Last August through October, the Station Fire, California’s tenth largest wildfire, burned over 160,000 acres of pristine wilderness in the Angeles National Forest and many homes along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was a devastating fire that cost two firefighters their lives and has been determined to have been caused by arson. I watched helplessly as a bad back (one of the hazards of my profession) kept me on my couch and from photographing the fire, but I did end up making three later trips to the burn areas.
My first venture was while the fire was still burning, but it was so far into the park at that point, that access to all but firefighters was impossible. I went back a few weeks later to photograph it by moonlight, and once again just a couple of weeks ago to see what kind of re-growth was evident. My first trip brought me face to face with residents walking through the wreckage of their homes. What must have been stunning homes surrounded by beautiful mountain settings were reduced to a few feet of rubble, with only a few brick chimneys and burnt out cars being recognizable. It is easy to forget that these ruined plots of land are still private property, so I was careful not walk or photograph on the properties while people were sorting thought their debris. You have to wonder, where do they go from there?
These burnt out landscapes are often referred to as “moonscapes” and aptly so. They feel and look otherworldly, and when I went back to shoot at night with a full moon rising in the east, it was a very eerie feeling. I drove about ten miles into the Angeles NF and when I got out of the car the first thing I noticed was the silence. A living forest is normally a very busy place, and if you stop and listen there are a multitude of noises emanating from its depths. A dead forest is silent and still, as if a vacuum had sucked all the life and sounds right out of it. When you stand in place long enough, you slowly start to hear two things: the distant rumbling of tiny landslides as small rocks gently roll down hillsides because there is no brush to hold them in place; and the crackling of charred trees and branches, like a chorus of popcorn popping, surrounding you, 360 degrees. But there is no life anywhere, for miles and miles and miles.
Just recently I returned to see how the Park was recovering. I stopped at a couple of spots I had previously photographed to compare the terrain of then and now. The same locations I had shot by moonlight had started to show some decent signs of re-growth, and the mountains in the distance had a light sheen of green vegetation that was in stark contrast to the bareness of those same mountainsides just six months ago. Dead charred trees or “snags” as the firefighters call them, still remain standing in spite of the rains that washed down the hills this Winter, but they were juxtaposed by the bushes and shrubs that were popping up, sometimes in the same root clusters as the dead trees. Hard to imagine any wildlife had returned to the area, but life was returning, and the life cycle of the Chaparral was playing out as it has for thousand of years.
Further into the Park, it was a different story, the stark landscape still dominated and there were little or no signs of things growing. The earth itself was much lighter, even white in some places ,indicating that the topsoil was gone, possibly from the rains, and without the topsoil, growth would return much slower. It was also possible that the fire burned much hotter here in the interior of the Park and destroyed the root structures of the trees and plants more significantly than in the areas located at the perimeter. Higher elevations and colder weather may also be to blame, only time will tell.
The only exception that I saw was at the Hidden Springs Fire Station, almost at the center of Angeles NF. Standing on a hillside above the Fire Station, I could see almost an oasis of Green around the Station’s structure and perimeter, the outlying hills were pale and while. I ran into one of the firefighters stationed there and he recounted to me the fight they had to protect the station during the fire as it rampaged through the valley the station is located in. The emotion in his voice was evident as he told me the story of how they were literally surrounded by flames and worked non-stop through the night to combat the fire from overtaking them and their firehouse. They fought it from the tarmac at station's entrance and were protected by the firebreak of grass they had around them and the sprinkler system in place to water it. There were successful and saved the station.
Man has obviously had a profound effect on the ecology of the Chaparral, aside from the man-made causes of wildfire such as arson and carelessness, the natural fire cycle of the Chaparral habitat has been affected as well. The encroachment of development into these areas known as the 'wildland/urban interface', has forced a fire suppression policy that puts out all fires, both man-made and natural. There is a debate as to whether or not Chaparral is meant to burn on a regular basis in order to allow new growth, but it is one of the most combustible terrains on the planet and it is not coincidence that firefighters refer to the shrubs, plants and trees there as ‘fuel’.
The story of the fire is really that of the firefighters who battled it for almost three months as the fire retreated in the depths of the Park. The countless homes and lives they saved is truly heroic, they are the first and last line of defense for us all.