Living with Fire Part 2: Wildfire and Vegetation
By Greg Suba
Today, we continue our series on Fire in California. Recently we kicked off the series with Jennifer Jewell’s moving personal essay and observations as a Butte County resident. We did this because although we acknowledge fire as a natural part of California ecosystems, we cannot nor should not deny the very scary and real impact on people. As Jewell notes, “Fire is not new or foreign to the people and landscapes of California, and much of our native landscapes have co-evolved to live and even thrive with fire as part of the normal, healthy cycle of things. But these are not normal times and these are not normal fires.”
Keeping homes and communities from burning down will take much more than removing vegetation, and I believe California is slowly working its way toward addressing more of the social decision-making changes needed.
When Governor Newsom took office in January, he quickly issued an Executive Order directing CAL FIRE to propose actions the state could take to prevent destructive wildfires. He gave the department 45 days to prepare a report addressing immediate, mid-term, and long-term strategies to address the problem. Last month, CAL FIRE issued the “Community Wildfire Prevention & Mitigation Report.” It lists 35 priority projects to be completed immediately — before the 2019 fire season begins — and further recommends environmental regulations be suspended in order to implement the projects. Last week, the governor proclaimed a State of Emergency directing state agencies to work together to implement the 35 projects and suspend environmental regulations in order to implement them immediately.
Let’s take a breath
In the rush to save lives and property, we need to avoid settling for solutions that ultimately cause more harm than good. On one hand, we have emergency proclamations and executive orders to suspend regulations to clear away vegetation. On the other, numerous experts and media outlets are now focused on the reality that fire safety starts with people more than with vegetation. Concurrently, the focus of 2019 California legislation is far more on fire safety through home construction design and materials, defensible space around existing homes, emergency exit routes, and community education, than it is on fire safety through thinning forests and chaparral.
Keeping homes and communities from burning down will take much more than removing vegetation, and I believe California is slowly working its way toward addressing more of the social decision-making changes needed (e.g., where and how we build homes and communities in high fire-risk areas), in addition to vegetation removal.
What about the vegetation?
As a science-based native plant conservation organization whose mission is to preserve California’s native flora, CNPS has a fundamental interest in the vegetation management conversation. Now, we must reiterate our long-standing position on vegetation management in forest and chaparral systems.
Chaparral: Vegetation management in chaparral landscapes should be restricted to mechanical fuels reduction projects that provide strategic fuel breaks and/or deployment sites for fire crews near communities during non-extreme weather fire events. Prescribed fire in chaparral and coastal sage scrub landscapes is a natural resource loss, and a sacrifice of native habitat.
Forested lands: On forested lands, CNPS advocates for restoration through careful use of prescribed and managed fire, in areas where fire suppression has disrupted normal fire regimes. On forested lands, we support forest, fire, and fuels management practices that:
- minimize danger to lives and property,
- create and maintain sustainable, productive forest ecosystems dominated by viable native species,
- conserve rare species through their habitat ranges, and
- protect water quality and supply, soils, and other forest ecosystem services.
CNPS supports forest management projects that reduce fuels and fire risk adjacent to populated areas. Near populated areas, we support mechanical removal of biomass, thinning of small trees and brush, installation of fuel breaks, and safe use of prescribed burning to accomplish these goals.
Wildland-Urban Interface: Last, science shows that vegetation fuel conditions are less important than weather patterns in producing severe fire events. Large, severe wildland fires will occur irrespective of previous management. Therefore, CNPS advocates land use policies that minimize the expansion of the wildland-urban interface, as well as the spread of housing development into flammable wildlands (and retiring CAL FIRE director agrees).
We are a plant conservation organization, and we agree there is a need to remove some vegetation from our forests both to maintain forest health, and to reduce fire risk near communities. By taking the time to identify and implement the right solutions in the right places, we can make healthy progress toward a more sustainable and safe relationship with fire.
Greg Suba is the CNPS Conservation Program Director.
Learn more about the CNPS Conservation Program and how you can help current efforts.
I STRONGLY disagree with the Chaparral portion of this platform. I’m in my mid 60’s. When I was a child our family did regular control burns on our steep, chaparral brush fields. At that time CDF (the predecessor to Cal Fire) used to support us, to the extent of sending a few crew members to help in early winter burns if the fire somehow got a little out of control.
Then the policy changed and we were told we would be charged the full cost of fire suppression for any fire we started. Today my brush fields have not burned in 50 years. They are 10 to 15 feet high and half dead. It has vastly reduced the variety of both flora and fauna that survive and thrive in the ecosystem. We have much less grass in those areas, virtually no browse for larger mammals, poor or no support of corms or rhizomes and so on. The huge, overgrown, chemise plants (some 25 feet across) encourage erosion under them.
Mechanical restraint of my brush fields is practically impossible due to the steepness of the terrain and the lack of funding (my place is very poor with highly serpentine soils). My choices for reducing the fire danger boil down to 1, 60+ yr old going out and cutting hundreds of acres of chaparral plants or leaving a fire bomb on my place. There is no support from State resources, even to get control of the situation, and there are still penalties for starting any fire.
I have heard CNPS members praise “mature” chaparral as being a good habitat and then point to a 4 to 7 ft chemise plant that is not part of a large chaparral field. I’m not against having patches of more mature plants, but as in anything there needs to be a balance. Right now there is a huge imbalance in much of California, heavily weighted to the overgrown side of a fire ecology.
So much has changed over the past 50 years, in particular increased fire frequency, climate change, and more people on the landscape (lighting more fires). As a consequence, the rich biodiversity of the near old-growth chaparral on your land is becoming an increasingly rare habitat type. It needs to be preserved.
Cal Fire (as CDF) had a policy of getting rid of our native shrublands in favor of non-native grasslands to support ranching. That is no longer a viable approach.
Here’s more on the problems associated with prescribed burning of chaparral:
Great Job Greg.
Government seems to still be walking like a duck. Until they embrace the truth, they are doomed to lose the game. They have to let the fires be and remove the connection of the forest trees to city growth. Move back. Give the fire room to die.
I’m surprised by the paragraph opposing prescribed fire in chaparral. You oppose it but don’t explain why fire in those ecosystems should be equated with loss of habitat. Is occasional fire not a natural part of chaparral systems? And if fire is natural to those areas, then is it not necessary in order to keep the chaparral ecosystem healthy over time?
Fire is indeed part of the chaparral story. However, most chaparral in California is being threatened by too much fire rather than not enough. The natural fire return interval for chaparral is between 30-150 years or more. Many chaparral stands, especially in the central and southern part of the state, are burning much more frequently, leading to their elimination by converting them to non-native grasslands.
For more information on this, please see this page: