The Politics of Fire (Part II): Academic Nonsense

The Politics of Fire (Part II): Academic Nonsense

16 May 2012

published by

 USA — The following article is a serialized story of the decade-long effort to convince intransigent government officials in San Diego County that science matters and that the region’s native chaparral ecosystem has value. In the name of fire protection, the county attempted to establish a plan that could have allowed it to clear tens of thousands of acres of native habitat without proper oversight as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The story is timely because of the current politicization of science in the United States and the impact that process can have on public policy. The story also provides valuable lessons to activists dealing with the enforcement of environmental law.

This is part II of VII.

Click here for Part I of The Politics of Fire: The Struggle Between Science and Ideology in San Diego County

Part II: Academic Nonsense

When the scientists’ letters were sent to San Diego County and leaked to the media, the county’s response was quick and severe. Supervisor Jacob reportedly said she wanted Wayne Spencer’s head on a platter in retaliation for SDFRN’s criticisms (Dr. Spencer was the lead signatory on SDFRN’s letter and a wildlife scientist with a national reputation for objective analysis). Officially, Jacob responded by saying the errors “don’t change the bottom line.” Bob Eisele, the county staff member who reportedly compiled the task force report, said it was scientifically sound, contradicting the scientists he cited who indicated their work had been misrepresented.

Efforts by the report’s critics to establish a dialogue with the county were unsuccessful. During a phone call with Jeff Collins, a member of Supervisor Jacob’s staff, on March 9, 2004, Richard Halsey from the California Chaparral Institute was told that Jacob “has her mind made up” and that there was no interest in including outside scientists or their opinions in a new wildland fire technical group the county would be establishing. The Chaparral Institute is a scientific and educational non-profit focusing on the preservation of native shrublands.

Then on May 25, 2004, Robert R. Copper, the general manager of the county’s Land Use and Environment Group, held a confrontational meeting with SDFRN members Spencer and Dr. Anne Fege, the former Supervisor for the Cleveland National Forest. Other attendees included Bob Asher (retired head of the county’s Multiple Species Conservation Plan – MSCP), Tom Oberbauer (the new MSCP head), and Ray Fernandez, a county manager.
Spencer and Fege entered the meeting with the intent of establishing a collaborative effort with the county to incorporate science into the process of developing a comprehensive fire management plan for the region. Things didn’t turn out that way.

Although Copper admitted that the task force report was “sloppy and inaccurate” and had no doubt that citations had been “fabricated,” he characterized the inaccuracies as “irrelevant” and the concerns raised by scientists as “academic BS.” He also stated that Jacob had already made the decision to promote vegetation management as the answer to wildfire risk and merely cited the report to justify her decision.
Accusing Spencer and Fege of “tail-gunning” the county, Copper, along with Oberbauer and Asher, said SDFRN should have consulted with them prior to writing any letter to the county. Spencer was shocked by this statement because he had began discussing the nature of the letter and the scientific reviews with Oberbauer, Asher, and other county employees weeks before anything was released. In fact, Oberbauer had advised Spencer to send the letter and had suggested to whom it should be addressed.

“It was ugly,” Spencer said. “We went in hopes of mending fences and finding out how we can work with the county to improve their approaches to land management based on science. That was not their agenda. The county’s agenda appeared to be intimidation.”

Copper also reportedly stated during the meeting that the board’s reaction to the scientists’ reviews were just the opposite of SDFRN’s intentions. According to him, the board’s sentiment was, “Let’s clear the backcountry just to spite them.”

Although Jacob told the press that she would call for an examination of the scientist’s allegations, none of the reviewers were ever contacted about the matter.

Despite the serious questions raised about the task force report, the county refused to withdraw it. During the May 25 meeting with Spencer and Fege, Copper indicated that the county had to “act in real time, in real space” and “didn’t have time for peer review, information input, or workshops” to fine tune policy. He considered “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

“It was clear that they had a preordained conclusion, and they just sort of cobbled together supposed support for it,” Spencer said later. “It was dressed up as if it was a scientific discussion.”

Afterwards, Copper followed through on his threat made during the meeting that no signatories to the SDFRN letter should ever again expect consulting funds from the county. He ordered all county staff to disassociate themselves from SDFRN and do what they could to “marginalize” those who were involved in what he labeled as a “radical fringe group.” Spencer, who at the time had significant consulting agreements to assist the county with environmental issues, has never since received county funds.

The controversy continued through the summer of 2004. During a phone conversation on July 19, Halsey asked Oberbauer how the county was planning on moving forward. Oberbauer repeated Collins’ earlier point that there was going to be some kind of science advisory board that would be looking into fire-related issues. Halsey asked if any of the scientists who provided input on the task force report would be included. Oberbauer responded by saying that those involved in the letter to the county had “poisoned the well” and made it impossible for the county to deal with them. The county thinks these individuals are a “bunch of whackos,” he continued, who had complicated the process. “People need to understand the ramifications of their actions,” he said. “Those scientists don’t know anything about politics.”
Oberbauer’s comment about political inexperience was unusual in that Fege was the former supervisor of the Cleveland National Forest, Keeley had testified in numerous Congressional hearings, and Spencer advised high-level planning/research groups such as the National Academy of Sciences on how to improve agency decision-making on often politically charged planning issues.

When Halsey asked if the county could just forget about the individuals and focus on the data provided in the research, Oberbauer indicated that all the papers do is “spend half the time criticizing the other side” and only provide simple “observations” (In order to have a science paper published, it must go through an anonymous peer-review process in which the author’s data and hypothesis testing are examined and evaluated. The scientists’ methods and conclusions must be defensible in order for the paper to be accepted by the scientific journal’s editors.).

On August 23, 2004, the task force report was quietly removed from the county’s website after Supervisor Ron Roberts was informed during a private conversation with Halsey that court action was possible over the misrepresentation of the scientists’ work if the report was not taken out of circulation.

Unfortunately, Supervisor Jacob has cited the report several times since it was removed from the county’s website during county board meetings to support her contention that “clearing brush” is the single best way to protect lives and property. This, despite repeated testimony by scientists and submitted research papers demonstrating that successfully reducing wildfire risk requires a holistic approach (land planning, fire safe building codes, retrofitting older structures, financial support for fire protection services, public education, and vegetation management). Vegetation management alone is not adequate due to the fact that embers, blowing as far as two miles ahead of the fire front, are one of the primary reasons homes ignite.

Dr. Jack Cohen, a research scientist with the US Forest Service and whose work Jacob was made familiar, has concluded after extensive investigations that home ignitions are not likely unless flames and ember ignitions occur within 120 feet of the structure. His findings have shown that,

…effective fuel modification for reducing potential WUI (wildland/urban interface) fire losses need only occur within a few tens of meters from a home, not hundreds of meters or more from a home. This research indicates that home losses can be effectively reduced by focusing mitigation efforts on the structure and its immediate surroundings.

County residents paid a heavy price for their regional government’s policy focus on wildland vegetation rather than community fire safe planning. Three years and a few weeks after the task force report was removed from circulation, the 2007 Witch Creek Fire in San Diego County burned more than a thousand homes and killed two people. A comprehensive study by the Institute for Business and Home Safety after the 2007 fire concluded that, “there were few, if any, reports of homes burned as a result of direct contact with flames.”

If the homes had been properly retrofitted with fire safe features (such as attic vents and garage door seals) and yards had been cleaned of flammable materials (wood piles, palms trees, etc.), it is likely the loss in 2007 would have been significantly less.
This article is the second in The Politics of Fire series.

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