Saved by a Succulent GardenNOVEMBER 22, 2008
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This weekend, it's chilly in Southern California - chilly by Southern California standards anyway, and that's a great relief to many people. When the fierce Santa Ana winds died down on last Tuesday, fire fighters quickly gained control of the huge blazes that left most of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Orange and Ventura counties shrouded in smoke last weekend. There is a lot to learn in the aftermath of a fire. After last year's Witch Fire in San Diego County left several homes standing in completely burnt out neighborhoods, researchers figured out that dog and cat doors actually played an important role in letting embers into a house. This year, one of the only surviving houses in a posh Santa Barbara neighborhood was saved, perhaps, by its garden of succulents. Ben Adair explains.
A secret few Southern Californians will tell you is how beautiful the fires are. Evacuated homeowners stare in awe as the flames move through the hillsides. They're worried, but also drawn to the flames.
The hills behind Santa Barbara are some of the most beautiful in the country. Look across, and see the light reflecting off trees and green hillsides. Stunning vistas, even with the smoking rubble that used to be a multi-million dollar home. Not even the foundation's left. The fires burn that hot.
Fred Ashtiani moved here from Virginia to make his garden and he knows that fires are important to the ecology. A local historian once got into trouble for saying that maybe we should let all the hills burn. Clear out the over-development along with the dry chaparral and dead trees. Let something new grow.
"I had two beautiful Italian cypresses," Ashtiani explains. "They were 20 years old each and both died. Amazingly, you can see the effects of the fire. So they come and go."
They're calling last weekend's fire here "The Tea Fire." It started with a bonfire that got fanned by the strong winds. 219 homes burned to the ground.
To get to Fred Ashtiani's home, take Conejo Road up from Santa Barbara to the burn zone. There's beautiful home after beautiful home -- and then two miles of charred trees and smoldering ash. Red Cross trucks are parked next to BMWs. A rescue worker comforts a woman wearing a diamond necklace and holding a Chanel handbag.
In front of 498 Conejo Road is a completely burned and melted pickup truck, slouching in the driveway. Fred Ashtiani's there, tending his garden. Ashtiani thinks - and some botanists back him up - that his garden saved his home.
Succulents, for example, are full of water and hailed for their flame resistant characteristics. And there are echeveria, aloes and agaves in his garden. There are also wide brick walkways and small walls, and they probably helped too. There's avocado and Persian lemon trees that didn't even burn. Ashtiani's gardening skills have been handed down for generations.
"My grandfather in Iran was the super of the royal gardens in Tehran," says Ashtiani, "and kings always were in Persian history involved in the gardens. From Cyrus the Great all the way to the last king, they were happy to show themselves as lovers of garden."
The added danger of fire season is that it's followed immediately by the rainy season in Southern California. So these canyons which were protected are now at great risk for massive erosion and mudslides. This weekend, Ashtiani is walking the hills around his home and tossing wildflower seeds. His hope is that the plants will grow fast and protect the hillsides.
"Up to this point in my life, I never got sad for a plant that would die," says Ashtiani. "Because I figure every plant has an age, so they die. But this time is a little different because there is a substantial sadness. But a gardener must move on and the best thing is to say, okay, how am I gonna handle this problem now? So that's my project now."
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