Tuesday, October 30. 2007
Here is some sanity from the San Diego Fire Recovery Network - a very credible group...
Media Advisory, October 30, 2007
Contact: David Hogan, (619) 473-8217(office), or (760) 809-9244(cell)
Science vs. Myths on Southern California Fire and Chaparral
SAN DIEGO, Calif.– To support accurate media coverage, the Center for Biological Diversity is providing the following basic scientific information relating to fire and chaparral vegetation management in southern California.
Native chaparral was the dominant vegetation burned in the southern California wildfires over the last week. Chaparral is not one plant but rather a diverse community of plants that are unique to California’s Mediterranean climate and is the most widespread natural vegetation from the coast to the mountains. Contrary to common misperceptions, the best available science shows that old growth chaparral is an ecologically rich natural resource, that frequent fire is not necessary to maintain the health of chaparral, and that fire suppression has not produced an unnatural accumulation of chaparral fuel or caused the catastrophic wildfires in southern California
“It’s an all too common myth that past fire suppression has allowed uncontrolled plant growth and an increased risk of unnaturally severe fire,” said Hogan. “While this is true of some forests, California's chaparral is actually experiencing more fire than is natural owing to human ignitions. Chaparral has evolved with fire and is very resilient under the right conditions. But too much fire, including prescribed fire, destroys habitat and allows exotic grasses to replace natural vegetation.”
According to the best available science:
· Prescribe fire and other fuel treatments in chaparral are not effective for fire safety
Fires occurring under non-extreme weather conditions are fairly easily suppressed, so prescribed fire in chaparral is either likely to be unnecessary under non-extreme conditions, or ineffective under extreme conditions (Keeley et al. 2004)[i]. Prescribed fire is also risky because it can escape and become an even more hazardous wildfire (Keeley and Fotheringham 2003)[ii].
According to Moritz et al. (2004)[iii]: “Fire management policy based on eliminating older stands of shrubland vegetation through fuel treatments [e.g. prescribed fire] will not diminish the size of wildfires ignited under extreme weather.” According to Keeley et al. (2004): “Under extreme weather conditions, there is overwhelming evidence that young fuels, or even fuel breaks…will not act as a barrier to fire spread. This is quite evident for the recent  fires. Crossing nearly the entire width from north to south of the east-west burning Cedar Fire were substantial swaths of vegetation that were less than 10 years of age, not just in one but two parts of that fire… The Otay Fire exhibited the same phenomenon…; the fire burned through thousands of acres that were only 7 years of age.”
Cohen and Saveland (1997)[iv] reached a related important conclusion when they found that “Vegetation management beyond the immediate vicinity of a building has little effect on structure ignitions.”
Fire suppression has not resulted in an unnatural accumulation of chaparral fuel and catastrophic fire
According to Moritz et al. (2004): “Fire suppression is not an underlying cause of catastrophic wildfires in southern California.” Southern California chaparral is burning more frequently than a century ago, with a higher number of ignitions and a shorter fire return interval than occurred prior to organized fire suppression activities (Keeley et al. 2004; Keeley and Fotheringham 2003). Fire suppression has not effectively excluded fire in southern California chaparral (Keeley and Fotheringham 2003; Keeley and Fotheringham 2001;[v]
Mensing et al. 1999[vi]).
Overly frequent fire actually increases the risk of wildfire and is harmful to chaparral
Overly frequent fire including prescribed fire produces a negative cycle of invasion by highly flammable exotic grasses which in turn results in an increased fire frequency and the related significant threat to public safety, firefighters, property, natural resources, and economic values like water storage and quality.
Chaparral will convert to highly flammable exotic grasslands if burnt too frequently. According to Keeley (2006)[vii]: “In recent years ineffective fire prevention has allowed an unnaturally high number of wildfires on chaparral landscapes, which has resulted in conversion to alien dominated grasslands…”; A repeat fire within a decade is typically sufficient to provide an initial foothold for exotic grasses; “…[A]lien grasses increase the probability of burning…”, and; “As fire frequency increases there is a threshold beyond which [chaparral] cannot recover.” The conversion of native chaparral to exotic grasslands harms biodiversity and increases
erosion, landslides, and other harmful landform changes (Keeley 2006, emphasis added).
Prescribed fire does not benefit chaparral and in fact can be very harmful when prescribed fire becomes a part of an overly frequent cycle of fire (Keeley and Fotheringham 2003) that causes conversion of chaparral to more flammable and less ecologically and economically valuable exotic invasive grasslands (Keeley 2006). Prescribed fire is regularly applied outside the normal fire season and this can produce extreme resource damage (Keeley 2006).
Old-growth chaparral is not unhealthy and doesn’t need to burn
Chaparral is not threatened by a lack of fire (Keeley and Fotheringham 2003). According to Keeley et al. (2005)[viii]: Chaparral more than a century old is just as resilient to fire as younger chaparral; A long fire-free period “…had little impact on the ability of these shrublands to recover following fire…” and; A fire-free period of even as much as 150 years may not be outside the norm.
Southern California wildfires have not become not unnaturally large or intense
According to Keeley and Fotheringham (2003), “Historically fire intensity was variable, and there is no credible evidence that it has increased during the era of fire suppression…” “The firestorm during the last week of Oct. 2003 was a natural event that has been repeated on these landscapes for eons… While the recent 273,230 [acre] Cedar Fire … was the largest in California since official fire records have been kept, there are historical accounts of even larger fire events. For example, during the last week of Sept. 1889, a Santa Ana wind-driven fire east of Santa Ana in Orange County, California reportedly burned 100 miles north and south and 10-18 miles in width … This event would have been three times larger than the recent Cedar Fire. Collectively, Sept. 1889 would have exceeded all of the Oct. 2003 burning because there was another fire that ignited that week near Escondido in San Diego County and in 2 days the same Santa Ana winds blew it all the way to downtown San Diego…” (Keeley et al. 2004).
Cited information is available upon request.
For more information please contact:
Dr. Jon Keeley, (559) 565-3170, http://www.werc.usgs.gov/seki/keeley.asp
Dr. Max Moritz, 510.642.7329, http://nature.berkeley.edu/moritzlab/moritzcv.htm
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 35,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
i Keeley, J.E., C.J. Fotheringham, and M.A. Moritz. 2004. Lessons from the 2003 wildfires in southern California. Journal of Forestry 102(7):26-31.
ii Keeley, J.E. and C.J. Fotheringham. 2003. Impact of past, present, and future fire regimes on North American Mediterranean shrublands, pp. 218-262. In T.T. Veblen, W.L. Baker, G. Montenegro, and T.W. Swetnam (eds), Fire and Climatic Change in Temperate Ecosystems of the Western Americas. Springer, New York.
iii Moritz, M.A., J.E. Keeley, E.A. Johnson, and A.A. Schaffner. 2004. Testing a basic assumption of shrubland fire management: How important is fuel age? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2:67-72.
iv Cohen, J. D, and J. Saveland. 1997. Structure ignition assessment can help reduce fire damages in the W-UI. Fire Management Notes 57(4): 19-23.
v Keeley, J.E. and C.J. Fotheringham. 2001. The historical role of fire in California shrublands. Conservation Biology 15: 1536-1548.
vi Mensing, S.A., J. Michaelsen, and R. Byrne. 1999. A 560-year record of Santa Ana fires reconstructed from charcoal deposited in the Santa Barbara Basin, California. Quaternary Research 51:295–305.
vii Keeley, J.E. 2006. Fire management impacts on invasive plant species in the western United States. Conservation Biology 20:375-384.
viii Keeley, J.E., A.H. Pfaff, and H.D. Safford. 2005. Fire suppression impacts on postfire recovery of Sierra Nevada chaparral shrublands. International Journel of Wildland Fire 14: 255-265.
Wednesday, October 24. 2007
Here's a link to a USFS map of the recent fires in Southern California. Our property was in the area burned by the Witch fire (Escondido, near the bottom of the map), but has not burned. The fire is still burning as I write this, but on its eastern edge and towards the east, so we are safe for the time being. I do not know how much of the burned over land was native chaparral, how much was in the process of type conversion, how much was agricultural, and how much was residential, but it's a big piece of land. Last I heard it was approaching 200,000 acres and still growing. Whatever the mix, we have lost a lot of natural chaparral habitat and it is important to try and bring back as much of it as possible as soon as possible. The alternative is far more flammable weeds.
Wednesday, October 24. 2007
After the 2003 fires in San Diego county, the county's chapter of the
California Native Plant Society created a section of their website
devoted to fire damage prevention and ecosystem recovery. It has been
regularly updated every since then, though most people are probably
oblivious of it. You should check it out HERE.
Wednesday, October 24. 2007
The California Native Plant Society has put a lot of thought and work into how to protect our homes and lives from wildfire without decimating the natural ecosystems that many of us love so much. The following has just been released and is very good. Pay attention to the final paragraph.
October 25th, 2007
Carolyn Martus, President
CALIFORNIA NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY, San Diego Chapter
PO Box 121390
San Diego CA 92112-7321
Is Home Protection Impossible In San Diego Wildfires?
In the wake of another tragic wildfire in San Diego, everyone will want to know how to prevent a future disaster. As our organization and its many members throughout San Diego County works to help victims, we also continue to work on preventing future disasters. After the Cedar and Paradise Fires in 2003 several members of our organization decided to investigate wildfires more deeply. After that fire, many people called for great increases in brush “clearance”. We were concerned that this approach would be expensive, damaging, and worst of all, ineffective. We discovered that brush management zones are already as wide as they need to be, based on scientific research into how and why buildings burn, which shows that radiant heat from burning material acts over a very short distance in terms of directly igniting a building.(For more information, see the extensive work by Jack Cohen, Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, www.firelab.org/fbp/fbresearch/wui/home.htm.)
We also concluded that the term “brush management zone” is deceptive, because it encourages home owners to think that the only danger to their homes are native plants, allowing them to overlook combustible material such as wood piles, palm-leaf palapas, awnings, wood fences, wooden decks and outbuildings, and ornamental plants, all of which are also flammable.
Photos from the Cedar fire showed that living trees and shrubs still surrounded many destroyed buildings. What caused the fire to leap over trees and burn the houses while the landscape around them remained intact? The answer is that houses (which are dry) burn more easily than irrigated landscaping (which is wet). Research indicates that burning embers are a major cause of structure fires; embers can fly from hundreds of yards away, much farther than the brush control zone. They enter attics vents and can ignite the structure from within. While there are strict rules governing brush control, the only rules we have on how to fire-proof buildings addresses wood-shake and -shingle roofs.
In that past, few laws have required that structures built in areas of high fire danger be constructed with less combustible materials and incorporate less dangerous designs. Evidence from the Cedar and Witch fires showed that tile roofs alone are not sufficient for fire resistance. A house should also have, for example, fire-resistant siding, enclosed eaves, screened attic vents, properly designed windows, and nonflammable decks, fences and outbuildings. Vegetation management requires annual maintenance and expense, whereas fire-resistant building design lasts for many years.
Indeed, since 2003, a State commission decided on an enhanced set of building codes for houses in the Wildland –Urban Interface; these regulations will take effect in Januaray 2008. From the State Fire Marshall’s website (osfm.fire.ca.gov/CodeEnforcement.html):
The broad objective of the Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Area Building Standards are to establish minimum standards for materials and material assemblies and provide a reasonable level of exterior wildfire exposure protection for buildings in Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Areas. The use of ignition resistant materials and design to resist the intrusion of flame or burning embers projected by a vegetation fire (wildfire exposure) will prove to be the most prudent effort California has made to try and mitigate the losses resulting from our repeating cycle of interface fire disasters.
This is a step in the right direction, but we need more. Many of the houses lost in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego were in the middle of a residential neighborhood – more than a half-mile from the nearest the Wildland-Urban interface.
To reduce similar losses in future fires, we propose the following:
1. We need more science-based evidence to understand why houses ignite and burn down. Conventional wisdom is not sufficient. Carry out forensic investigations to determine the cause of ignition in the recent fires.
Continue consultations with fire-safety professionals and building experts to come up with a complete set of recommendations for fire-proofing new construction and retrofitting older structures with noncombustible surfaces, sprinklers or other techniques. The new laws are helpful, but they are not enough. Learn from practices in other areas of the world that experience similar catastrophic fire storms.
Provide incentives for homeowners to implement the recommendations.
Work with the insurance industry and request that beneficial rates are offered to homeowners who implement the recommendations.
We need leadership to establish practices that will result in effective protection of homes.
2. Concentrate development in defendable areas. We put firefighters at great risk when we ask them to protect structures that are scattered over a gigantic burning area. Additionally, homeowners have unrealistic expectations about the capability of firefighters to protect wildly-scattered structures during region-wide fires. Concentrated development is more defendable.
3. Engage in thoughtful and effective fuel modification in the defensible space around structures. Following every fire, some elected officials call for an increase in vegetation clearance around homes, with no evidence of effectiveness. Whereas a certain amount of vegetation removal enhances defensible space around a structure, excessive clearance is costly, difficult to manage, and causes other perils such as risk of erosion during high-rain years. The California Department of Forestry, the Fire Safe Council, the County of San Diego, and the cities within our County have resources to guide homeowners in these activities. Our organization is working to bring consistency and effectiveness to these programs.
Wednesday, October 24. 2007
As of a short time ago, it appears that our house and property has escaped damage from the recent fire. Many houses in our neighborhood were lost, though the fire stayed away from us and the few houses around us. It might not have gone so well except that firefighters and helicopters managed to steer the fire around our little canyon yesterday morning. Fires are still burning all over the place, but winds are dying so maybe they can now be controlled.