What Do Fire Gates Do? The Latest "What's That Thing"

Slate's Culture Blog
July 24 2012 2:24 PM

What’s That Thing? Fire Gate Edition


Photo by Mark Vanhoenacker

It’s round five in our occasional series aimed at explaining overlooked mysteries of the visual landscape, from weird wires to inscrutable arrows to strange white cones out in fields.

This week brings us to Los Angeles, and, specifically, to its underrated hiking trails. Of course, this being L.A., you have to drive to get to most of them. But once you’ve left the car behind, you’ll often find yourself entirely alone, even on weekend afternoons, above the shimmering city and shining ocean.


Many of the trails are actually roads—often they’re “fire roads,” closed to general traffic, but opened for firefighters who (too often) need to reach the region’s notoriously tinderboxy slopes. Access to these is frequently regulated by so-called “fire gates.” And there are different kinds—the one seen here keeps vigil at Malibu’s Tuna Canyon Park

Across the lower bar of the gate are four white tubes. What are they? As always, here are four possibilities:

a) They’re defensive weapons, designed to scare off those of a mind to ram the gate with their car or truck.

b) They’re “guide tubes.” In the event that fire hoses need to be draped through the gate, these tubes prevent the hoses from bunching or getting pulled into the narrower space where the upper and lower bars meet. (Hoses are draped between, not through, the tubes.)

c) They’re artificial nesting sites for threatened bird species. Because they’re metal and well off the ground, they’re entirely safe from the top two predators faced by many bird species on the California coastline: snakes and larger birds of prey.

d) They’re anchors for a fire shelter. In high winds, wildfires can move at explosive and lethal speed. Fire crews carry protective tent-like shelters that provide short-term protection if escape is impossible. These- tubes serve as attachment points for the shelters.

And the answer is…

…a) They’re defensive weapons, designed to penetrate the radiator and disable any vehicle that attempts to smash through the gate.

When I went searching for the answer, I was met at first by head-scratching—not only by those who frequented the park, but even by park officials. Several transcontinental emails later, Roy Stearns, Deputy Director of Communications for California’s Department of Parks and Recreation, obtained this reply from one of his rangers:

Believe it or not, these tubes are to puncture radiators on cars and trucks that try to ram the gates. Sometime they are longer than the one shown in the photo. There used to be a gate like this up on Encinal Canyon. When we had the gates made for Baldwin Hills I considered adding these pipes because there were semi trucks accessing the oil fields through our property that would just hit the old gate and pop the lock.... In the end we went with massive gates ½ inch chain and a ½ inch carbon lock with one yard of concrete holding each gate post. As I recall they tried popping the lock once after we installed it and we found some miscellaneous vehicle trim pieces by the gate but it held and the problem was solved.

Of course, if the point of the tubes isn’t obvious to you, maybe they’re not a very effective deterrent. Then again, if you’re the kind of person who’d regularly joyride a pickup truck right through a metal gate to get to a road you shouldn’t be on, perhaps their purpose is as clear as the California sunshine.

If you see something you want to know about—in the canyons of L.A. or Manhattan or anywhere in between—send along a picture and a brief description. And keep your eyes peeled.

What's That Thing? Mysterious Wires Edition
What's That Thing? Elevator Button Edition
What's That Thing? Pastoral Doodad Edition
What's That Thing? Ominous Gizmo Edition



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