Fires make David Hogan nervous. It's not because he's afraid his Pine Valley house will burn down. It's because after every fire in Southern California, politicians start clamoring for reduction of the "fuel" that covers the hillsides. Case in point: Senator Dianne Feinstein's October 26 announcement that she planned to seek $775 million of federal money to be used in part for "hazardous fuels reduction" in Southern California. In her letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, Feinstein wrote, "We believe that it is critical to make a substantial and immediate investment to expand fuels treatment...." Bad idea, says Hogan, who runs the San Diego County branch of the Center for Biological Diversity. Controlled burns of native chaparral -- Feinstein's "hazardous fuels" -- will only encourage the growth of nonnative grasses, which ignite much more easily than the native chaparral.
Well over six feet tall, clad in blue jeans, a charcoal short-sleeved Dickies button-down, an Indiana Jones hat, and black wrap-around sunglasses, 37-year-old Hogan looks like a combination of hipster and outdoorsman. He stands in the Park and Ride lot in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of Interstate 8 and State Route 79 near Descanso, pointing to a pair of hills a quarter mile to the north. Highway 79 runs between them. The hill to the east of the road is covered in a green blanket of chaparral. The hill to the west is dotted with green plants. But between the plants are dead grasses. "There's very little difference between those two hills," Hogan says in a basso profondo speaking voice. "They both face south and have the same exposure. They're at the same elevation. But the one to the west of the road burned in the Cedar Fire in 2003. The one to the east hasn't burned since the Laguna Fire in the early 1970s. That's the kind of recovery you get over 30 years. There's a lot more habitat value on that east hill than there is on the west hill. If that west hill doesn't burn again, it will have that nice, lush coat of vegetation on it in 30 years, like the hill across the road has."
If it does burn again? "It will be covered in exotic weed grasses that are much more susceptible to fire."
To illustrate, Hogan turns to face a triangular cow pasture bordered by I-8 on the south, the lush hill to the north, and Highway 79 to the west. Nothing's alive in the pasture. It's covered in dead grass that has dried to a beautiful golden color. "This pasture is a good example of what happens with disturbance, whether it's from cows, from fire, or freeway construction. That whole slope by the off-ramp of the freeway, that's a manufactured slope that was filled and compacted when they put the freeway in. That's why it's all covered in exotic weeds. All the golden grass in the cow pasture is exotic, or nonnative. The golden hills of California were imported," Hogan says, chuckling.
"Five hundred years ago, bottomlands like that would have been full of oaks and native grasses like the buckwheat we see here." He bends down and with a long-fingered hand caresses the buff-colored blossom of a clump of buckwheat growing next to the parking lot's entrance. "In the spring, you'd have lots of annual herbs and wildflowers. But over time, because of grazing, that area has converted to the exotic grasslands. The conversion to exotic grasses hasn't happened as quickly on the steeper slopes, because you haven't had a lot of grazing on the slopes. It's just not very conducive to grazing. It's steep and it's thick with vegetation. But as the frequency of wildfires has increased significantly over the last 50 to 100 years, we're starting to see the same kind of conversion that happened 200 years ago with grazing, but up on the steeper slopes too.
"It's all about competition," Hogan explains. "When an area burns too often, as much of San Diego has, you're setting the native plants back -- the shrubs that take 30 years to recover and reach maturity again to where they're setting seed and vigorously resprouting roots. But when you're knocking them back that frequently [with fire], you're giving a competitive advantage to the exotic weeds and grasses, which only take one year to mature. Many of these are called annual grasses because they only take one year to reach maturity and set seed. Then it starts this negative cycle where, after an area burns too often and these invasive weeds start to spread into that area, they're actually much more flammable than the native shrubs and are more likely to burn again -- from a carelessly tossed cigarette butt, lightning, kids playing with matches, whatever it is. The fires start again and set the native plants back again. The exotic grasses are very tolerant of fire. They come back the next year with the first rain. Many of the areas that we saw burn in 2003 and that burned again last week are going to have beautiful carpets of green come spring. But it's all exotic weeds."
Five miles north up Highway 79, then two or three miles east on Old Highway 80, Hogan pulls his pickup onto the dirt shoulder on the south side of the road and hops out. He points to the 500 feet of hillside looming up on the south side of the road. "This is Guatay Mountain," he says. "It's an area that's never burned in the recorded history of European settlement of San Diego County."
Thick, green foliage ten feet high covers the mountainside from road to the mist-shrouded peak. Four or five stands of 25-foot conifers dot the mountain, about a dozen trees per stand. "That's a really unique and endangered conifer called the Tecate cypress," Hogan explains. "It's even rarer than the Torrey pine. It only grows in San Diego County, and only in two spots: here on Guatay Mountain and in one place on Otay Mountain.