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.