Wildfires in Northern California

Just yesterday I posted an article talking about the difficulties in recovering from the Station Fire. A couple of hours later I learned via Facebook that a cousin of mine has lost her home and her animal rescue in the Boles Fire in Weed, CA. Talk about striking close to home…

Gabby and her family are among over 1500 people left homeless by the Boles Fire. As of this writing, news agencies are reporting over 100 structures lost in the wind-driven fire that started yesterday afternoon. Several family members, including me and my mom, have sent money so my cousin and her family can get what they need at the moment, but with so much destruction they are going to need help for weeks and months to come.

~B~


Five years and a lifetime ago…

Although five years isn’t really a long time, it seems as though the world is a very different place today compared to what it was on August 1, 2009. Objectively, I know that I have changed far more than the world around me, but subjectively there are times when I feel like a stranger in my own life. Things that I thought would never change have changed, and still other things I thought I could depend on have been lost forever.

For those of us who live (or lived) in the Angeles Forest, the Station Fire is more than a few lines in history. It was a cusp, a pivotal point beyond which nothing is the same. The fire itself was horrific, raging through the chaparral-covered hillsides with a vengeance like something out of the Old Testament. It destroyed old forest growth, wildlife, homes and lives. And I’m not just speaking of the two firefighters who died in the fire. In the five years since the Station Fire at least three Angelenos have died, one by suicide.

And I am not the only who feels altered, different from who we were before. Over and over again, as survivors have met and shared and bonded around this shared disaster experience, I have heard the same sentiments expressed, the same sense of otherness described. It is part of our bond, and something that we can accept in each other without question or judgement.

Rebuilding, where it has happened at all, has been slow and spotty. None of the homes lost on National Forest lands can be rebuilt, and few residents on privately owned lands have been able to return and rebuild. Red tape and inter-agency turf wars have made a daunting task nearly impossible for more than a few, and the process has been wearing for everyone who has made the effort.

Five years after the Station Fire I am still wrestling with the reality that the forest I knew is never going to be the same. The trees are different, the wildlife is different, the riverbed is very different, even the quality of the light and air is different. Sometimes different is not a bad thing, but in this case the differences are constant reminders of what was lost. Those differences are sometimes so great that it seems as though the forest I knew was a place where I lived in another life.

~B~

Dear Mr. President…

What follows is the full text of a letter I sent to President Obama regarding the proposal to turn the Angeles National Forest into a National Monument. The opinions expressed are mine and do not reflect those of any organization or agency.
~B~


Dear Mr. President,

I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about a proposal to make the Angeles National Forest into a National Monument. I am opposed to this plan, and I would like for you to understand my reasons why.

I am a third-generation native of Los Angeles and a long-time resident within the Angeles National Forest. As such, I am intimately familiar with these mountains, their use (and abuse), their issues, and with the political shenanigans that take place in and around all of the above. It’s not quite as bad as the nonsense on Capitol Hill, but some days it seems close. This is one of them.

I believe that the proposal to convert the Angeles into a National Monument has little to do with however it is being sold. I believe that the proposal is part bait-and-switch, and partly mechanization to prevent a high-speed railway from being built within the bounds of the Forest. Neither objective is being expressed by the loudest proponents, but for someone like me who is used to reading through the political bureau-speak, these hidden agendas are pretty easy to spot.

First, let’s address the bait-and-switch. This selection of arguments has been around the longest and has the greatest number of supporters.

Proponents of turning the Angeles into a National Monument (e.g. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena) make it pretty clear that they think becoming a National Monument will mean that the Angeles would suddenly have access to much-needed personnel and funding. It is no secret that the Angeles National Forest gets more use from neighboring residents than any other forest in the nation. Nor is it a surprise that that use would stretch the resources of any agency, national or otherwise. If the Angeles Forest were properly maintained, we would see regular work being done to maintain and upgrade trails, picnic and camping facilities, school camps, etc. The reality is that what facilities exist are woefully neglected, and the personnel are horrendously understaffed. Their equipment is old and in poor repair, breaking down on a regular basis, and their budgets keep getting cut in spite of increased demands on their resources.

It would be nice if becoming a National Monument would or could change this sorry state of affairs. Unfortunately, the National Monuments around the country have similar issues. They are already behind in deferred maintenance to the tune of billions of dollars. Adding another forest to that system, and a needy one at that, would do nothing to help matters for anyone.

Now let’s look at the high-speed rail issue. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich recently suggested that a high-speed rail corridor be redirected to cut through part of the Angeles National Forest. This issue is comparatively new to the bevy of arguments related to the Angeles, but it’s one more thing that folks in favor of the National Monument are using to support their position. Their belief is that if the Angeles Forest were a National Monument, the suggested high-speed rail corridor would not be allowed to encroach on forest lands.

I don’t know enough about the National Monument rules to know if this is the case. Personally, I think the suggestion was made by Supervisor Antonovich in response to pressure from communities along the previously proposed route. Likewise, I think that turning the Angeles into a National Monument is kind of like using an anvil to swat a fly. There are likely to be unforeseen consequences that are less than desirable.

Finally, I am opposed to turning the Angeles Forest into a National Monument for a very simple reason. In my opinion the Angeles Forest is not monument-worthy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these mountains! I grew up visiting them, playing in their creeks and climbing their trails, and I am blessed beyond measure to call them my home. But they’re just a bunch of hills. The San Gabriel Mountains are not particularly distinctive. There are no unusual rock formations worthy of putting on a postcard. We have no exceptional trees that cars can drive through. Nor are there any other natural formations that cannot be found in any one of a dozen mountain ranges in the western states.

I also dislike this push to have you make the Angeles into a National Monument in a run-around move behind Congress. Of all the issues that you face, this is so low on the list of priorities for our nation as to be laughable. If you are going to do something by means of an Executive Order, do something to help our working poor, our veterans, or to enforce existing laws to put criminal bankers in prison.

In an ideal universe, you would not have to fight Congress to get funding to support our citizens, our infrastructure, or our national resources, parks, forests and monuments included. But we don’t live in an ideal universe, so I know you have to do the best you can.

I believe that making the Angeles National Forest into a National Monument will not solve its problems. For that reason, among others, I am opposed to the proposal and I urge you to reject it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Bronwen Aker


 

For additional information about the proposal to turn the Angeles Forest into a National Monument, please read the articles linked below:

Chu calls for San Gabriel Mountains to be named national monument
Proposal for rail corridor through Angeles National Forest draws fire

 

Time flies whether it’s fun or not

Angeles National Forest Sign Burning in the Station FireI can’t believe that four years have passed. It seems like the Station Fire happened just a moment ago, and that my life before the fire belonged to someone else. And I’m one of the lucky ones… My house didn’t burn.

As August descends once more I look back on what was lost, what remains, and what has begun to be restored or rebuilt. I remember how fiercely I felt about the forest before the fire swept through it. I remember how tentative and fearful I became afterwards. I remember the hollow feeling I had in my heart when I lived in exile, renting a house in the West Valley while my home was boarded up and empty because the fear of debris flows kept me away.

Even now, years after returning, I am still disoriented. I still can’t find things in my house because so many things were moved by others and put away in different places. I cannot imagine how others feel, my friends and one-time neighbors who truly did lose everything to the Inferno.

It’s not all bad, though. The forest continues to restore itself in terms of foliage and furry critters. (The ground squirrels have run rampant and unchecked for so long that they’ve gotten plague again. Hopefully that will kill them off, but I digress…)

People are finally building and rebuilding in the Canyon, but progress has been slow, and it seems that even the most stubborn folk are losing their will to return. It is still difficult for me to walk to Wildwood and see all the empty lots where quirky houses and so many wonderful trees once stood. It’s lonely, too. There used to be so many dogs to visit along that walk. Now there are only two, and one of them isn’t very sociable.

I guess that’s the problem with August. The Anniversary always makes me nostalgic and wistful, remembering and grieving for things lost and people who have moved away. I know it will pass and I will get on with my life, going to work, paying my bills, and trying to improve on things as best I can. That’s what we all do, wherever we are. That’s what life requires of us.

So once more I will face August, host my Memorial BBQ and invite my fellow survivors to gather in the forest to share our memories and stories of things past and present. It’s what I do to cope, to face the emptiness. It never goes completely away, that emptiness, but that doesn’t mean I let it rule me.

For I have promises to keep….

~B~

 

 

Three Years After the Inferno

Three years ago the Station Fire destroyed my neighborhood.

I remember it as if it all happened five minutes ago. I got up just after sunrise, went out to my back yard and looked to the East, toward Grizzly Flats, the Angeles Crest Highway, and the plume of smoke that had dominated my every thought for days.

The Station Fire by night, before the inferno came. Photo by Mark Fitzsimmons.

The fire had started on August 26 near a ranger station on the Crest, less than ten miles away as the crow flies. By day the smoke rose, staining the sky with its brownish-gray plume. By night we could see the glow of the fire, sitting like a baleful hell-beast, waiting to pounce. For days the news talked about the threat the fire posed for JPL and Mt. Wilson, and for days the residents of Big Tujunga Canyon and other parts of the Angeles watched and waited, hoping that the fire would be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly. Continue reading →