What Happens When a Brush Fire Burns College Property? The Students Get a Living Laboratory

Firefighters work to extinguish a brush fire at Bernard Biological Field Station on September 11, 2013.
Firefighters work to extinguish a brush fire at Bernard Biological Field Station on September 11, 2013. Photo: Courtesy Nancy Hamlett/Bernard Biological Field Station

Southern California burns. That's a given.

What's not is how we respond to wildland flames that erupt on distant mountains or nearby foothills, scorching hundreds, even thousands of acres. Or, as is the case with Wednesday's 17-acre brush fire on the Robert J. Bernard Field Station, an outdoor research lab owned by the Claremont Colleges, to a relatively undeveloped piece of property that is surrounded by residential neighborhoods and the community's many educational institutions.

And what we say, what we demand, what we conclude about these fiery events says a great deal about our understanding of our place within this region's fire-adapted ecosystems.

That's why the particulars, the details matter. This two-alarm fire -- dubbed the Foothill Fire -- erupted quickly and moved fast.

Its point of ignition, eyewitnesses noted, and L.A. County Fire investigators have confirmed, was the result of a crew from Golden State Water Company employing a chop saw and torch while fixing an aboveground water pipe. Its shower of sparks kicked off the blaze (and even as flames swept east, these men continued to cut pipe on Foothill Boulevard, which delineates the field station's southern border, shooting more sparks into the air). This news will certainly shape any potential legal ramifications and more generally how some will interpret this fire's significance.

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Here's another framework by which to read this event: Even though its point of origin may not be "natural," this fire will have profound implications for Field Station and the many faculty and students who study its evolution. It has long been a source of critical research on the rare coastal sagescrub ecosystem, most of which has been bulldozed out of the Southland, so the fire now provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to analyze how this imperiled plant community regenerates -- in what manner, how quickly, and to what degree.

One of the factors that will shape this research revealed itself even as my colleagues and I watched the helicopters and Super Scooper aircraft fly sortie after sortie over the inferno, as we witnessed the churning thick dark smoke turn white with every water drop: Everyone was calculating which sectors were ablaze.

And was speculating about the variable speed of the fire. Noted Pitzer Professor Paul Faulstich, who was on the scene just before the first fire engines screamed up: "It was interesting to see how the fire moved through the coastal sage scrub in the center of the Field Station at a moderate pace, but when it hit the non-native grasses in the eastern portion it accelerated and ravaged the land."

He and others pointed out that the indigenous plants was burning differently, too: "If you stand at the fence and look in you can see this quite readily," continued Faulstich, who regularly teaches classes incorporating the Field Station's ecological riches. "The sage scrub environment has stems and branches of native plants remaining, while the non-native grassland area is essentially demolished."

His insight is confirmed by the ongoing research of the San Diego-based Chaparral Institute into the dangers that invasives pose to regional biodiversity and to the firefighters called on to snuff out dangerous, grass-fueled conflagrations, big and small.

There will be much more to learn, of course. About the rates of individual plant die-off, reseeding, and/or rejuvenation. About the capacity of resident birds, coyotes, and rodents to respond to the loss of food and shelter. About the complicated but fascinating process known as commensalism, in which an association exists between two organisms wherein one benefits and the other neither gains nor loses. Much like the so-called fire beetle, which makes a beeline to torched terrain, gathering on still-smoldering branches to mate and subsequently lay its eggs. Claremont students are going to have a field day on the Field Station, our living lab.

These fertile prospects even seemed to receive a kind of natural benediction when the Super Scooper airplanes angled low over the fire, then soared up, dropping their wet payloads. As the water cascaded down, one rainbow after another bloomed forth, a band of primary colors arching across the charcoal-gray sky.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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