Fight fire with plantings

Fight fire with plantings

11 January 2006

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USA — Taking responsibility for living in fire-prone chaparral that coats much of the Inland region’s foothills by maintaining the right landscaping around homes is key to surviving the flames, those gathered at a fire summit said Tuesday.

If homeowners don’t maintain the proper landscape — trees should be trimmed well away from the home, and dying vegetation should be replanted with drought-tolerant plants that are widely spaced — houses are vulnerable to the next inevitable fire, theysaid.

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Some 110 fire experts, scientists and Inland residents attended the first day of Living With Fire in Chaparral Ecosystems, a three-day conference at the Riverside Convention Center.

The aim of the conference is to find better ways to reduce the fire threat, said Pamela Padgett, project manager at the U.S. Forest Service’s Riverside Fire Laboratory, which coordinated the conference.

The fact that 95 percent of the 2003 wildfires that whipped across the San Bernardino Mountains burned not in the pine-dominated forest but in chaparral areas is driving home the need to understand the ecosystem as urban sprawl crawls deeper into those areas, she said.

A unique ecosystem, chaparral is bred by the semiarid Mediterranean climate in Southern California and is dominated by shrubs that can survive both summer droughts and winter rains.

“Very few people know what it is,” said Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Field Institute in Escondido. “It’s a part of California; it’s part of who we are.”

Halsey said that while chaparral ecosystems have adapted to fires, the increasing frequency of human-sparked fires is threatening their continued existence because native plants aren’t getting enough time to regenerate. In their place, nonnative plants sprout quickly and create kindling for another fire, he said.

Such ecosystems, he said, need at least 15 to 20 years between fires.

In Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County, five communities have been specifically designed from the inside out to prevent fires from traveling through them and burning the homes.

Called Shelter-in-Place, every home has to be designed to be fireproof so residents don’t have to evacuate, said Cliff Hunter, a fire marshal with the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department.

Rancho Cucamonga officials are considering requiring that same approach for a proposed development that is pushing into the chaparral in the city’s northernmost reaches, said Mike Bell, the city’s deputy fire chief.

Bell said there’s not much that can stop development from pushing into the urban-wildland interface so education is key.

“It’s all about maintenance [of the landscaping]; it’s about personal responsibility and doing the right thing,” Bell said. “All you can do is guide them.” 


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