Ed Begley Jr's new green home - part 2

Last July I wrote about the start of construction of Ed and Rachelle Begley’s new home in their attempt to build one of the Greenest homes in North America. The steel framing had just begun and now these months later the sheathing is being laid over that frame. Recently two new water systems started to be installed that will help Ed and Rachelle save on water bills as well as recycle much needed water back to the aquifer.

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Kayaking the mighty LA River

The LA River is a River. As obvious as that may sound, the truth is most people don’t really think of the Los Angeles River as an actual river. They are probably more familiar with the river’s movie roles such as the Governator barreling down its corridor on a motorcycle in Terminator 2 or the cast of Grease singing, dancing and racing along its flat bed and beveled sides.

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The Winter Rains

Last Winter's rains here in Los Angeles provided an opportunity for me to photograph something I have been interested in for a while, the difference between the normal river flow and the urban runoff created by major rainstorms. The contrast can be quite dramatic.

Ballona Creek during Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

First a little background. The Los Angeles River is probably most famous for being in movies like Terminator, Them and a host of other films that made use of its paved banks for dramatic car chases and such. Some people don’t even realize that it is a real river, but the first settlers to Los Angeles made their encampments along the banks of the river, that is until the first rainy season, when the river flooded their camp and the rising waters of the river did what they have always done, drain the Los Angeles Basin after a rainstorm and charge down the river to empty into the sea at what is now Long Beach and Playa Del Rey.  In the thirties, the floods got so bad they destroyed many homes and buildings near the river, which eventually led the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the river in order to help the waters rush out to the sea faster with less risk of flooding. A good idea for the thirties perhaps, but in a time when we spend untold amounts of money and energy to pump water over hills and valleys all the way from the Sacramento Delta for drinking and irrigation, it makes little to no sense. So much of our rainwater could be captured and used for irrigation and other greywater uses.

Los Angeles River after Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

Although the before and after shots of the Ballona Creek were taken on different days, I watched over a 45 minute rainy span, the waters go from a gentle flow to the raging waters that you see in the picture.

I have seen images of the LA River during rains on television, usually involving a dog being rescued or such, but I was unprepared to see it up close. Paths along the banks that I had strolled along were completely covered by the torrent, and although the color of the LA River is not what I would normally call crystal clear, after the rains it is brown, mucky, sludgy brown.

Cranes picking up garbage debris from the LA River after first rain of the season in Long Beach

Did I mention the garbage? If you stand on a bridge above the river, you can see a steady stream of plastic bags, styrofoam cups and an assortment of nasty looking debris that only minutes before had been lying peacefully on some Los Angles street minding its own business. They don’t call it urban runoff for nothing! If you ever wondered why the Pacific Ocean is filled with so much garbage, plastic and other junk, it all starts on some street in LA, Tokyo or other populated Pacific rim location, where the litter that humanity lazily disposes of, waits patiently for the rains to come and send it along its merry way down the storm drains and pipes, and eventually to the river or some other channel that leads to the ocean.

I went down to the mouth of the LA River in Long Beach after the first rain of the season last October where there is a garbage boom that attempts to collect as much floating debris as it can before it heads out to sea. After the first major storm of the season, the boom may collect over 50,000 pounds of trash. But if that is what it catches, one can only imagine how much it doesn’t catch.

Garbage boom on the Los Angeles River in Long Beach

As a photographer I am attracted to power and beauty, the LA River and Ballona Creek have an abundance of both despite some of the ugliness. But that ugliness is not theirs, the rivers are simply the repositories of our neglect and short-term thinking. There are many efforts to clean up the LA River and some long range plans to revitalize it. In future posts I will show some of the places where the LA River is still in its unpaved natural state. If we can someday bring the rest of the river back to this state, never again will anyone wonder if the LA River is in a fact a real river, it will be evident to all.

The Station Fire

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.

Houses devastated by Station fire, Big Tunjunga Canyon Road, Angeles NF. September 2009.

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?

Full moon rises over scorched earth and burnt trees.

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.

Valley devastated by fire along Big Tujunga Canyon road. September 2009.
Mountainside shows sign of re-growth in valley along Big Tujunga Canyon Road. April 2010.

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.

Dead trees known as "snags" on hillside along Big Tujunga Canyon road. September 2009.

New shrubs pepper hillside along Big Tujunga Canyon road. April 2010.

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.

Hidden Springs Fire Station amidst the scorched earch of surrounding areas. April 2010

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.

Close-up of burned trees. Angeles Forest Highway. April 2010.

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.