Photo Essay - The Power of a Match

By Sean Prophet

(*Author's note, this was written before the attack of September 11, 2001. Though puny by comparison, the canyon fire directly affected my neighborhood. It was, if anything, a metaphor and harbinger of what was to come. It led me to a renewed consideration of the eternal cycles of death and rebirth.)

El Escorpion canyon is a popular hiking spot in West Hills. It helps give my little L.A. suburb a taste of the wilderness. We can have our urban existence, our supermarket, theaters, dry cleaners and well manicured lawns, and be within a two minute walk of a truly wild spot. At certain times of year, I used to imagine that I could be in Montana, so isolated are parts of this canyon. There is a 50-foot tall cave in a huge rock formation. You can really forget that you are in the San Fernando valley, with 2 million other souls. That is, until you come over the ridge and see the city view that on a clear day stretches 20 miles to Burbank. And until the weekend of the 25th of August, the canyon was an oasis of historic oak trees, a streambed that flowed in the spring, and rolling fields of sage and grass. Greenery covered the approach to Castle Peak, which rises about a thousand feet above the valley floor.

Then a couple of kids decided to have some fun with matches. It's not just the burning that was a tragedy. The canyon has burnt three or four other times in the last seven years. There's one of the undisputable benefits of our modern society: The firefighter. Let us all take a bow and scrape before these heroes. It's not just New York's finest who should make us proud. All across the country, every one of us at one time or another will have our life and/or property defended by these gods among men. But this particular day, fire's greater violence compelled them to do violence to the beloved canyon. In previous burns, the battle was pretty much confined to the air, as helicopters doused the flames. Once the fire was out, foliage reappeared in months. This time was different. The fire involved the whole slope of Castle Peak, and to prevent it from jumping the canyon, bulldozers were brought in to plow a fire break. They criss-crossed the canyon floor, cutting stream banks and majestic oaks with equal abandon. My favorite hiking trail was not spared, the top half of which used to be a narrow steep scramble. It's now a 30-foot-wide fire break. Since the dozers went below topsoil, it will likely be several years before those scars even begin to heal.

What is surprising is that even with all the destruction, there is an eerie beauty to the burned canyon. There is a longing to see it restored to its earlier condition. But there is also something unique about a recently burned landscape. It's as close as we ever get to walking on an extraterrestrial world. It is also a study in contrasts and ironies, as you observe what was destroyed next to what was spared.

I don't know if they caught the kids. Surely, the burning and the activity afterward scared the shit out of them. Maybe that's punishment enough. And hopefully the other children who play in the canyon will learn the lesson as well. Meanwhile, we here in West Hills will have to learn to enjoy the beauty that lies in the both the death and rebirth of our canyon.