A STATE DESIGNED TO BURN
“California burns, and frequently conflagrates,” writes
Stephen J. Pyne, dean of American fire historians, in his
book California: A Fire Survey. “Not only do fires burn
every where, but they can persist for weeks and can, from
time to time, erupt into massive bursts or savage outbursts.”
Go to another Marin mountain, Mount Tamalpais, and
you can begin to understand what Pyne means. Much of the
mountain is covered with chaparral — a plant community
that, as many have noted, gives Mount Tam its distinctive
velvety texture when seen from a distance. Close up, chap-
arral is anything but velvety — one of its characteristics is
prickliness — but it is still beautiful, especially in spring,
when its ceanothus blooms in foamy purple and wildflow-
ers like paintbrush and monkeyflower erupt in exclamation
points of reds and oranges and yellows.
Along with prickliness, another chaparral characteristic is this: it has evolved to burn. Pyne notes that more
than half the ecosystems in California are fire dependent,
meaning they require regular wildfires to survive. No plant
community displays that dependency more powerfully than
chaparral. The traits, like the small, oily leaves that help
chaparral plants survive California’s rainless summers,
make them supremely vulnerable to wildfire. But they benefit from fire, too: the seeds of many chaparral plants need
wildfires’ heat to germinate.
In, say, 1700 or 1850, chaparral mostly burned on its own,
generally ignited by lightning strikes; some of California’s
Native American tribes did employ what are now called
controlled burns to clear ground for agriculture, but on a
relatively small scale. As California entered the more populous and mechanized 20th century, the situation changed.
Now human beings could start fires, easily — with camp-
fires, car mufflers, arson. Those human-caused sources of
Stand almost any where in Point Reyes National Seashore and you’ll see where Marin County’s last disastrous wildfire began: on the slopes of Mount Vision, at 1,285 feet the park’s most dominant promontory. Here, on October 3, 1995, a
campfire that had been inadvertently left smoldering by a group of
teenage campers kindled back into flame and began to spread across
the mountain’s slopes.
The Mount Vision fire burned over the next 13 days. By the time it
was contained it had consumed 12,000 acres and destroyed 45 homes.
This is the most recent wildfire disaster in Marin County. It won’t
be the last. In 2017, Marin, like the rest of California, like the rest of
the American West, is more vulnerable to wildfires than ever before.
battling the 1995
Mount Vision fire. This
page: Smoke from the
Mount Vision fire was
visible for miles.