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 voiceofsandiego.org 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.