The Politics of Fire (Part III): Huge Fires are Natural

The Politics of Fire (Part III): Huge Fires are Natural

18 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 III of VII.

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

Click here for Part II of The Politics of Fire: Academic Nonsense

Part III: Huge Fires are Natural

The assumption upon which San Diego County bases its approach to fire risk reduction is that past fire suppression activities had stifled the “natural” pattern of small fires, allowing “unnatural” levels of vegetation to accumulate, leading to unnaturally large, catastrophic fires. The 2003 task force report promoted the idea of burning off or “masticating” native vegetation to create a “mosaic” of different age classes which presumably would create a landscape that “tended to limit the size of fires because young brush is generally less dense and less likely to burn.”

The three basic problems with the “fire mosaic” hypothesis are:

1. Large fires in shrubland ecosystems represent a historic pattern and not a consequence of past fire suppression activities.

2. Fires that cause the most damage are wind-driven events that typically burn through, around, or over fuel treatment areas and younger-aged stands of vegetation.

3. The process of burning, masticating, and spraying herbicides on native plant communities to create mixed-aged mosaics would have a devastating impact on the natural environment.

Extensive research has shown that large fires are an inevitable part of the Southern California landscape and will likely continue to occur. The difference now is that fires are occurring more frequently due to human-caused ignitions. An article from the Los Angeles Times describes the impact of the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire that burned at least 300,000 acres in San Diego and Orange Counties, long before the era of fire suppression:

SAN DIEGO, Sept. 28 (1889): The forest fires in the mountains of this county, which have been raging for the past two weeks are the worst fires known here. Reports today from Palomar Mountain give graphic descriptions of the great devastation of timber in that beautiful park region. Men and women have been fighting fire day and night, many going two or three days without food or sleep. About five miles square of the choicest timber lands of Smith Mountain (Palomar Mountain) are utterly destroyed, and many settlers had to fight bitterly to save their houses. Many cattle are known to have been burned. Deer, snakes and mountain lions have been driven down to the settlements. The fire is now partially under control, though those burning on the Cuyamaca Mountains, twenty miles south, are still raging.

Reminiscent of comments made during the 2003 and 2007 firestorms in California, another article reported that,

“During the past three or four days destructive fires have been raging in San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego…It is a year of disaster, wide-spread destruction of life and property – and, well, yes, a year of horrors” (The Daily Courier 1889).

Research has clearly demonstrated that urban sprawl and ignitions during severe fire weather, not past fire suppression and fuel buildup, are responsible for large wildfires that occur in the shrublands of Southern and central-coastal California.

Tim Chavez, a wildland firefighter, offered his perspective on these matters in a letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune on November 8, 2008:

I was sure that the repeated burning of land in both the Cedar and Witch/Harris fires had laid to rest the myth that large expanses of “old” brush was causing large, damaging fires. The only thing that will stop a Santa Ana wind-driven fire is the wind stopping – not the “mosaic” of old and young fuels. This is a myth, and it has been discounted by serious scientists.

I am a firefighter with 31 fire seasons – 29 in Southern California – and I am tired of fire suppression beingblamed for large wind-driven fires. Without the wind, the fires would not get big. Period. Fire suppression has nothing to do with it. The myth of small fires in Baja California as a proof of this concept was pretty much belied by the large fire in Ensenada last month. The so-called mosaic did not stop that fire from burning to the sea.

Please stop blaming me and my colleagues for large fires.

Regarding the large-scale prescribed burns of the type envisioned by the county’s task force report, the 1996 California Fire Plan indicated such an approach was not productive:

The typical vegetation management project in the past targeted large wildland areas without assessing all of the values protected. Citizen and firefighter safety and the creation of wildfire safety and protection zones are a major new focus of the new prefire management program. The vegetation management program will shift emphasis to smaller projects closer to the new developments.

For a full discussion about large wildfires and why the mixed-aged mosaic hypothesis should be rejected, please see the linked document available:

Here We Go Again

Five years after San Diego County’s first attempt to promote broad-scale prescribed burns and other vegetation treatments in the backcountry, the Board of Supervisors tried again. This time, Supervisor Bill Horn resurrected the idea during a May 14, 2008, board meeting. He advocated burning habitat preserves protected under the County’s Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), burning the largest old-growth chaparral habitat remaining in the region (approximately 150,000 acres – 25% at a time), and to repeat burns continuously, claiming such action would prevent flammable vegetation from returning. Supervisor Diane Jacob and Pam Slater-Price voiced agreement and supported waiving any kind of environmental review of such a burning program. Slater-Price stated that an “EIR (Environmental Impact Report) seems not to be necessary to go in and do something that is preventative in nature. What you are doing is actually preserving the wildland by taking this measure because it is, as all of us know, is a natural part of our ecology.”

Slater-Price’s misunderstanding of state environmental laws and her incorrect statement about the role of fire in the region’s ecology was disappointing considering all the previous efforts scientists had made warning the board of the ecological damage and increased fire danger that would likely occur if more fire were artificially added to the landscape. The fact that chaparral is not adapted to fire per se, but rather to particular fire patterns, was made very clear to the members. Change the pattern (frequency, season, intensity) and chaparral can be severely damaged or eliminated.

Despite a private meeting with board staff and several letters from conservation organizations that again revealed significant problems with the board’s approach, the supervisors voted unanimously to request county staff to “develop a comprehensive vegetation management program that would include mechanical, biological, and prescribed burns to be incorporated into the land management plans for all existing and future county owned lands and Multiple Species Conservation Program lands.” Staff was directed to return the completed plan to the board within 90 days.

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