Primer on Causes of Catastrophic Fires in California and Fire Ecology

Fire is natural. Wildfires occur naturally in almost all terrestrial ecosystems and plant communities, even if the fire is extremely rare in some areas.

In California and the arid western states, fire is extremely common. The issues we face now with catastrophic fires are complex. To understand the causes, we need to first understand the basics of fire ecology. Let’s just talk about California.

California has what is called a “Mediterranean climate” – long, hot dry summers and short moist, cool winters. For most of the history of California as we know it, the forests, scrub, chaparral and grassland communities that make up most of the state would have burned within their own fire “regime.”

What is a “fire regime?” In general, it has two variables: fire frequency and fire intensity. Fire frequency is how often it is normal for a given ecosystem to burn – every 50 years, every 150 years, every 500 years, or whatever. Fire intensity has to do with the temperature of the fire, and will be related to the amount of fuel present, as well as other factors such as wind speed and direction, moisture levels (related to recent drought or rain), etc. Related to fire intensity is how quickly a fire moves through an area. The less fuel, lower the temperatures and the faster it might move. However, remember that higher fuel loads, especially if they are really dry, could also cause the fire to move very fast and burn very hot.

It is also important to know that that plants (and animals) in these communities have evolved adaptations to fire over time. For instance, many conifers in frequent-fire communities have “closed cones” which require hot temperatures to burst them open and spread their seeds into the post-fire cleared forest. Other plants have fruit or seeds that fall off each year but simply lay dormant in the ground until fire passes over, and either heat or other soil chemistry changes that only come after fire trigger the seeds to sprout. So, you see, even though we think of fire as destructive, it is also regenerative. It is a natural part of the cycle of fire-adapted area

Next thing to know: most of the plant communities/ecosytems in California, from the swaths of forests in the coastal and inland mountain ranges to the extensive arrays of scrub, chaparral and grassland communities across those same mountains are all adapted to fairly frequent fire frequency, on the order of 75-150 year cycles. Given this, fire historically would have moved through these areas quickly because there is a not of accumulated dead material and the last fire came through not too long ago. Mostly you would have mature dying plants but not a lot of dead/downed plant material.

Does this make sense? So, think about it. That would also lead to low fire intensity. Because the fire would move quickly and not have a lot of accumulated fuel, the temperatures would be lower. Right? You with me?

Then think of what happened over the past century or two. The first thing is, a whole lot more people of European descent came west and started “settling” the west and California. Those people started to suppress fires because they didn’t understand that the fire was needed. So for a long time fires in these forests and scrub communities were put out before they could complete their natural cycle. Wildfire was not seen as natural and even in remote areas with little to no human population, forest managers put fires out. (Probably also from the point of view of trees as crops and needing to protect economic interests.)

As a result, fuel started to accumulate from plant material that died in place. Then when fires came again (because remember they are natural and they will come again), there was more material to burn.

So, what happened? The fires burned hotter and they were more intense. That led to a real disruption for the adaptations of the plants involved (for instance, fires might burn so hot that they killed seeds in closed cones and in the dormant soil seed banks instead of stimulating them to grow). And of course, hotter, more intense fires were harder to control or put out. They got way out of control pretty easily and burned fast and hot. Which freaked everyone out and made them suppress the fires even more.

Imagine this happening for a century or so. Finally the understanding of fire regime and fire as natural came into play for ecologists starting and made its way into management understanding and methodology starting in maybe the 1980’s and 90’s.

But by then, it was too late because so much fire had been suppressed that there was an INTENSE accumulation of “unnatural” fuel everywhere in California and across the western U.S.

Add to this, the fact that human population has exploded and there’s been a massive influx of people to California, and thus human communities have expanded more and more into fire-prone ecosystems and plant communities across the state. Because, remember, the entire freaking state is fire-prone and is adapted to frequent fire intervals.

And, bam, we have had a mess to deal with for a long time.

Now, yes, one management tool is to do “controlled” (a.k.a., “management”) burns in an attempt to burn up accumulated fuels. It’s a great idea in theory. But, seriously. Can you imagine how difficult that is to do well, to control, and to implement across large areas? Just pull up Google maps, turn on satellite and peruse the state of California. Look at the massive amount of area we are talking about, most of it incredibly remote with steep, inaccessible terrain.

Also, it is super hard to do controlled burns near any kind of human development. Do you think that the residents are very keen on it when black smoke billows out of a hillside on the edge of their subdivision, and fire trucks are parked on the road there? What kind of conditions do you think are needed for it to be safe to conduct such a fire? How many things can go horribly wrong? What is the narrow margin of it possibly going right?

And now, finally, let’s add in a few climatic factors.

Number 1. California is fire adapted to frequent fires because it is a VERY DRY PLACE and has been for a long time. Remember, Mediterranean climate. Remember, “long, hot, dry summers.” Got it? Good.

Number 2. In addition to a long summer, California is also prone to prolonged droughts. I don’t remember the details, but things like lake bed sediment analysis and tree ring analysis of super old trees in the Sierra Nevada have shown evidence of really long droughts many times over the past few thousand years (I should really Google this right now for more facts here, but I’m not going to. You can if you want and let me know what you find out).

Number 3. Global climate change. I’m not really ready to dive into the modeling or projections or studies or any of that, and I’ve been out of the field for too long to be up to date on any of the details. But I know there’s a ton of data out there. Clearly the catastrophic fires are related to the increased severe weather of all kinds. The specifics of how it’s playing out in CA and what kind of evidence we have for it is beyond the scope of what I feel up to here.


Time to Rise

It is time for women to rise up and lead. To show the way to a loving world order. Can we do it? I don’t know. But we have to try. However that has meaning for you go for it.

Love The Life We’ve Got

There is so much to be said for cycles. For knowing that there are cycles. For knowing that the pain always subsides, eventually.

So, today, none of the darkness has manacled me. Skies are blue with cooling autumn weather ahead. Potential is here. Love is present.

I’ve been reflecting lately on how powerful it can be to let go and surrender and love the life we’ve got.

It’s easy to get lost in ideas of how I (we) should be. What life should look like. And berate ourselves for not meeting the ideal we have created.

Why? Why do that?

Why not, instead, see who we actually are and what our life actually is.

Walk with awareness. Explore life and ourselves. Realize our assumptions and beliefs.

Freedom lies this way.


Slow Rejuvenation

Waking up today I didn’t feel like I weighed a thousand pounds. Instead, I felt energy slowly returning to my body and heart. The love and the light are finding their way into me. Rejuvenating me.

Being willing to walk through the darkness and grief and anger and sadness,

into it fully,

to wait there as long as needed,

not resisting,

just surrendering…

this has allowed love to find her many-tendriled way through the shields I had erected.

Slowly, slowly, healing is happening.

Thought you might like to know, since you’ve been witnessing my journey.

Witnessing is crucial. Doesn’t matter if you say anything or not. Just being there, willing to see me, holding space for my journey, is beyond measure.

Grateful for your presence. Yes, you.


Friendship Lessons

Today is another day. Sometimes when I wake up, I am grateful to be alive. Excited for what will come in the hours ahead. Other times (like this morning), I lie in the gray light and wonder why I feel like I weigh 1,000 pounds.

I’ve made a commitment (to myself) to write honestly about my struggles. As they happen, or near to them. To try to untangle my mind and emotions through writing and while doing so to create some interesting content that might help or touch a reader.

I’m not sure I’m achieving any of these goals. Yet, I’m going to keep doing it. Because I know in my gut that it is required of me.

Somehow, this is serving. Me. You. Someone. Well, definitely me.

Last couple of weeks, one of the painful themes I’ve been diving into (reluctantly, painfully, yet necessarily) is how I am in relationships. Not “Relationships” because I don’t have those, but all my relationships. Friendships, mostly, but also sometimes work/professional relationships. At this point in my life after close to 55 years, I’ve got enough experiences piled up to see patterns and learn from them. If I choose to.

Honestly, though, it feels like I have no choice. I must do this. If I don’t accept this assignment, I will die more and more on the inside because I will continue to not understand why things happen as they do. I have to understand, and probably change because of that understanding. And also, regardless of whether I change or not, I have to accept the results of this internal learning process no matter what they are.

Here are some of my observations of these relationship patterns I’m seeing:

Observation 1: I change in every relationship and context and I try hard to “grok” what/how the other person wants me to be and then be that.

Observation 2: I compare myself to other people and get jealous of them.

Observation 3: I judge other people but never figure out how to process that judgement so it grows and grows inside of me.

Observation 4: I re-live times that I was bullied, abandoned or betrayed and I project those experiences and the feelings I had during them onto the people I am with and situations I am in now.

None of these behaviors is ever sustainable. I tend to get so exhausted, resentful and overwhelmed that I leave. Either for good, or for the day. I CHECK OUT. If I don’t leave, then eventually I usually lash out angrily.

Although it’s starting to be easier for me to spot these patterns, they are so part of who I have become, that it is very hard to see any of this as it happens. And of course, other people have no idea what is happening inside of me, so, they come up with all kinds of reasons, most or all of which are not true, about what the behaviors they see mean.

I suspect that the most common things people think I am are: spoiled (my family especially might think this, leftover from when I was the baby of my family), selfish, angry. That I do not care about them. And often it gets so intense for other people that they get angry at me and sometimes they stop interacting with me completely.

So, I feel like I’ve alienated a lot of people in my life, and burned more bridges than I can count.

Was that what I wanted? Not on your life. Absolutely not. Not at all. No way.

Its all been the cries of a desperate girl, who just wants to be loved and have friends. Who just craves so hard to be important to someone. And in that desperation, I’ve betrayed myself over and over again.

This is no longer an option. I cannot do this anymore. I want to be free of all of it.

Easy to say. How do I do that? I can’t go back and change what happened. It turns out that I can’t just decide to be different and make it so. Because I’ve tried, and no such luck. Just failure and self-loathing ensue.

I can, however, put the light of awareness on these patterns. Pray for change. Allow what is. Release the judgment. Let light in through the cracks in my heart. And through this all, realize more and more that I already am loved and important. Just by being. This is my soul’s journey. Precious, unique and beautiful. Love is here. It doesn’t have to come FROM someone else.

This is my prayer today. Let light in to my broken heart. Know the truth that I am loved.

How and what I am ~ How and what I wish to be

For some reason I don’t exactly understand, and in no particular order, I feel compelled to write and share these facts about myself.

I am a:

  • photographic artist
  • writer
  • visionary
  • healer
  • closet designer
  • botanist
  • tarot reader
  • web-mistress & wanna-be internet-marketing-mistress
  • teacher
  • chef
  • gardener
  • plant ecologist
  • horse rider
  • dog trainer
  • animal lover
  • real estate broker
  • baker
  • traveler
  • spiritual warrior
  • extroverted introvert


I am also:

  • creative
  • generous, kind and thoughtful
  • sensitive
  • service-oriented
  • loving
  • honest
  • analytic
  • very intelligent
  • spiritual but not religious
  • quiet
  • gentle
  • luminous
  • serene
  • shy
  • introverted
  • cautious
  • prone to hiding


I am not:

  • Christian. Or Buddhist, or Jewish or Hindu, or any other religion or system ever known, created or believed in.
  • dogmatic
  • willing to compromise my self-worth
  • willing to betray myself ever again


I have:

  • high standards
  • integrity
  • expectations


The most important things in my life are:

  • my relationship with the God of my understanding
  • my soul’s journey
  • awakening
  • my cat
  • being my own teacher
  • learning to see with the eye of the heart
  • understanding what the heart is
  • following the heart
  • my brother and sister and their wife/husband/children
  • helping the world be a better place


Self-Betrayal is No Longer An Option


Jake, My Beloved Dog

Jake dissolving into light

Yesterday, August 23, 2018, right around 6 PM EST, one of the most wonderful dogs ever born left this world. Jake came to me in summer 2003, just over 15 years ago, after my dad died of cancer and my dog, Buddy, was hit by a car and killed that same night. The grief of that time for me was close to unbearable and when Jake came, he brought the healing and love that I needed to just get by.

Jake was a sweet and playful young dog transitioning out of puppyhood when he arrived in my life. I didn’t realize at the time, but I see now that he had a big responsibility to help me and he stepped up to it with zest and sweetness. He was cute and funny and loving from the very first day. He had energy beyond belief and his constant need for exercise got me out of the house to a local dog park and into social situations that I needed but wanted to hide from.

Over the following years, my life was not exactly stable. We moved around the Bay Area multiple times and my attention was not always on making sure Jake had the environment that he needed. I believe that the natural energy of a dog is to care for its person emotionally and that can take a large toll on them in some cases.

In 2010, I became aware of this and also that even more change was in my future. I did not know what was about to happen, but I knew that I needed to move, leave California, explore inner and outer new boundaries and places and spaces. So, I let the Universe know that I was willing to give Jake a new home and just like that, a wonderful family appeared. From the start, every one of the four members of this family loved Jake just as much as I did. They got him 8 years ago, so he’s been their dog even longer than he was mine.

So, he was around 16 when they let me know last week that he was failing fast. He’d lost most of his hearing and his vision was going. He was in pain a lot of the time from causes unknown. We had a video chat on Saturday so I could talk to the family and see Jake.  The picture on this post is a screenshot from that video chat. He’s already dissolving into the light.

I am sad, but the grief is not really different from what I’ve had all these years since I let him go, and also, death is a natural part of life. I’ve never doubted for a second that “re-homing” him was the right move for both of us. All the times I visited Jake over the years, took him to the beach and for walks and hikes, played with and loved on him, he has always been ecstatic as only a dog can be to greet me. And even more happy, it seemed, to go home again after our adventures.

I am grateful beyond measure to the family who has loved him all these years: Zeric, Sage, Sherri and Keith, thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

Dearest Jakey, thank you for everything. I will miss you and love you forever. May your journey onward be peaceful. Whatever mystery you are going to dissolve into, may it bring you even more adventures, love, fun and ecstasy than you had in this plane.