Catching Fire: Will Congress Help the Forest Service Manage Those Big Blazes?

Old Saint Nick left two brightly wrapped packages under the Forest Service's spruced-up Christmas tree this year. Each might help it better respond to wildland fire in the coming decade, predicted to be a hot and dry extension of the current drought that has fueled recent mega-fires.

The first is a set of big, shiny toys: aircraft. Lots of them. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and John McCain (R-AZ) negotiated a deal to upgrade and increase the number of the federal agency's firefighting fleet. They inserted language in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to transfer seven HC-130H planes to the Forest Service; the Air Force will spend upwards of $130 million to convert them into flame- and water-retardant-dropping aircraft.

These much-needed additions will nearly double the number of planes the Forest Service can send aloft to manage major conflagrations across the west, not least such massive blazes as the Rim Fire in California this past summer and the 2011 Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona.

To insure that more boots and supplies can get to the ground more rapidly, the two senators also secured funding for 15 C-23B+ S Sherpas, military transport planes the Forest Service will employ as "smokejumper platforms."

Deck The Hills with Boughs of (California) Holly

Toyon, also known as California Holly or Christmas Berry, as seen at Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Northeast L.A. Its red 'berries' are characteristic for this time of the year.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

Christmas time is here, and while our built environment is festooned with tinsel, colored lights, and other festive regalia, the natural world in our own urban backyard is also ready for the holiday season.

No, it's not snow, unless we're talking about Mt. Baldy or higher with regard to our local peaks. But you don't need as much elevation to see it.

It's our very own Toyon, a plant endemic to our Southern California chaparral hillsides and canyons. Though the plant sports its green leaves year-round, during this time of year, it produces clumps of small red fruits which earned the plant its popular nicknames, "California Holly" or "Christmas Berry."

If You Live in the Wildland Fire Zone, Repeat After Me: Defensible Space is Essential

If you have a house in the Wrightwood area, tucked into the stiff folds of the San Gabriel Mountains' northern slope. If you call Arrowhead or Big Bear home, sylvan communities that the San Bernardino National Forest envelops. If you have set down roots along the ridgelines of the Santa Monica Mountains, or commute from the narrow canyons slotted into the foothills that range above the valleys below, then do yourself a favor. Step outside and walk a series of ever-expanding concentric circles around your abode, ending at the perimeter of your property. Those steps could save your life and those you love.

As you open your door, pause at the transom. Listen for the echoes of heavy boots thudding along dusty ground, panting men in full sprint downhill through thorn-sharp brush, racing away from a wind-driven fire that would soon engulf them. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, tasked with battling the Yarnell Hill blaze in Arizona as it threatened nearby subdivisions in the wildland-urban interface, could not outrun the flames. Their horrific deaths should haunt us, should propel us to protect our homes and those who may be called to defend them for us.

Begin with an understanding of the larger context of the land we inhabit. Millions of Californians live in wildland fire zones, spaces that burn, that are supposed to burn. We know this because this is the terrain where fires, however ignited and at whatever intensity, have erupted over time. But also because the native flora is fire-adapted -- chaparral, sage scrub, oak woodlands and savannahs, forest montane are among the ecosystems into which we have settled and which by their very nature can go up in smoke.

Reality and Solitude: Getting Immersed in the Winter Desert

Joshua Tree National Park in winter | Photo: Chris Clarke

I don't really celebrate Christmas, but it came early this year. Two years ago some reprobate stole my ancient Jeep and destroyed it. Since then, I've relied on my fiancee's subcompact to get around. It's perfectly suitable for trips to the grocery store and such, when it's running. But for the past couple of years I haven't had a vehicle capable of driving the dirt roads in Joshua Tree.

This month a friend decided to part with his lovingly maintained if slightly battered 15-year-old pickup, and he sold it to me. His signature on the pink slip was barely dry when I hopped behind the wheel and pointed Old Green in the direction of the National Park next door.

The dirt road ended five miles off the pavement, in a valley ringed by crumbling granite peaks. I got out and stepped into the biting wind. I took only a short walk, really, in the scheme of things. Four miles out and back. But it changed me: a gift befitting the season.

False Climate Change Harbingers in Ice-Bound, Drought-Stricken Texas

We should have driven south. Or west. End of story.

We should have struck out for airports in Austin, San Antonio, or Midland-Odessa, all of which had escaped the worst effects of the killer ice storm that last late week locked down much of Texas. What we should not have done was to have driven north out of San Angelo on Highway 87, heading for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Just hours before the powerful winter storm blew down the plains, my inbound flight that Wednesday evening had landed in San Angelo, a mid-sized city set within the rumpled terrain of west Texas and through which the Concho River flows. I was there to speak about the environmental implications of the crippling drought currently wracking the Edwards Plateau and the larger southwest, an irony not lost on the valiant souls who braved sleet and snow to gather within the warm embrace of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts to talk about aridity.

The irony is miscast, though. This storm, which dropped maybe one to two inches of precipitation, will do nothing to replenish the area's diminished aquifers, trickle-thin creeks, and bone-dry reservoirs.

A Tale of 2 Hikes: 18 Miles on Hard Pavement, Then a Walk on Soft Dirt

A view of downtown Los Angeles from Ernest E. Debs Regional Park.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

I celebrated my birthday last week, and aside from small gatherings with friends and family, I've made it an annual birthday ritual to try something new or visit a place I've never gone before. I guess I'm at the age where I've outgrown the thrill of getting free or discounted stuff on my own birthday, in favor of taking advantage of the interesting experiences or places I can enjoy for free here in Los Angeles.

I started the festivities two days before by participating in The Great Los Angeles Walk, an annual Saturday-before-Thanksgiving event organized by local blogger Michael Schneider, who co-writes Franklin Avenue with his wife Maria. This year, in its 8th annual iteration, the walk, starting out some 300 participants strong, made the 18-mile trek from Echo Park to Santa Monica via Sunset Boulevard, Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills, and Wilshire Boulevard to its western terminus overlooking the sea. It was an appropriate jaunt for me, as it passed by my Kaiser Hospital birthplace, among other familiar sights in my life, as well as new discoveries, such as murals in Silver Lake, new development in Hollywood, and a "Kennedy '60" etched onto the pavement by an enthusiastic voter over 50 years ago (and a striking coincidence near the anniversary of the JFK assassination) in pedestrian-deficient Beverly Hills.

What I'm Thankful For, 1,000 Times Over

A big round number | Photo: Brian Wolfe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We in California typically spend this week trying to get along with our relatives, eating far too much food and watching far too much TV, and occasionally thinking about what parts of our lives we're thankful for.

I have too many Native American friends to get completely behind the Thanksgiving holiday, which probably means I'll never win office in the Coachella Valley.

But as it happens, this is the 1,000th piece I've written for KCET, and so it seems like a good opportunity for reflection on those things in my life, and my work, for which I am grateful. And given the nice round number, I hope you won't mind a bit of self-indulgent sharing of the things I'm grateful for.

President Kennedy Has Been Shot: A Memory

I never celebrated my twelfth birthday. As was surely true for others born on November 23, my party was canceled the instant we learned President John F. Kennedy, that boyish, energetic, and very complicated man, had been assassinated in Dallas.

The horrific news arrived while sitting in Mr. B's sixth-grade math class at Middlesex Junior High in Darien, CT. Over the scratchy PA system, our principal announced that the president had been shot, classes were cancelled immediately, and that our regular buses were already lined up out front, waiting to take us home. Usually, Friday afternoon dismissal was a chaotic free-for-all, a surge of thrilled adolescents scrambling for the exits. Not that Friday. We silently shuffled down the stairs, stumbled outside, and stepped up into the yellow buses, their doors snapping shut.

That Kennedy was a transformative figure I had known since he launched his 1960 run for the White House, and I campaigned for him as only an eight-year-old could.

One Saturday that fall, my father took me to a metallic trailer parked in an empty lot adjacent to the local fire station; it was emblazoned with a large banner reading "Independents for Kennedy." Nothing could have been more provocative in a town that had voted straight Republican since the 19th-century, and I recall my father, an old-school southern Democrat, laughing about the provocation. I didn't really understand this, of course, but I have a sharp memory of standing on the trailer's wooden transom, quickly checking to see if anyone was witnessing our social misstep.

Green Urbanism: Remembering JFK's Major Environmental Achievements

President John F. Kennedy speaking at dedication of Pinchot Institute, Milford PA, September 1963. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Forest Service, Grey Towers National Historic Site

Two months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy spoke of his hope for a more resilient future. To reach it, he told a rapt audience at the late-September dedication of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation at Grey Towers, conservationist Gifford Pinchot's old home in Milford, Pennsylvania, Americans must recognize that they were living in a transitional moment.

"There is no more fitting place to begin a journey of five days across the United States," JFK declared at this first stop on his cross-country campaign to raise the country's environmental awareness, "to see what can be done to mobilize the attention of this country so that we in the 1960s can do our task of preparing America for all the generations which are still yet to come."

This preparatory labor "looks to the future and not the past. And the fact of the matter is that this institution is needed...more today than ever before in our history, because we are reaching the limits of our fundamental needs of water to drink, of fresh air to breathe, of open space to enjoy, of abundant sources of energy to make life easier." To respond to these pressures confronting urban and rural American would require the creation of new ideas, "the embrace of disciplines unknown in the past." The new organization might bear Gifford Pinchot's name but to fulfill its forward-looking mission, its "active work," of necessity it would draw on a different set of resources and perspectives.

Optimistic about the chances of resolving the pressures peculiar to his generation, Kennedy hoped "that in the years to come that these years in which we live and hold responsibility will also be regarded as years of accomplishment in maintaining and expanding the resources of our country which belong to all our people."

Yet as I argue in my new book, "Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot," most of the president's resolutions remained deeply indebted to the past. The conservation of water resources meant not the reducing of use but the ramping up of federal investments in dams and pipelines. The growing need for energy required the implementation of new technologies to generate more kilowatts rather than finding ways to make energy consumption less wasteful. To meet the booming recreational needs of a society expected to grow exponentially by century's end, he promised to expand the amount of open space.

Appreciating Vacant Land in the Antelope Valley

The view, looking north towards the Tehachapi mountains, of 'The Trinidad Ranch,' an empty parcel of land owned by the author's family, in the western Antelope Valley.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

I've always heard them talk about "the land."

The triangular-shaped expanse of desert north of Los Angeles known as the Antelope Valley is something that doesn't factor into my life too often. I hardly know anyone there, and if I do, I see them when they're here in L.A. to work anyway. But whenever the topic of the Antelope Valley does come up between my parents and I -- from watching space shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base to an ex-girlfriend who lived in Lancaster to visiting the California Poppy Reserve to my annual meteor shower-watching parties -- my parents have always mentioned "the land."

"We own a plot of land there," they would remind me.

In the mid-1970s, my parents bought two and a half acres of land in what they have always referred to as "Lancaster." They purchased it, sight unseen, from a family friend who sold real estate as a sideline.

Even back in the '70s, the potential for rapid suburban growth, spurred by a booming local aerospace economy, existed in the land named after the pronghorn "antelope" that once roamed there. At one point, the city of Los Angeles proposed a large "Intercontinental Airport" east of the 14 Freeway to either supplement or supplant LAX, that was outlined for years on Thomas Guide maps.

My parents aren't wealthy, but they both hail from the rural Philippines, where land ownership is a cultural value, usually passed down as a family heirloom. Where even the poor own their own real estate.They purchased the land as investment property, perhaps intending to sell it at the right time and at the right price, to put one of their children through college. They also own parcels in southwestern Nevada, and in central Colorado.

My interest piqued when, after taking my parents to the California Poppy Reserve for my mother's birthday a couple years ago, they dug out the property records and we finally pinpointed the parcel via Google Maps.