farms, as we know them. One feature of their land management was fire.

Forest fire behind Mt. Lowe

Scene of a forest fire behind Mt. Lowe as depicted on a Mt. Lowe postcard.

The San Gabriel Valley at the base of the Angeles National forest was once a vast oak forest with a carpet of grasses. Generally, fires would be set twice a year by the local Indians and allowed to burn through the entire valley. The first fire of each season was some time around April or May (before the rains were over). Its purpose was to burn down the woody brush and tall grasses that resulted from the winter rains. There were many beneficial results from these fires, such as fertilizing the fields with ash, and allowing other more useful plants to grow.

The second fire would generally be in September, to clear the fields of whatever was left of the season's wild herbs and greens, and burn out dry tinder and fallen wood from the oaks and wild vines (such as grapes and blackberries). This served as a "pruning:" for the food trees, which yielded better fruit in greater quantity as a result. The fires also killed off the bulk of larvae that feed on acorns, and hardened the ripening acorn shells so that they'd be insect-resistant. In the old days, fire-hardened acorns might last up to 10 years with no insect infestation, whereas today they spoil in less than six months. And once again, the season's second fires would leave fertilizer ash in the fields. Since these were annual fires, the "damage" was minimal. A grassfire moves quickly but if there is little fuel, it moves on.

Village sites were usually protected from the fires by their strategic locations, and by the way the fires were set. Teams of workers would set a fire and keep it confined to a specific area. These people who lived close to the land were attuned to the weather and variables of the season, so they knew the best and safest times to burn. Fire was literally the cleanser, fertilizer-maker, and food-producer of the culture that inhabited this area before the Spanish missionaries arrived.

The upper San Gabriel Valley was called "the valley of smokes" precisely for this reason. That there is debate is understandable, given the fact that "we" allow housing construction in the most vulnerable of places. Homes go up in smoke, and tragically transform the sacred domicile into smoldering ash. But fire is not the enemy. The "enemy" is our own greed, our own blindness, and our own foolish stubbornness to attempt to fight against and conquer nature, rather than to learn and to live by the principles of nature. As Pogo said, "I have met the enemy and he is us."

In the spring of 1993, I learned a new bit of local Indian weather lore. When the yuccas bloom in profusion, you can expect a great fire. Individual yuccas may live anywhere from seven to 20years before flowering and dying. Some years you see very little flowering in April and May. In the winter of 1992-93, we experienced record rains, and the hills greened up, and the yuccas flowered in a great majesty. I felt relief when September passed, since September is typically the fire month. And with October nearly over, I heaved a great sigh that we'd been spared this season's. I knew that with no annual fire, the threat is great, and that this could be "the big one." And so came the Great Winds of Santa Ana just about the time of the Samhain. And the ghastly, ghostly, hellish firestorms rolled over the land. Yes, it was good for the chaparral to be cleansed and renewed, but in its wake hundreds of families were driven from their homes. And as it rolled over the land, fire knew no favorites.

In some eco-systems, which require fires, biologists have noted that certain flora and fauna are becoming endangered due to the policy of fire suppression. Our environment here is fire-dependent. Parochial "environmentalists" and homeowners' groups have argued against controlled burns because they claim such burns kill animals. In fact, the fires usually take very few lives because they are generally of such a low intensity. In balance, the fire must be viewed as beneficial since it kills off bacteria harmful to trees, kills mainly sick and diseased animals, and limits the outbreak of plague and other diseases. Once burned and renewed, the flora and fauna rise up again Phoenix-like to repeat the cycle.

In the Altadena fires of 1993, many of the wildlife simply moved out of the way for a while. A week after the Altadena fire, I was camped out in the extreme north end of a canyon to the west. Animals were abundant - you'd think it was a wildlife sanctuary. Animals were stirred up as new competitors moved into their territory. Many birds made their presence known during the day, and at night we heard gray squirrels, raccoons, and owls, each making their unique calls. We can't go back to old days and burn down Pasadena every year. The valleys are no longer oak forests filled with grass floors. They are square lots criss-crossed with cement rivers. The old days are over. So what can we do? Buildings simply shouldn't be allowed in the high-risk areas. And any homes bordering on chaparral can be surrounded with non-flammable vegetation such as walls of prickly pear cactus, which stop fire in all but the worst firestorms. Wood shingle roofs should be outlawed. And controlled burns - yes, we should have controlled burns, a little here, a little there, done during the cool days of winter or early spring. Without controlled burns, the fuel in the forest builds up and large-scale fire catastrophes will be inevitable every few decades.

Fire is not our enemy, nor is Wind our enemy, nor is Water, nor is the Earth-that-Quakes. More often than not, when we point our finger at these Forces of Nature and call them "bad," we choose to ignore our own culpability directly or indirectly that led to a situation out of control. We either learn the principles that each environment teaches us, and abide by those principles, or we don't. If we don't (and we haven't been doing very well in this department) then truly, we are our own worst enemy.

Since 1974, Nyerges has been conducting field trips to teach how to identify edible wild plants, and learn about the survival skills of the past. He is the author of Enter the Forest and Guide to Wild Foods, which contain information about the ways of the Gabrielinos in the past. Both books are available in the Echo Mtn. Echoe’s Mountain Marketplace. For a schedule of his classes, contact him at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Copyright 1999