Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007 | Rick Halsey, 52, is director of the California Chaparral Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the shrubs and sage that dominate much of the landscape in Southern California. He’s a former teacher turned fire ecologist, a firefighter and an author. His aim: To educate people about chaparral. He laments the connection the public has with trees, ignoring the beauty he sees in the native landscape. He sat down with to talk about fire’s role in the West, why people should be more self-sufficient in the backcountry and how a single sycamore leaf changed his life.

There’s a perception that fire in the West is good. It’s natural and helpful and has been overly suppressed. But that’s not the case in San Diego, and I’m curious if you can explain why we’re different.

It’s not the case in most places in the West. It’s just the case in particular forests. The Yellowstone fire in 1988, a lot of heads rolled. The perception was that everybody messed up; they caused that thing to happen because of lousy fire management. This whole story was created from that. I think that really crystallized that public perception of the overgrown forest. … We went so long making fire the evil demon. It’s like this pendulum thing. We went all the way from ‘all fire is bad’ to ‘all fire is good.’ But we could be going too far.

Is Smokey Bear a friend or an enemy?

That’s the thing. He’s evil now. And you see editorial cartoons about how he’s the bad bear. Smokey may have been a little too anti-fire, but we need Smokey Bear in chaps here in San Diego. Because there’s just way too many fires in brushlands. What’s happening now, with the invasion of grasses that weren’t here before, you get these fires that come in and hammer systems. If they’re close to civilization, all of a sudden after the fire you don’t have the natural system anymore. You’ve got sock-stickers covering the landscape. In Southern California, even though there hasn’t been an increase in acres burned, there’s been an increase in fire frequency.

My perception always was that fires here were naturally caused. If there were fires in San Diego, they’d be started by lightning hitting something that’s dry. We’ve seen in the last two weeks two fires started by illegal campfires. My perception was just wrong.

Yeah, there’s a couple of lightning fires from time to time. But in California, forget it, they’re almost all human caused. You take us out of the landscape, it’s not fire suppression that’s the problem. It’s us lighting too many fires that’s the problem.

Is that inevitable? You’ve got a parched, desiccated landscape and 3 million people living here.

We’re having more extreme fire behavior now than we ever have before, and it’s because of the weather conditions and the drought. It’s having a direct impact on these fires. If there was a higher fuel moisture, you wouldn’t have them, regardless of people. Southern California is renowned for having the most devastating, dangerous, highest-frequency fires in the country, because of the fuel — a vegetation type that burns readily. But is it inevitable? I don’t know. It certainly seems like it’s headed that way. I think it’s a lot of it’s education. People can learn appropriate behaviors. People are finally learning that we live in a fire-prone environment. We’ve pushed nature so far away from ourselves, that it’s hard to bring it back.

What connects you to chaparral? That’s your focus. Why that, and not some other habitat?

Because it’s where I live, it surrounds me. I never recognized it until when I was teaching. The school (Serra High School) was windowless, climate-controlled, and I was giving this brilliant lecture. Half the class was probably asleep. And I look in the back, and it was the only door in the school that opens outdoors. It was a November morning, one of those Santa Ana winds coming through. And this giant sycamore leaf came spinning in the door. I just stopped my lecture, and dropped my books and notes and said: We’re outta here. I took the students outside, took a hike out in nature. Everybody got dirty, the girls got mad at me, I didn’t have permission slips — it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was looking around, I knew the birds, I didn’t know the plants. I started to learn about what was there, and I just fell in love with that environment. It just happened to be chaparral. … But it’s described as this evil brush. If anything drives me, it’s trying to rectify injustices. What motivates me is that it just isn’t right for people to demonize [chaparral].

How do you think it’s demonized?

Outside of me, and maybe a few of my converts, I challenge you to find anything halfway neutral about chaparral. It’s always “decadent brush” or “shrub-choked canyons.” I can find a thousand references to beautiful forests, but you just aren’t going to find it for chaparral. People are terrified of it because the fires. When you read fire-management plans, one of the goals is to reduce brush-covered lands. Can you imagine people saying that about a forest? Cut down the trees, they’re clogging the view and causing fire hazards? People don’t get it. That’s what the system is here.

You’ve pushed to reclassify four local national forests as chaparral recreation areas. Tell me about that.

Think about what’s happened to the landscape in the last hundred years. A lot of pristine places have been paved over. Now just think about the next hundred. Have we had a conversation about that? Because unless we do, a lot of these national parks are going to be like Central Park in the middle of New York City. I don’t think that’s an environment we want to create. So the idea is recognizing these forests for what they are, reexamining how we see the natural landscape and deciding how we want to set up the future.

You brought up the idea of reconnecting the population to nature. Some might think that’d be building a house out in the middle of nowhere in a landscape prone to fire. That’s increasingly happening throughout the West.

That’s why we have to have the conversation about what we want a hundred years from now. We have to realize we can’t do that anymore. That’s going to be a problem because of private property rights. That’s why no politician in his right mind is going to say that house on that hill — like the one in the Esperanza fire in Riverside County that killed five firefighters — that should never have been built. And if you build there, we’re not going to provide fire protection. But the more development that occurs in those areas, the more firefighters we’re going to kill. It’s not the natural landscape’s fault. It’s our fault, for infringing upon the system.

Interesting choice of words: We’re going to kill firefighters, not that firefighters are going to die. We’re complicit?

In everything that came out of the Esperanza fire, every one of them says: The firefighters shouldn’t have gone there, they didn’t have the maps, the firefighter culture is that they take more risks than necessary — and what do you expect? But when an airplane crashes, they don’t write volumes about how stupid the pilot was. They say: How are we going to prevent this from happening? How are we going to create the environment in the cockpit where when they make a mistake it doesn’t kill them? Not one of those reports ever questioned why that house was there. It wasn’t the firefighters’ fault. They didn’t want to die. That’s not why they went there. They went there to protect a home that shouldn’t have been there.

It just really bothers me that people don’t understand fire, and they live in basically the most fire-prone environment on the planet. It’s like: You’re on a boat, and you don’t know how to put your life preserver on?

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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