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By Dennis Romero
LaBonge claims Griffith Park had its own biologist before Proposition 13 was approved by voters in 1978, the property-tax relief initiative that reduced funding for such things as park services. “Warren somebody, his name was,” he says. “But he retired in 1978.” He promised to dig up his number, but then admitted later that “the guy might not still be around.”
These days, the closest anyone can get to an authority on Griffith Park’s ecosystem is a landscape architect named Rick Fisher with the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. As a city employee, however, Fisher has been instructed that he can’t speak to the press without the permission of Rec and Parks’ public information officer — who nearly two weeks after the fire had not returned the Weekly’s phone calls.
Never was the absence of a Griffith Park authority more evident than in the wake of the fire, when media leaned on three experts who all currently reside in other ecosystems: the University of Riverside’s Richard Minnich, who mostly documents fire in the mountains and desert to the east; Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute, which advocates for the health of the entire state's chaparral; and the USGS’s Jon Keeley, who specializes in coniferous (pine) forests.
When Keeley corrected LaBonge about the mustard on the radio, the councilman proved well armed to take him down: “Have you ever hiked the park in your life?” he righteously demanded. Keeley admitted that he had only ridden through the park on horseback, and LaBonge retained his authority.
As well as LaBonge knows the park’s trails, landmarks and planted gardens, however, he does not seem to grasp what it represents as a wilderness.
Although the Los Angeles County Fire Department explains in its pre-fire management plan that “fire is a necessary part of the natural life cycle of the chaparral ecosystem in Los Angeles County,” LaBonge regards it as an aberration. “It’s a huge tragedy because now you have to live through a decade or more of extreme makeover,” he said, alternately reciting fragments of James Taylor’s “Up on the Roof” and lesser-known verses of “This Land Is Your Land” to explain how people in Los Angeles feel about the park. “I wish this fire never would have happened, and I don’t accept that it’s a natural part of the process.”
LaBonge also didn’t know that his beloved mustard is not only a non-native invasive weed, but a “ladder fuel” — it actually helps fire burn hotter and spread faster than it would among ordinary native chaparral.
In some sense, the problem with the Griffith Park ecosystem lies in the way Angelenos, like LaBonge, have come to think about fire: As a necessarily catastrophic force to be avoided at all costs.
But if you want to observe nature at work — if you want to have wilderness at all — you have to accept fire as a part of its process. And as accidental chaparral fires go, the Griffith Park fire was one of the better ones: No one died, only the now-legendary man who fell asleep with his cigarette was injured and not a single house was lost. As evidenced by the throngs of people who lined the streets of Los Feliz, beverages in hand, to watch it blow up, humans, truth be told, enjoyed it.
“Fire is a powerful, interesting force like lightning or hailstorms,” says Stephen Packard, a biologist with Chicago Audubon Society who helps tend Chicago’s metropolitan wilderness. If a fire starts in ideal weather conditions and stays within safe limits, “fire is a fascinating component of a natural ecosystem.”
And in fact, in many sensible, well-funded urban wilderness areas, park managers actually set fires. “We have celebrations around them,” Packard says. “The fires are interpreted for the press, and people are invited and trained as volunteers to control and study them. We’ve never had injury or property damage because of them.” Recognizing that the Southern California ecosystem differs significantly from Chicago’s, Packard still argues that “if someone put their mind to it,” they could make what are known as “prescribed burns” safe in California. “It seems like something your governor could get behind,” he says. “The green part and the macho part.”
The Los Angeles County Fire Department still stages prescribed burns on county parklands (so far, though, without throwing a party), to clear out dangerous buildup of fire fuel as well as encourage native plant species in places such as the county-managed Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area in the Baldwin Hills.
“The weather has to be just right and the equipment has to be available,” says county fire Captain Ron Haralson. “But it’s an effective strategy.”
But the city of Los Angeles has not done prescribed burns in more than a decade. “We’ve had good success with brush clearance around structures,” says Tim Kerbrat, battalion chief for the Los Angeles Fire Department. As far as promoting native species, Kerbrat says it’s a matter of “weighing what’s natural against what’s safe. I’m not saying we’d never do it. But right now we’re not set up for that.”