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BOB RHEIN PILOTS AN ALL-ELECTRIC Toyota RAV4 up the precipitous one-lane blacktop that passes for a highway on Santa Catalina Island, dodging shuttle buses and Jeeps as he directs reporters’ attention to this southeastern flank of the island’s steep mountains. As he lifts a hand off the steering wheel to point out some feature in the blackened landscape, the vehicle drifts alarmingly toward the edge. Inches before the plunge, he jerks it back on the tarmac with an apology.
“I drive too fast,” admits Rhein, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy charged with the task of escorting media around the island. “I know it. I drive too fast. I’ll slow down.” As he veers back on the road and blithely reneges on the promise, I notice that the barricades that once stood between a driver like him and a thousand-foot drop have melted away; only a few charred and powerless stumps remain.
In other spring seasons, the steep hillsides here would have been ablaze with wild rose and poppy blossoms, dots of red and orange among the deep, dark green of the lemonade berry and Quercus tomentella, a rare species of shrubby oak found, like so many other species of plant and animal, only on the peculiar islands of the Santa Barbara Channel. But on the eerily hot spring day of May 10, a fire that started high in these mountains laid all that to waste.
Authorities say the fire ignited when technicians repairing towers at the local Christian radio station heated the end of a cable with a blowtorch and lost control of the hot cable in the wind. Despite an attempt by an announcer at the station to suppress the fire with an indoor extinguisher, it burned for four days and raced through nearly 4,800 acres, reducing this landscape — oaks, ironwood, wildflowers and all — to scraggly black stumps and ash.
A lawsuit is pending against the radio station, claiming that the conservancy hadn’t granted permission for the repair work. But in the meantime, the staff of the cash-starved island conservancy, which has relied for the last 35 years on a shifting supply of private donations and support from nonprofit foundations, has been scrambling to figure out how much it will cost to restore the burned areas, and where that money will come from.
Contrary to popular belief, says conservancy president Ann Muscat, the May fire did not benefit this particular ecosystem; of the 299 fires noted on the island record in the last century, only six were caused by natural events, and all six of those happened in the natural fire season that runs from September until the first winter rains.
“It’s a misnomer to say that chaparral is adapted to fire,” Muscat maintains. “This one occurred out of the normal fire season, and we’re very concerned about giving the natural habitat time to recover. And that’s going to be quite expensive.”
Although 86 percent of its land was deeded to the conservancy by the Wrigley family in 1975 — most of it preserved as publicly accessible open space in perpetuity — Catalina Island has been battered by human intervention since the mid-19th century, when ranchers and farmers began introducing nonnative grazers like goats, deer and, later, the island’s fabled bison. Invasive cheatgrass and brome, another grass, also crept across the island, having escaped Avalon’s decorative landscaping. Of particular concern is a plant called Genista,or Canary Island broom, which has begun crowding out native seedlings in the island’s interior.
The fire offers a rare opportunity — Muscat calls it “once in a lifetime” — to restore the fire-denuded areas without having to fight full-grown invasive grasses. But it has to be done with painstaking precision and care. Muscat says, “Fire activates the Genistaseed bank” — millions of unwelcome seeds lying dormant in the soil.
Calculating the exact cost of recovery is one of the things the conservancy hasn’t had time or money to do. But when reminded of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promise of $50 million to restore 800 burned acres of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, the genial biologist winces, and then, diplomatically, tries to smile.
“I’m not saying we’re not getting anything,” she says. “We’re meeting with [state senator Alan] Lowenthal’s office, and with [Los Angeles County Supervisor] Don Knabe, and they have ideas for us. And we’re writing a lot of grant applications. But we just don’t know anything yet.”
Knabe has been out to tour the burned areas, and has called for expedited permitting to repair structural damage. But so far, no funds.
IN THE PUBLIC-FUNDING GAME, the obvious argument for favoring Griffith Park over Catalina Island is that the 4,000-acre Griffith sits in the middle of a city, accessible to all of its citizens. Getting to Catalina, on the other hand, costs $60 for a ferry ticket from most Southern California ports.
But if accessibility were all that made a wilderness worth preserving, half the world’s nature preserves would be wiped out, and along with them roughly a third of this nation’s more rugged national parks. Catalina’s boosters argue that the island’s wilderness is worth restoring for its own sake — for the sheer wonder of observing an ecosystem teeming with plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.