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Fire followers are plants that can lie dormant for years underneath the dense foliage of other plant life, never exposed to the sun. But following the extreme clearance of a large fire, they suddenly find themselves with access to sunlight, allowing them to bloom after destruction. In fall and winter of 2017, fires ravaged the state of California, eating through homes, trees and brush ranging from Northern California to UCLA’s own doorstep. The effects were and continue to be debilitating for the victims. But like fire followers, UCLA community members impacted by the fires have begun to rise from the ashes, learning to operate under new light. This package explores the effects of the California wildfires in Sonoma County and Los Angeles on UCLA community members as well as possible solutions for fire preparation in the future.
(Photos by Mackenzie Possee/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Invasive species of fountain grass among California's largest fire risks

One of the biggest risks for fire in Southern California is a single type of plant.
Fire ecologist and UCLA adjunct professor Jon Keeley said an invasive species of fountain grass poses significant fire risk in Southern California. When the Skirball fire swept through the hills surrounding Bel-Air in December, the large, bushy plant was almost certainly a major factor in its spread to the residential neighborhood, he said.
“If there’s anything that could have been done, it would have been controlling the invasion of fountain grass,” Keeley said.
The Skirball fire destroyed six homes and damaged a dozen others after spreading through the hills alongside Interstate 405. The fire also resulted in the cancellation of classes at UCLA.
And while some experts have pointed to climate change as the impetus for the rash of fires like the Skirball fire in California this past year, it may not be the most accurate explanation. Given the large size of California, Keeley said different areas of the state experience varying climates, making it difficult to address the issue of climate change holistically at a statewide level.
In his research, Keeley said he found that climate does have a significant effect in Northern California, in forested areas like the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but in Southern California, he couldn’t find a strong relationship between climate and fire.
Marti Witter, a fire ecologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said you don’t see a relationship with increasing temperature because Southern California already sees a large fluctuation in temperature every year. By the fall, temperatures are warm enough, fuels are dry enough, winds are strong enough and enough people are present to create the potential for fire, she said.
“Basically, we always have the conditions … to have a large fire to occur in Southern California,” she said.
Fountain grass is an invasive plant species in California that burns more easily than other native vegetation, said Marti Witter, a fire ecologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. (Courtesy of Dinesh Valke)
However, even with Southern California’s ever-present conditions for fire, several precautions can be taken to curb some of the risk, starting with fountain grass. Witter said the reason the plant poses such a fire risk is due to its large biomass and sheer numbers. The plant, which can grow several feet high, creates a significant amount of fine shrubbery, allowing it to ignite and carry fire much more easily than native vegetation such as mature chaparral shrubs like manzanita and ceanothus.
Both Witter and Keeley said they have watched the fountain grass take over the coastal canyons like the Sepulveda Pass for the past 20 years and don’t know of anything being done to curb the growth.
“(Fountain grass) is really a terrible plant,” she said. “It’s been establishing for a long period of time now, and it’s sort of expanding exponentially – sort of a classic invasive species.”
With so much dry fuel growing in the surrounding areas, Keeley said one possible solution to the fire risks it poses is the establishment of a community fire watch group, since most Southern California fires are started by humans during high-wind events. The recent Skirball fire started from the spark of a homeless encampment cooking fire, according to Los Angeles officials who investigated the fire.
Fire watch groups go out on days with high winds and monitor uninhabited areas next to at-risk areas. In fact, community groups do exist in Orange County and the more northern parts of Los Angeles such as Malibu, Topanga, Agoura Hills and Calabasas.
Arson Watch, the group that monitors the Santa Monica Mountains, has more than 70 volunteers who go out on red-flag days – days when the United States National Weather Service alerts areas that they are experiencing conditions ideal for wildfire ignition and spread – and watch for people participating in fire-risk behaviors such as smoking a cigarette or starting a campfire.
Will Carey, the Topanga leader of Arson Watch, said the members of the organization often stop people from engaging in fire-risk activities simply by approaching them. The members work under the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and are all issued an official ID, a two-way radio, a safety vest, a shirt, a hat and vehicle identification signs.
“If you’re polite and tactful and explain to them the situation … they’re very good about putting out the cigarette and being careful,” Carey said.
However, students at UCLA don't necessarily have to worry about fires spreading to campus. Keeley said the university campus is not significantly at risk for the spread of fire: Large grass fields, which do not burn, take up much of the land, and most of the roofs are tile, which is less at risk for the spread of embers.
The real threat to fire is in the surrounding areas of Los Angeles that are close to heavy foliage, such as the Sepulveda Pass, Keeley said. There, fountain grass continues to persists as a large fire risk.
“The invasion of the fountain grass almost certainly made (the Skirball fire) much more dangerous than it would have been if that invasion had been prevented,” Keeley said.

Student fights fire to protect family home

Celina Baumann trudged against winds that seemed determined to knock her down as she made her way home.
The smoke from the fire spreading across the nearby Los Angeles River left her unable to breathe, let alone see the road ahead. There were only about 10 houses on Sharon Avenue, but the walk to her house at the end of the block seemed never-ending.
For three hours, Baumann, a third-year anthropology student, her family and her neighbors risked their lives to protect their picturesque suburban cul-de-sac in Sunland, Los Angeles, from the ash, smoke and embers of a brush fire that broke out Dec. 5. Baumann’s family is one of hundreds across California whose communities were threatened or destroyed by fires in late 2017.

An unexpected detour

Baumann was in her apartment near the UCLA campus preparing to leave for an afternoon tutoring job in Beverly Hills when she received a phone call from her cousin, Isaac Hernandez, telling her a large fire had broken out near their house.
“I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but you need to get home now,” he said.
She cancelled her tutoring plans and immediately drove to the freeway that would take her home. A Los Angeles native, Baumann is accustomed to heavy rush-hour traffic, but the congestion she met en route to a burning Sunland was at a different kind of standstill. Eventually, authorities closed the Interstate 210 freeway altogether.
Meanwhile, Hernandez and his mother had a shorter drive back from their office and had begun to round the corner to the cul-de-sac. As they inched down the road, the smoke prevented them from seeing more than a couple of feet ahead of them. Until the ashy clouds cleared farther down the stretch, Hernandez was sure his house was gone.
“Ever play (Call of Duty:) Black Ops? It’s a war game,” Hernandez said. “That’s what it looked like from the smoke. It looked like it was World War III.”
Baumann, however, had not yet arrived – not by choice, but because other cars, fire trucks and authorities had blocked every avenue home. Even side streets that typically saw little activity were bustling in an emergency-induced frenzy. Eventually, Baumann decided to embrace the anarchy, dodging every barrier she encountered by driving down middle lanes and through shop parking lots and backroads.
“I just thought, I need to get home,” Baumann said. “There’s no way I’m not going to get home.”
As she neared her home, Baumann witnessed multiple scenes that made her fear for her family’s safety. Through her car window, she watched flames several feet high approach from the river and children evacuating from local elementary schools. A couple cried on the side of the road, looking on as a fire neared their house and the trailers holding their horses.
As Baumann made her way home, she witnessed the destruction of several other houses along the way that perished either partially or completely in a fire that ravaged through her Sunland neighborhood.
At this point, Baumann was crying, too. She had called her cousins, her aunt, her uncle and her grandmother – everyone who lived in her Sunland home. No one picked up.
“I called several times, so I’m thinking they could be dead,” Baumann said. “The fire was so big, I couldn’t see the other side of it.”
Unable to view her house among the flames and smoke, Baumann assumed Wentworth Street was already engulfed in fire, but she had to see for herself. She continued to drive down the backstreets of her neighborhood, ignoring police who told her to turn back. When she finally arrived, she was relieved to see her street so far untouched.

Under fire

After checking on her family members, Baumann started packing her valuables. The first items to reach the safety of the car were the urns containing her dogs’ ashes, followed by irreplaceable photos of family members, her high school letterman jacket and her prom dress.
Upon returning to her home the day of the fire, Baumann immediately began to pack cherished items, which included her dogs’ ashes, irreplaceable family photographs, her high school letterman jacket, and her prom dress. Baumann planned to bring the valuables with her when evacuating, until she realized the rest of her family had no plans of leaving their home.
But as Baumann began packing, she realized half of her family wasn’t. Her aunt, grandmother and uncle had not made a single move to leave. Her grandmother repeated over and over, “I’m staying. It won’t come this way. I’m not leaving my house.”
(Courtesy of Celina Baumann)
Baumann was ready to abandon the endangered house at the earliest chance, but her family had owned their home for more than four years. They weren’t leaving.
“I was getting really frustrated because I could tell the situation was getting bad,” Baumann said. “I’m all for not overreacting and letting things happen and acting from there, but in this case, based off what I’d seen, I just wanted my family out of here.”
She found her uncle in the backyard, leaning over the concrete wall separating the house from the brush and the river and hosing down the surrounding ground. Despite Baumann’s protests, her grandmother continued stepping outside to view the oncoming blaze. Worried that her elderly lungs were at risk, Baumann did something she never does – she yelled at her grandmother. “Mamá, metate al dentro, ahorita!” (“Get inside right now!”) she shouted as the neighbors looked on.
“When it comes to serious matters, and I need to say something, I don’t care who listens or watches,” Baumann said.
Her aunt, meanwhile, was set on staying put.
“You’re not in our position,” she explained to her niece. “We own this home, and we’re going to do whatever we can to save it in time. We’re going to be here until the last second.”
As the flames began to burn through parts of Baumann’s neighborhood, everything that was once green turned to black. While fighting the fire coming across the Los Angeles riverbed, Baumann’s ears flooded with the loud crackle of burning trees and the whir of circling helicopters – helicopters that were not there for them.
Accepting she couldn’t change their minds, Baumann grabbed a hose and joined her uncle on the frontlines, dodging embers and inhaling smoke while watering any potentially flammable brush in the area. Baumann attempted to squash the embers hurtling toward the house with a shovel. One flew up and scorched her eye, but she remained focused on protecting her home.
“I never took the time to change from my sandals to tennis shoes, from shorts to jeans,” Baumann said. “It didn’t seem worth it to me. To me, it was worth it making sure that I kept assessing everything, kept being aware of what was going on. I really couldn’t care less about myself.”
Baumann was right to worry about the threat of the embers, said David Ackerly, associate dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley. Embers can fly miles ahead of burning fires and spark new ones, significantly heightening the risk of spreading, he said – especially on windier days.
(Courtesy of Celina Baumann)
As Baumann worked, the embers became more numerous and the fire crossed the riverbed. Standing outside among the smoke and ash, all she could hear were the deafening crackles of burning trees and the propellers of helicopters circling in the orange-gray sky. But it soon became clear none of those helicopters were there for them – they were on their own.
“It just seemed like with all the fires that were occurring, all the resources were exhausted and everyone just had to fend for themselves,” Baumann said.
Fighting the fire alongside her uncle proved to be a dangerous job for Baumann, who came away from the night with a scorched eye and a bloody gash on her leg.
After hosing the brush, suffocating embers and relocating valuables for three hours, the situation finally started to calm. Baumann reduced her duties to assessing the area periodically. Back inside, she assessed herself, counting the damages: a burn on her face from the flying ember, a bloody gash on her leg, and a layer of soot, mud and dirt covering her body.
“I’ve gone camping before, but I’ve never seen my face like that,” Baumann said. “It was pretty much black from all the dirt.”
The fires had calmed, but the landscape, like Baumann, was visibly altered. Everything that was once green was now black.

Common ground

The most grueling part of the experience for Baumann was driving her uncle’s cars down the street through the opaque, smoky air. Her uncle sells cars, and she worried their proximity to the riverbed would leave them susceptible to fire damage.
But with each car she maneuvered, the walk back down the street became more and more unbearable as she felt herself suffocating in the smog.
“I just had to completely cover my eyes and my mouth and just keep moving through it,” Baumann said. “It felt like forever.”
Watching her struggle, Baumann said a few of her neighbors offered to help her move the vehicles. She declined their assistance.
“I know when there’s a situation of emergency you have to trust people, but I didn’t really feel comfortable having someone else drive the car,” Baumann said.
Baumann had reason to hesitate to depend on her neighbors. In the past, she and Hernandez said some of them have harassed Baumann’s family, kicking their cars and hurling racial slurs, calling them “Mexicans” and telling them to “go back to Tijuana.”
“I’ve never even been to Tijuana,” Hernandez said.
The white neighbors are close, often gathering in the cul-de-sac for friendly chats. Meanwhile, Baumann’s family can’t set off fireworks on the Fourth of July without someone calling the police. The only Hispanic household on the block – and the only two-story home – Hernandez and Baumann can’t help but wonder if the resentment stems from racist jealousy.
“‘How can these Hispanic people afford this big house, and especially with all these cars?’ They think that we’re part of the cartel, but we’re not,” Hernandez said. “We’re hard workers.”
The past incidents informed Baumann’s wariness when, on the day of the fire, her neighbors suddenly decided to be neighborly. Normally, Baumann tries to keep her interactions with them to a tolerant minimum.
“Maybe it’s just the tense tone that’s already been set between all of us,” Baumann said. “I try my best to be a good person and smile, but even that’s hard sometimes.”
But as the flames threatened their shared community, the Sunland residents had no choice but to depend on the Hispanic family fighting the embers at the end of the street. Their house would be the first to burn.
“I have no doubt that our house would have burned alongside all the other houses,” Baumann said. “So in a way, we saved our whole block.”
(Courtesy of Celina Baumann)
Baumann was surprised to see her aunt overlooking the fiery riverbed, conversing civilly with the same man who had once kicked their car and told them to go back to Tijuana. While distributing water to her family members, Baumann found herself offering him water, too.
“You put aside the past and you focus on that day because you have to – because it’s the only thing that makes sense to do,” Baumann said.
Throughout the night, the Sunland community continued to disregard their differences to survive disaster. A Facebook group circulated messages from Sunland residents offering to take in people and their pets for the night or donating clothes and food. Some of the Baumanns’ historically kinder neighbors helped Baumann and her uncle hose the area around their house, while Baumann donated supplies to a complete stranger on a mission to cross the river to get to his father on the other side.
“After having been through this whole day is when you feel more connected to helping people and to what matters and what’s important,” Baumann said.
While Sharon Avenue came out unscathed, community members are continuing to offer aid to those who weren’t as lucky. Baumann has even seen a change in her neighbors, who she said haven’t bothered them since the fire occurred.
“I think that they can tell we’re normal people, and we live here, too,” Baumann said.