Paradise Lost?

Smoke from the Silver fire envelopes above wind turbines in mountains near Palm Springs

Smoke from the Silver fire envelopes above wind turbines in mountains near Palm Springs

The picture above is taken from a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. The Silver fire burned over 20,000 acres, injured at least 8 people, some with serious burns and destroyed many structures. It also has left yet another blackened scar over a huge swath of Southern California mountainous wildland area. The article in the Times is about the state’s fire plan and what many critics contend is an outdated model that no longer works.

There is increasing debate about how the state prevents fires on over 38 million acres of land, comprising more than a third of the state of California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection relies on techniques including controlled burns and mechanical brush clearing, but there is increasing debate by researchers and academics versus firefighters on the ground. Our firefighters face one of the most explosive, flammable fuels not only in California, but on the planet, that being the chaparral plant habitat.

In Southern California, by mid April through mid October, there is virtually no rainfall for chaparral plant communities, also associated with coastal sage scrub habitat. Many of the plants found in coastal sage scrub, such as chemise (greasewood), manzanita, ceanothus, sumac and many others, have developed genetics over millions of years that allow them to survive without water by increasing oil content within the plant, small or reflective leaf structures, incredibly deep root systems,  symbiotic relationship with mychorrhizal soil fungi to maximize water and nutrient uptake.

Over the past several decades, development has edged ever closer to what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), this is where the leading edge of development encroaches into or abuts wildland plant communities, in Southern California that is typically chaparral plants. We are seeing an increasingly alarming number of huge, fast moving wildland fires that may start miles from the WUI but aided by Santa Ana winds, quickly overrun the best efforts of firefighters and envelope homes and structures constructed in the wildland interface.

The article discusses how the state has relied on the “mosaic model”, which utilizes controlled burns and cutting down thick, old growth plants in an attempt to reduce fuel load and create patches of different aged plant communities. Fire managers have long contended that reducing fuel load makes for less intense fires and reduces their spread.

Experts on both sides agree this method was successful in old forests where reducing the underbrush prevented fires from “laddering” or spreading into the tree canopy. But this same model fails when exposed to the dry chaparral and coastal sage scrubland plant communities where there are fewer trees and mainly dense, sometimes decade old tinder dry shrubs. When these plant communities ignite, they burn hotter, and more intensely, aided by Santa Ana winds, they become almost impossible to suppress. Starting in 2003 with the Cedar fire in San Diego County, which to date stands as the largest fire in California (over 300,000 acres destroyed) followed by the Witch fire and then repeated fires in 2007 which burned over many of the same areas as in 2003, the “mosaic” approach to fire management has been a failure. Even the recent Silver fire burned in areas that had burned as recently as seven years ago.

When chaparral plants burn, the first successor plants are grasslands, as they dry out, they act almost like gasoline fuel. Chaparral shrubs typically germinate after a fire, there genetic composition actually requires the heat of a fire to scorch their seed coating which allows for germination. So, after the grasslands get a quick start, then the chaparral plants take hold and the cycle repeats itself. Unfortunately, as the fire cycle duration quickens, slower growing native trees such as the Coast Live Oak (Quecus agrifolia) and California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) do not get the opportunity to establish and grow into mature trees.  Since 2003, San Diego County has suffered a significant net loss of our urban forest tree canopy due to wildland fires.

Cal Fires approach to thinning coastal sage scrub or chaparral is not as pretty or precise as one might think. “Thinning” is actually accomplished using a D-9 bulldozer that simply ploughs through the chaparral, completely destroying the habitat. This habitat has existed in the hills and mountains of Southern California far longer than mankind and is home to countless animals, insects and birds. So are we really accomplishing the goal of reducing the size, spread and intensity of fires with this approach while destroying native habitat? Does it make sense for us to continue developing into the wildland urban interface? Cal Fire, formerly the state department of forestry spends 85% of their budget on fire suppression and very little on actual forest and tree research studies. Their mandate is to suppress fires, especially fires that threaten homes and development at or near the wildland interface.

Cal Fire critics contend prescribed burns or fuel reduction has been ineffective in changing fire behavior in Southern California, they have 40 years of fire record evidence to support their claims, including the past decade of some of the most destructive wildland fires in Southern California history.

Firefighters counter that you cannot fight fire as effectively in dense chaparral as with a younger, reduced in volume chaparral. They view clearing and burns as another tool for fire management and point to these methods for protecting Mt. Laguna and Pine Valley from the devastating Cedar fire in San Diego County in 2003.

Rick Halsey, the executive director of the California Chaparral Institute counters by saying the same land burned just 4 years later in 2007 and using these same strategies have not worked for decades, homes are still being lost. He feels fire managers should focus more on management policy and ordinance requiring better fire resistant construction materials and methods, while improving fire clearance zones and defensible space around homes and communities. He feels removing old vegetation miles away from development does little to lessen wildfire threat while degrading native chaparral communities.

For over three decades, I worked for private and public development companies and homebuilders as a land development superintendent, manager and director. From the 1980’s through 2008, I experienced firsthand changes implemented by municipalities and fire districts in land development based on policy and changing fire ordinances throughout San Diego County. Many of the changes have proved successful, the most recent being in Rancho Santa Fe where we developed the Crosby Estate, an 800 acre master planned community adjacent to the wild land urban interface. Due to limited access into and out of the community, the fire management plan included “Shelter in Place” where residents were supposed to stay in their homes during a wildland fire. The theory was the homes had been constructed of fire resistant materials and methods and had protective fire zones that would prevent advancing fires from destroying the homes. This plan may have worked during the Cedar fire where the fire advanced right to the perimeter of the development, however some homes on the edge of the development were destroyed by fire, while interior homes survived.

From my experience, I believe both sides in this debate have valid viewpoints. What I would like to see happen is less adversarial bickering and debate and more cooperation and teaming to improve fire management policy throughout the state. As I write this blog, the Rim fire rages out of control near Yosemite National Park. Yesterday, the blaze was 25 square miles with 5% containment, 24 hours later it is over 85 square miles with 1% containment. Can you imagine what it would be to loose Yosemite to fire? One of our nations greatest national parks, treasured and visited by people from around the world, with majestic giant sequoias lost forever due to fire?

I love California, it has the most diverse habitats in the United States. No where else in the United States can you travel 50 miles and go from the ocean to 10,000 foot high mountains. Nowhere. The great diversity of our plant habitats, whether in Death Valley to Yosemite, from the Salton Sea to Sequoia National Park, from the beaches to Sierra Nevada, no other state can equal what we have in California. Loosing our tree, plants and habitat should be major concern and issue for every California citizen. Lets hope the day never comes when our children or grandchildren don’t know what our state once used to look like. The time has come to stop bickering and come together to better manage our precious California habitats.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Time

California State Fire Plan pg 1











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