We Californians like to think of our environment as unique – a place like nowhere else. We certainly live that way. Taking lessons from elsewhere is seldom part of our game plan.
But, truth be told, there are other places that share much with the Golden State. Of these, nowhere else resembles California so closely as the central portion of Chile, a nation on the western coast of South America.
Much unites the two places that seem so far apart on the map. Both fall in the mid-thirties latitude range, meaning they have temperate climates, and both adjoin relatively cold oceans, a bit a geography that means they share Mediterranean climates with dry summers and relatively wet winters.
Both have coastal mountains, an interior valley exceptionally well suited for irrigation agriculture, and then, farther inland, high mountains that collect snow and provide summer runoff. We have the Sierra Nevada; Chileans enjoy their visits to the Andes.
As one might expect, when the two places have similar geography and climate they will also share similar plant life. In our mountains, we have giant sequoias; Chileans visit their forests of alerce trees, which grow to be almost as large as our Big Trees. Along the coast and in the foothills of the Andes, Chilean also live near extensive tracts of brushland. We apply the name chaparral to such environments; Chileans talk of their “matarral” country.
Now the similarities become even closer. Chilean matarral, just like California chaparral, burns easily during the dry season. And Chilean cities, just like our California communities, have invaded the matarral brushlands. Additionally, Chile is now in the fifth year of a prolonged drought.
I think you can see where this is going. Right now, it’s early fall in the southern hemisphere, and just as California annually has big chaparral fires in October and November, so does Chile suffer the same sort of events in April and May.
In recent weeks, Central Chile has seen intense matarral fires that have burned into the city of Valparaiso, destroyed more than a thousand homes and killed at least a dozen persons.
Very much like Santa Barbara here in California, Valparaiso is a coastal city built up against steep chaparral (matarral) covered hills. And just like in Santa Barbara, dry fall winds sometimes blow down from the mountains toward the beaches and all the development there. Such winds push fires towards the ocean and the city neighborhoods that adjoin it.
All this has been huge news in Chile, but only a footnote here. The fires in Valparaiso earlier this month were the worst ever seen in that fire-prone seaside city, which is saying something. At the height of the conflagration, about 5,000 fire-fighters were deployed, a response equal to the peak response here to last summer’s Rim Fire near Yosemite.
Among those who pay attention to the natural world, there’s an old saying that “nature always bats last.” When we human invade chaparral environments, it is with the knowledge that whatever we build there eventually will burn up. This is not just a possibility; given enough time it is inevitable.
Here in California, we relearn this lesson, or at least we ought to relearn this lesson, each fall. Tragically, our Chilean neighbors have just been reminded of the same inevitable natural cycle. Mediterranean-climate brushlands want to burn toward the end of the dry season. Later this year, threatening footage of similar fires here will be filling our California TV screens.
And, before I close, there’s yet another similarity we ought to note. Like California, Chile is subject to periodic strong earthquakes. On April 1st, northern Chile experienced an 8.2 quake, a shake as strong as the one that so severely damaged northern California in 1906. Fortunately, this recent event occurred in a lightly populated desert region. However, in August 1906, four months after the famous San Francisco temblor, a seismic event of similar power essentially leveled Valparaiso; several thousand people died.
Why do I bring all this up? Recent events in Chile remind us of the inevitability of similar events in California. Drought, fire, earthquakes – all are inevitable here as well. In response, we can either work together to be prepared or we can ignore the risk and wait for the inevitable. The choice, as always, is ours.
© Wm. Tweed