Monday, April 14. 2008
wildbird in Native/Non-native Issues
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Craig Gustafson of the Union Tribune wrote an article linking the lack of "brush" clearing by convict work crews to the recent wildfires. (Mr. Gustafson has obviously been doing more writing than reading.)
Kay Stewart, a prominent San Diego Landscape Architect, wrote the following letter to the UT in response. (Posted here with her permission. Thank you, Kay!)
Hi Mr. Gustafson,
Your article about work crews and "brush clearance" was all about numbers of prison labor camp crews, millions of dollars spent on working them to cut down "brush", and comments by people who managed those crews. Your article however didn't ask the most important question: if the work actually resulted in reducing fire risk to structures or lives when the wildfires happened. What your article needed was a map of areas that the crews had worked on in the '80's and '90's, to see if their work reduced risk to properties in any of the fires that did occur at any time.
Most homes lost this past year (read the stats) were from embers not from walls of flame rolling off of overgrown shrubs. The homes on the north edge of Rancho Bernoardo were hit by tremendous heat and embers burning from the stands of willows and cottonwood trees in the east basin of Lake Hodges that had been left high and dry the year before due to the drought. Trees are not what is referred to as "brush" and are rarely to focus of these work crews.
Willows and cottonwoods usually have a lot of moisture and don't burn, but the drought left these standing dry and combustible.
The idea that removing huge swaths of shrubs (which are carelessly called "brush") will prevent homes from being lost is not a good idea: when you remove the shrubs, and do it so there is virutally nothing left alive from the original shrubs, faster growing annual plants replace them, plants we rightly call weeds (and which these crews also call "brush. These weeds produce highly flammable fuel much faster (five times as much growth of dead fuel per year is one estimate) than the original shrubs did. This perpetual money pit of annual weed removal can be justified in terms of fire risk reduction only if it is done very near the home, within a hundred feet, and if it is done carefully so the fast growing weeds don't take over, and if people make changes to their propertyto reduce fire risk starting from the house on out.
If not, people would be feeling a false sense of security. If they didn't pay attention to the landscapes around their homes their property becomes a fire trap: big untended trees with dead stuff trapped in branches or dropping onto roofs and ground; build small dimension lumber decks, flimsy wood garden structures; fabric furnishings that are exceedingly flammable.
They don't replace hazardous windows with low-risk windows, or put screens on vents, or replace shake roofs or cover rafter ends, or put stripping around garage and tool shed doors all that brush cutting was a waste of time, even if it is close, because when an ember blows in from a fire even a mile away the house ignites. All those plants cut down was a waste of public funds and resources and time.
In short, your article is twenty years behind the fire science and the resulting direction of public policy. But there is a use for labor crews in reducing fire risk, but people may not like having convict labor so close:
If those crews instead were sent to clean up roofs, trim dead branches and leaves from trees near the homes, rake up and haul away flammable litter near the home, and if at the same time a trained fire marshall noted and listed all the fire risks to the home that were posed by louvered or single glazed windows, unsealed and hollow-core doors, unscreened vents and wind turbines, pet enclosures, open-framed decks and flammable fabric awnings, umbrellas, wood piles, exposed flammagle outdoor storage, wood fences close to the home, and wood furniture, then the money would substantially reduce fire risk to property.
If shrubs burn out in the wilderness that is a natural process. Why should you waste money and labor knocking them down so weeds can grow that you have to knock down five times as often if the fire doesn't pose a risk to a home?
The only smart thing to do is to keep embers from igniting a house and clean up the site immediately around it.
If an ember gets into a house it is a personal tragedy. The work needed to prevent the tragedy is not to send crews of laborers or herds of goats out to eradicate the vegetation for hundreds of feet around any structure. Fire breaks where crews can stage a fire suppression may be justified in some places, but embers jump 15 lanes of freeway, so a fire break without a fire crew isn't much use. Making those places diverts money, scarce and valuable funds, from doing the work that would prevent the tragedy, an diverts it now and every year thereafter, having set the stage for the annual weed infestation.
"Brush management" or "clearing" have made real mistakes in trying to reduce fire risk. Careful shrub pruning and thinning takes care and thought. It can mean avoiding having to personally hire (or use tax funds, which is our money too) a crew every summer to remove that year's growth of dry dangerous weedy fuel. With pruning and thinning the effort might be every four or five years instead, with minor work between.
Crews worked in our canyon last fall. Thank goodness they hauled away twenty years accumulation of dead and down eucalyptus and acacia litter (non native, not called "brush") in the no-man's land across the valley, but the places near me where they cut down small native shrubs that had grown only inches since we trimmed them eight years ago are now covered with 4-foot high weedy grass that I will have to go cut down myself and bag and haul up before fire season. If they had left the shrubs, which were only 18" to 20"
high, I could have trimmed the tops back some, 1/10 of the volume of work and labor. So I am speaking from personal experience as well as professional experience.
I am sure it is disappointing to the men who used to run these crews to see their jobs disappear, but as citizens we have to use our public funds in the smartest way and those massive shrub clearing projects were not the smartest thing to do. These men have skills that can be used for smarter work.
Kay Stewart, landscape architect
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