At risk



As I write this (Tuesday night), I am watching the coverage from Southern California. We have close relatives in Valencia, and although they say they are safe from the blazes (the Buckweed, Magic, and Ranch fires all nearby), the fact that they are there brings the situation closer. Sometimes, it takes just that amount of personal connection to make the leap from “Oh how awful (change the channel),” to hours of concerned monitoring.

In a general sense, these are not things one can protect oneself against. If an Alberta clipper comes sweeping down and Lake Erie is still relatively warm, Western New York (and part of Ohio and PA too) will get clobbered, with possible fatalities and plenty of damage and inconvenience. Fires, blizzards, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes can show an equal lack of mercy in the parts of the world where they are most common. It seems like nature has a trick up her sleeve for all of us, no matter what paradise we think we inhabit.

I must say turning the corner to see the house burned down or in flames is one of my nightmares; I can barely imagine what the more than 500,000 evacuees are going through. At least fatalities are minimal, so far. There are things one can do to prepare—sort of— for such catastrophes (storm shelters, emergency supplies, generators, or just listening and getting the hell out). And in terms of fire, it seems there are small ways to adapt for survival. As one of the LA Times blogs Pardon Our Dust related yesterday, a family whose entire property was a charred ruin after the 2003 wildfires decided against leaving and starting fresh elsewhere. Instead, they built a fire-resistant home with a stucco exterior, tile roof, dual-pane windows, no soffits, solar panels, and an open plan that allows breezes to sweep through the house, making air-conditioning unnecessary. This process is helped by the thick walls, insulated with recycled materials. (All very costly, though I suppose I’d be horrified by any pricetag for building or buying in this area of Southern California.) But then I visited another website and read the story of another Californian who’d already taken every precaution advised and still lost a beautiful mountain home he and his family had worked on for twelve years.

On a Santa Clarita website, I found an advisory (written last year) for fire-retardant plantings, which, I must say, seemed kind of meager and sad when read in the light of what is happening. I doubt very much that growing lavender or coffee berry (rhamnus California) would have had much effect. There was also advice to clear brush, prune trees of low-hanging branches and keep wide spacing between plantings. Ironically, many native plants in CA are designed to include fire as part of their natural life cycle. A gardener whose house miraculously survived the 2003 cedar fire found that her native plants in pots had also survived, so she replanted one quarter of her scorched property with natives to give its regeneration a jumpstart and carefully nurtured the rest, successfully bringing back a seemingly dead landscape in time to join a garden tour the next season.

Some SoCal opinion shapers have taken a stop-the-madness approach. They endorse a combination of accepting the wildfire cycle as inevitable and spending money on enforcing reasonable landscape regulations rather than hiring more and more firefighters and equipment. Whatever initiatives come out of this, it seems unlikely that future fires could be averted, given the solidly-ensconced prerequisites. Everyone interviewed seems determined to rebuild, to stay where the dry tinder and hot winds would threaten them each year.

Do I know the answer to all this? I most certainly do not. All I can say is: ask not for whom the bell of natural catastrophe tolls—any one of us could be next. And I like the Washington Post title for their coverage: “Mother Nature vs. Human Nature.” Oh, and CA firefighters? Unspeakably awesome.

The image above is just a nice fall picture I had of a lightly-forested area near Buffalo.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. People in southern California are facing the same threats we face here in the foothills of The Sierra. As the cities become more crowded those with the means tend to move “into the hills”.We are building our homes in the hills amongst the beautiful mountains and trees. When you factor in the Santa Anna winds, which can blow hot air from the interior desert at speeds of 65+ miles per hour for days on end there is little you can do to save your home. You could have fire resistant landscaping 1000 yards around your home and with sparks flying at 65 mph it won’t matter.

    We have been watching this happen here for the last 40 years, except now there are three times as many people living in high fire danger areas. In addition we haven’t developed a new source of water in our state in over 20 years. Southern California is a desert made to bloom by man. What happens when we have the next “big” drought? I am afraid that what we are seeing today is going to be repeated again and again. We can prepare and plant fire resistant plantings, build our homes of more fire resistant materials, and change our neighborhoods design to better resist fire but when the “Santa Anna’s” start blowing, look out!

  2. Building communities in fire-prone ecosystems is asking for trouble (says the guy living on the San Andreas fault).

    Beyond the risk to human life, and the financial insanity of insuring all this very, very expensive private property and providing state and federal monies to fire victims (I want to say “victims” but that seems cruel–although I would never consider myself an earthquake victim if it ever comes to that), these ever-expanding communities of 3/4-acre lots destroy a unique biome that makes California a biodiversity hotspot–not that anyone will want to talk about that at a time like this.

    It’ll take more than a few coffeeberry to undo the damage we’ve done to California’s coastal sage scrub.

    Southen California will get over this very quickly, and this fire won’t do anything to slow its growth.

    I pray the cost in human life for this fire remains low, and I am especially concerned for firefighters working in this extremely dangerous situation. I wish I could be more optimistic about what lessons we might take away from this disaster.

  3. Trey’s right, sometime everyone should read about how the LA Dept of water and power plotted and diverted water starting like 100 years ago from the Sierras and the Owens valley in order to be able to sustain the rate of growth of the greater LA area. Otherwise there would be no LA as we know it. The story of the Owens Valley is fascinating. LA is artificially sustained by “stolen” water piped through the desert through the Aquaduct. Now Atlanta is going through the water wars.

  4. Yes, Brooke, I did know a bit about that and recently heard about the water troubles in Atlanta. (NPR, most likely)

    The thing I can’t figure is what do we do now? We have plenty of room here in Buffalo, no wildfires, and no water shortages (though the G Lakes are getting a bit shallower), but nobody wants to come here! Plus I don’t where they’d work if they did.

    People like to “live on a ridgetop” as Californian Jesse Colin Young once sang.

  5. We are following these fires very closely from our perch in Oregon—as our hearts belong in Southern California. I’ve never known a time where fire wasn’t part of the reality of living in canyon country. But a huge rainy season followed by drought has made this year a tinder box. It puts our landslides and gale force winds into perspective.

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around half a million people being evacuated and the reality that at least one of these fires was arson. The politics of where to build cannot be addressed now–the human toll is too high. The real question will be if we can begin to talk about it and *do* something about it after the ash clears. I fear we won’t.

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