The threat of wildfire is an unsettling reality across southern California. In the Los Angeles Basin, Santa Ana winds can tip that risk into terrible disaster. Born of cold air tumbling downslope, these winds gain heat and ferocity as they descend from mountain passes and barrel toward the coast. Bone dry and gusting at highway speeds, they have the power to whip feeble flames into a roaring conflagration.
Santa Ana winds played a key role in the blaze that consumed much of Malibu in 1993. On the morning of November 2, an arsonist lit dry brush high in the Santa Monica Mountains. Propelled by winds of more than 60 mph, the Old Topanga Canyon fire left three people dead, charred more than 18,000 acres, and burned more than 300 structures.
Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve was among the firestorm’s casualties. The fire incinerated much of the 310-acre reserve’s vegetation and completely destroyed its facilities. When the site joined the UC Natural Reserve System two years later, scientists assessing Stunt’s value to the University touted opportunities to study natural burn recovery in live oak and chaparral ecosystems.
Stunt Ranch would go without a field station for the next 20 years due to insufficient funds to rebuild. While the reserve continued to be a popular field trip destination for elementary school classes across Los Angeles, researchers with longer term projects tended to go elsewhere.
“People didn’t come to Stunt partly because there weren’t facilities. It’s great to do field work and awesome to be outdoors; Stunt offers that. There are times, though, when you need some amenities like wifi or shade,” says Gary Bucciarelli, director of research at the reserve.
Only after Californians passed Proposition 84 in 2006 did the situation change. The proposition made up to $20 million in bond funds available for NRS facilities and land, provided UC invested an equal amount in the projects.
The University proposed to rebuild the field station at Stunt Ranch on the footprint of former facilities, minimizing disturbances to the surrounding land. UC Los Angeles, which manages the reserve, and the NRS contributed $965,00 in cash and in-kind project management services by Carol Felixson, reserve director at the time.
Construction began in 2012 and lasted for a year. The resulting building, which reuses the foundation of the previous field station, is “a beautiful execution of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘of the land, not on the land’ principle,” Bucciarelli says. “The design does not stick out at all. It blends in seamlessly.”
The building’s two boxy components, a large classroom-cum-nature center and a workroom, are connected by an expansive deck and trellis. A restroom building and exterior sinks are attached to a corner of the workroom. All of the spaces are elevated, affording an expansive view of the surrounding meadow and the tilted rock layers that form this segment of the Transverse Ranges. A wheelchair lift links the parking lot, which includes a disabled parking space, with field station facilities.
The all-metal, fire-resistant structure is extremely energy efficient. “You would think it would heat up like a tin can in the sun. But it has passive cooling built in, so it can be 100 degrees outside and like 70 inside,” Bucciarelli says.
Other resource-minimizing features include toilets that require no water to flush, and sinks that empty into an evaporation pool with a waterproof liner.
The building has proven well suited to the needs of both researchers and classes. The larger classroom building, which is also equipped with a kitchenette and audiovisual equipment, can accommodate meetings of up to 50 people.
The building has become a favorite among local land managers and conservation groups looking to hold meetings. “There’s maybe only one or two other sites in the area that can hold that many people, but they charge exorbitant prices. We do our best to make Stunt available to benefit the community and outreach related to research and natural history,” Bucciarelli says.
The workroom, meanwhile, provides space for researchers to examine specimens under microscopes, process samples, and store materials in the cabinets.
Stunt Ranch also received upgrades to its utility lines and repairs to its access road. And in a nod to the inferno that consumed the previous facilities, the new field station has a fire suppression system complete with two 5,000-gallon water storage tanks, fire alarms, building sprinklers, and its own fire hydrant.
Since the new facilities opened in 2013, the reserve has experienced a remarkable surge in reserve use. “The year by year trend is fourfold increases in usership,” Bucciarelli says. The most numerous visitors are schoolchildren, between 3,000 and 5,000 per year, mostly in grades 4–7 and 9–12. Hundreds more undergraduates and academic researchers come to the reserve each year as well to study everything from hummingbird physiology to anthropology.
The new Stunt Ranch facilities, says Bucciarelli, “support the reserve’s endeavors at a level we could not have achieved without this resource. It has made a huge difference.”