The fire started small. Someone deliberately ignited a pile of trash built up at the base of an oak tree in Griffith Park, a 4,300-acre municipal wildland draped across the Hollywood Hills. Within minutes, it had spread to the tinder-dry chaparral, running up what later was called Death Hill before whipping in and around Mineral Wells and Dam canyons. By sundown, the Los Angeles County Fire Department had extinguished the 47-acre blaze, and for the next couple of days its crews mopped up hot spots.
For all its seeming insignificance, the Oct 3, 1933 fire was in fact historic -- and tragic. When supervisors of a large contingent of welfare-project workers in the park spotted the first ominous curl of smoke, they threatened and cajoled their untrained men into attacking the fast-moving blaze with shovels, rakes, and their bare hands. Said a survivor: "It was just a lark to us. It didn't look dangerous then. We laughed about it and started down, to bat the fire out in a hurry."
Moments later, with a radical shift in the wind's direction and an escalation in its speed, the fire raced toward the hapless men. "You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams," one observer remembered. "The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful pitch. Then there would be an awful silence. Then you would hear somebody scream and then it would be silent again. It was all over inside of seven minutes."
The official tally was that 29 died, though some contemporary accounts put the toll as high as 58. Whatever their number, Griffith Park remains one of the nation's most deadly wildland fires.
Bad news for lovers of alpine trees in East California: the whitebark pine has been added to the global Endangered Species list. The tree, which grows above 7,000 feet in the Eastern Sierra and a few desert mountain ranges, is threatened by a warming climate and related insect infestations, as well as an exotic fungal disease. But it's not just the tree in danger. If the tree goes, one of the most interesting ecological partnertships in the West dies out as well.
Borders are contested zones, spaces where two differing forces meet. As in the case of nations, whether this amounts to a line drawn in the sand, over the mountains, through valleys, or at the mid-point of rivers, these sites reveal some of the cultural, political, and social tensions that govern and define the people on either side of the demarcation.
The United States has two such international boundaries. Ours with Canada is the longest shared border in the world; it clocks in at 5,525 miles, a distance that is notable for another reason -- it is the longest and least militarized boundary on the planet. The Mexican border by contrast is considerably shorter at 1,954 miles, is the most heavily traversed (an estimated 350,000 million legal crossings occur each year), and is becoming the most thickly guarded anywhere.
About twenty years ago, on my first visit to Lava Beds National Monument, I walked up to one of the park's signature lava tube "caves" hoping to explore. A gate barred my way. A sign on the gate explained: The lava tube had been colonized by a group of Townsend's big-eared bats, a sensitive species that Monument staff hoped to shield from human disturbance.
Things have only gotten worse for the bats in the years since, but now the State of California may finally be about to give the Townsend's big-eared bat a little extra protection.
Just north of where Malibu Creek empties into the Pacific, longboard-lugging surfers and blanket-bearing beachgoers traverse a dirt path along what appears to be a new park built on the shores of this estuary.
But this is no ordinary open space. It's a $7 million restoration project for Malibu Lagoon, over 20 years in the making, to improve water quality and accommodate a more naturally-sustainable ecosystem for the flora and fauna that will inhabit it. It's one of many such projects designed to restore, rehabilitate, or re-create wetland environments from Santa Barbara to San Diego county. Don't look now, but the wetlands are making a comeback.
One of the most striking things about President Barack Obama's speech on climate change, delivered in the sweltering heat at Georgetown University, was how long it took him to get to the point.
For all its lyrical evocation of the photograph that Apollo 8 astronauts snapped of their first Earthrise (and ours) -- "beautiful; breathtaking; a glowing marble of blue oceans, and green forests, and brown mountains brushed with white clouds, rising over the surface of the moon"; for all its deft jabs at an intractable GOP-controlled House of Representatives -- "I don't have much patience for anyone who denies this challenge is real. We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society" -- the speech does not get down to policy brass tacks until about a third of the way through the text.
This slow build up is a sign of how tentative the president's proposals are, how carefully couched his prescriptions.
Desert kit foxes are in trouble. Never all that common to begin with, the critters face a range of threats from renewable energy development in their habitat to a terrifying outbreak of distemper, a near-uniformly fatal disease. But a bid to list the foxes as threatened in California failed earlier this year, in part because we just don't know enough about the animals.
A wildlife biologist grad student at Duke University wants to remedy that lack of knowledge, and she's using some remarkably new technology to do so -- both in the field and on the Internet.
Moab, Utah is a paradoxical place. The high desert community slotted into the canyonlands of the eastern portion of the Beehive State receives scant precipitation, yet through it surges one of the nation's great rivers, the mud-colored Colorado.
The millions of acre-feet of water that flow past the town each year have done little for those whose ambition has been to farm the dusty valley. The local economy also secured no discernable advantage from another of the area's natural features: back in the 19th-century, when such things mattered enormously, Moab offered one of the few places that people and goods could safely ford the oft-rampaging river. Even that incentive was rendered inconsequential in 1883, the year that the railroad penetrated the region, bypassing Moab well to the north; the village all but dried up.
Moab's saving graces are even more paradoxical -- and strikingly visible as you approach the city from the north on U.S. 191. On your left, the massive blocks of weathered, iron-rich red sandstone set off dramatically against the azure sky announce that you are nearing Arches National Park.
Los Angeles area mountains are on track to lose up to 40 percent of its snowfall in nearly four decades, according to a UCLA study released today. If greenhouse gas emissions continues unabated, snowfall will be two-thirds less by the year 2100.
"Climate change has become inevitable, and we're going to lose a substantial amount of snow by midcentury,'' stated Alex Hall, a professor at UCLA who led the study. "But our choices matter. By the end of the century, there will be stark differences in how much snowfall remains, depending on whether we begin to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions." The study surveyed the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, San Jacinto, San Emigdio, and Tehachapi mountains.