Field Station Catches Fire

Eyes turned toward a tower of billowing smoke and fire at the Bernard Field Station (BFS), a consortium-owned property north of Foothill Boulevard, as phones buzzed around campus with an emergency alert at 3:56 p.m on Sept. 11. The fire was out by 4:51 p.m., but the incident has sparked new opportunities for research at the BFS.  

The fire burned 17 acres of the 85-acre property. Sparks from power tools used by employees from the Golden State Water Company who were working on the intersection of Mills Avenue and Foothill Boulevard started the fire, according to an article in the Claremont Courier. The two-alarm fire involved over 100 firefighters who received air support from helicopters and Super Scoopers, amphibious firefighting aircraft.

“There was no personal injury and no damage to any college facility on the premises, which was tremendously good fortune,” said Christopher Waugh, Associate Dean of Students at Pomona College, who was the senior administrator on call that day. “My admiration goes to the fire professionals who responded, as the fire was suppressed in a very efficient and effective way.”

Both Pomona College President David Oxtoby and Paul Faulstich, an environmental analysis professor at Pitzer College who previously served on the BFS Advisory Committee, said that since the brush fire occurred close to Claremont residences and businesses, the fire has the potential to cause tension between the Claremont community and the consortium.

“You don’t want a lot of new regulations [that would require us] to clear out a lot of that area in order to be safe,” Oxtoby said. “We want this to be as natural a space as possible, but being surrounded by the community of Claremont, we need to be thoughtful of safety issues.” 

“I worry about the political fallout,” Faulstich said. “Fire is scary, and it scares people, and people might respond by saying, 'Whoa, we can’t have any more of this in the community.' I also worry about how the college administration will respond.”

Once it was clear that the fire was under control, the focus turned to the impact of the fire on the Bernard Field Station, which is used for biology and environmental science classes, senior theses, and faculty research. 

“What the fire, I think, demonstrates most of all is that this is a real opportunity for cutting-edge scholarship on fire and ecosystems in Southern California, and that’s what seems to be the real story about this fire,” said Char Miller, an environmental analysis professor at Pomona. “It has an important role for us to play to assess ourselves and say, 'How do human beings live in a landscape that burns?' It’s exciting for everybody, from the geologist to the botanist, the biologist to the historians, to be able to begin to think about the human narration of fire in Southern California.”

The Bernard Field Station represents the coastal sage scrub ecosystem, which has become fairly rare in the region due to the expansion of urban sprawl, Faulstich said. Adding to the diversity of the field station are the non-native plants that have arrived and adapted to the Southern California environment.

However, native plants generally fare much better in the case of fire. 

“Some people observed that for the native species, the fire moved rather slowly, whereas the invasive species, it just flashed very quickly through it," Oxtoby said. "This shows the importance of thinking about how you plant. One of the things we try to have here on campus is a movement back toward more native species.” 

“What might be a neat opportunity is for us to do test plots,” Faulstich said, referring to educational opportunities resulting from the fire. “We [can] do a test plot that we leave vacant and untouched, and then do a test plot where we come in and control the non-native species when they germinate and sprout.”

“One of the things that I would like to see us do is to develop a seed bank," he added. "Then we would have native seeds from the site there, genetically adapted to that place, and then we can use those in restoration efforts like this. That would be another example of a student project coming out of this.”

“I believe we have the wisdom and foresight to understand that there are great opportunities here," he said.