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Wildfires affect our environment

Posted: October 15, 2008 3:26 p.m.
Updated: December 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
 
Another October, another Santa Ana wind storm and another three or four destructive wildfires.

This time, tragically, we didn't just lose peoples' homes, but also a human life when flames overtook a homeless man and his dog.

Horses trapped in a barn in the Rocky Peak area also were lost.

Every year my heart cries for the sadness of those that have lost their homes, their refuges from a busy world.

They undoubtedly lost family memories and tokens of loved ones that, although they are only "things," are still irreplaceable.

But my heart also aches for the wildlife and the destruction of our watersheds that these wind-whipped infernos cause.

Often we hear that fire is natural in chaparral habitat. And so it may be.

Unnatural fires
But we no longer have much natural habitat left around urban areas. And "natural" fires did not occur during the cloudless windy days when Santa Anas blow in from the desert.

Instead, these wildfires are caused by careless smokers, children playing with matches, downed power lines and just plain arson, among other things. Not by nature.

They burn hot and fast, killing everything in their paths.

Unlike a lightning strike - which usually occurs with rain, accompanied by cooler temperatures and winds that are not as strong as our local Santa Anas - these wind-driven, dry wildfires leave no escape route for wildlife.

Wildlife endangered
A natural wildfire would burn slowly and stay close to the ground.

Bobcats and mountain lions that instinctively climb trees to escape are burned alive when the whole tree becomes a wind-driven torch, as occurred a few years ago in the Pico Fire.

Deer and other animals that may be able to outrun a "natural" fire are overtaken by the infernos driven by our Santa Ana winds.

Or they may be trapped by a wall, as was a whole herd in a Chatsworth fire several years ago.

Animals that burrow escape fires by going deep into their burrows. Natural fires heat only a little way below ground.

Our new wind-whipped infernos sear the earth, baking alive the burrowing animals and killing the beneficial macro and microscopic organisms the keep the soil healthy and alive.

The situation is not much better for those creatures that survive.

Birds lose their food sources and nesting areas and may starve before they find new habitat.

With no ground cover, ground-dwelling animals no longer have any defense against predators, and they also lose their food sources. They are goners.

The loss of habitat in natural areas already reduced by urban sprawl normally means starvation for many species.

There is just no place for them to go - and even if there is, that habitat is already occupied by their fellows and intensive competition for food will ensue.

After a wind-driven inferno, the ground may stay hot for days, burning animals' feet and causing sores and infections that mean a slow and painful death.

The deep, searing devastation kills the roots so that plants and trees cannot quickly recover.

November rains bring flooding from stripped hills. Streams fill with mud, and topsoil is lost.

This destroys another whole ecosystem that may have survived the fire.

Frogs and toads have no place to lay their eggs. Fish die in the turbid, oxygen-poor water.

Taking care of our earth
I don't have an answer to any of this - other than we must find a way to be more careful.

Power companies must find an answer to downed lines; parents must keep closer track of their youngsters.
And hopefully with so many cell phones touting picture-taking capabilities, we will catch the arsonists that are costing our county and state millions of dollars to fight their crimes.

But the sadness I feel for the people who lose their homes - and sometimes even their lives - and for the plight of the animals that we never hear about is not eased by such suggestions.

I wish we humans would not be so careless and heartless toward the precious web of life on which our existence depends.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.

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