A Plea to Governor Brown. Please think differently so you can help protect us from fire, mudslides, landslides, flood, and drought.

After wandering through the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, one is struck by the huge boulders scattered about. Where did they come from? It shouldn’t be a mystery. The Garden is within a creek bed, right below a steep mountain range.

As is Montecito.


Mission Canyon Potential II

The potential of a devastating mud flow event above the Santa Barbara Mission.


Did planning agencies and developers consider the story the boulders told in the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden prior to developing the areas within potential highways of mud and rock along the coast? Did they consider the severe danger that would present itself after a major fire removed the protective chaparral cover from the mountains above?

The heartache that happened in Montecito was predictable.


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How We Think about Nature and Fire

After the massive 2017 firestorm that hit northern and southern California, it is important to take a look nature’s relationship to fire and how nature has been characterized in the wake of what has happened. For this discussion, we will be focusing on the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties, although most of what we write is directly applicable to the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties as well.

How We Talk About Nature. First and foremost, we need to reframe the discussion and consider the words we use. Nature provides beautiful habitats for a wild diversity of creatures. It is not “fuel.” Fuel is what we put into our cars and what heats and cools our homes. A dense thicket of shrubs offers the wild foundation of green for countless organisms from lichens to wrentits. It is not “overgrown.” The term “overgrown” can be used to describe our gardens and backyards perhaps, but it’s not an appropriate or accurate way to describe our wildlands, no matter how many fire or flood cycles have been missed. Saying nature is “overgrown” is at best, derogatory. “Overgrown” is a highly subjective term based on hubris, not the needs of a woodrat, a Scrub Jay, or a ceanothus silk moth.

Words matter. Due to the loaded terms that are continually used to describe the natural environment, it is no wonder that a significant number of politicians and members of the public either fear or distain nature and see no reason why we should protect it. To them, terms like fuel, overgrown, brush, and dead trees, have become bludgeons to attack those of us who want to protect the rapidly vanishing natural environment and as an excuse to log, clear, and eliminate our public lands.

Natural Fire Return Intervals. The best way to determine what the natural fire cycle is for an area is to examine the frequency of lightning-caused fires.

Napa and Sonoma Counties have some of the lowest lightning frequencies, and hence lightning-caused fire, in California. From 1919 to 2016, Sonoma County had a total of 489 fires per million hectares per year. Only 6 were from lightning (the rest have been human- or unknown-caused). In contrast, the half-million hectare northern California County of Siskiyou had 44 lightning-caused fires in the year of 2004 alone. Therefore, before humans arrived in the Napa/Sonoma region, fires of any significance were likely spaced over relatively long periods of time, probably on the order of 50 – 100 years or more. This kind of fire return interval cannot produce the fire suppressed/”overgrown” environment the media has described. We have a response to one of the worst examples of reporting like this on our chaparral blog.

When discussing natural fire return intervals, people often ask about Native American burning.

We know they burned the landscape. Exactly where and how frequently is a subject of much debate and is mostly knowledge lost in time. But it is fair to say that early Native American burning was likely responsible for creating some of the patchiness of plant communities in the Napa/Sonoma region as well as in other areas. It is also reasonable to hypothesize that Native American burning, especially around villages, began the process of eliminating native shrublands in favor of more open landscapes.

As with wine makers who clear their land for vineyards, Native Americans modified the land to obtain what they wanted as well.

Interestingly, the loss of chaparral in California due to type conversion has been discussed in one of the earliest works on chaparral by William Cooper (1922). He did some, as he wrote, “painstaking” searches to locate remnants or relic stands of chaparral in areas presently dominated by non-native grasslands in northern California. He also interviewed a number of old timers who remembered what the place looked like before the onslaught of settlers changed the place forever. He found ancient chamise shrubs along fence rows, on rocky ground, in ravines, etc., where humans and cattle couldn’t finish off what was left (Fig. 1 below). He discusses several relic sites in Colusa County near Arbuckle, in the Santa Clara Valley, and near Hershey in the Sacramento Valley. He also suggests that the impacts by European ranchers/settlers were, “of small importance compared with the effects produced by the aboriginal population” due to yearly burning practices.

The steady transformation of California’s wilderness began about 10,000 years ago after the arrival of America’s first peoples.

The frequently heard call that we should return to what we think Native Americans did on the landscape is counterproductive to our current efforts to protect what natural environments we have left. With millions of people lighting fires, the climate changing, and invasive, non-native weeds that Native Americans never had to deal with, when it comes to land management, it is best to consider the challenges we are facing in the future.

Fig.1. Chaparral relics (chamise) surrounded by non-native grassland in Amador County, CA.


Fire and Habitats Today. So how does this all figure into our land management today? We obviously cannot allow what few natural fires we have to run their course in populated areas.  And we certainly can’t let human-caused fires run. Hence, we suppress. In wildland areas far from communities, we can let fire play it’s natural role. Most natural parks do this now. Sometimes, however, the public and their elected leaders do not have much patience for that.

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Save Lives or Treat “Fuel?”

Such devastating losses due to the 2017 wildfires are beyond tragic.

Forty-six people have died.
More than 9,500 structures have burned.
The community of Santa Rosa has been devastated.

Rescuers in Montecito are trying to find families buried in the massive wave of rock and mud that tore into the seaside town after heavy rains slammed into the mountainside above the community after its protective layer of chaparral was burned off during the Thomas Fire. The number of people killed in the mudslide has increased to 19. Some are still missing.

Such losses are unacceptable.

We respectfully ask the State of California  to consider the following questions:

1. Why were so many homes burned despite the fact that most had complied with state fire codes when built and had reasonable amounts of defensible space?

2. Why did the vegetation clearance projects (fire breaks, prescribed burns, etc.) found in many of the burned areas fail to protect lives and homes?

3. Would the newly proposed vegetation clearance program by Cal Fire and the Board of Forestry, have prevented or significantly reduced the devastating loss of life and property during and after the 2017 Tubbs Fire, Nuns Fire, Atlas Fire, and the Thomas Fire?

The answers are similar in each case. Unlike how we deal with earthquakes, we think we can stop wildfires. Cities and counties also allow developers to place homes in harm’s way. As a result, taxpayers pour millions of dollars in vegetation clearance operations that are designed to assist fire suppression efforts for 90% of the fires. Ninety percent. The problem is, those are not the fires that kill people and destroy communities.

Meanwhile, we are not addressing the conditions that are actually causing so many lost lives and homes.

It is time for the State of California, the Board of Forestry, and Cal Fire to recognize that what we have been doing to reduce fire hazard is not working.

The nearly exclusive focus on clearing vegetation and attempting to fight wind-driven fires has failed us. Why? Because we are attempting to treat symptoms of a chronic disease – an economic model that encourages poor land use planning, flammable homes, and a willingness to allow developers (and planning entities) avoid responsibility.

Below is our solution as explained in our comment letter on Cal Fire’s and the Board of Forestry’s currently proposed Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP). It was submitted January 12, 2018.

You can also read about our fight over the past 13 years to fix the Program to better protect lives, property, and the natural environment here. Thus far, the Board of Forestry and Cal Fire have ignored our efforts along with those of dozens of other fire scientists and environmental groups.

The devastated community of Fountaingrove II in Santa Rosa, California.

Here is a brief summary of what we wrote:

The Three Main Points

1. Focus on saving lives and property, rather than trying to control wildfires – two different goals with two radically different solutions. Wildfires are inevitable. Make our communities safe through proper land use planning and fire-safe retrofits.

2. Vegetation clearance projects repeatedly fail to protect large numbers of lives and homes during wind-driven wildfires, the kinds of fires that do nearly all the damage. Stop wasting time and taxpayer money by focusing so heavily on such projects.

3. The best way to protect lives and property is by making cities, counties, and developers responsible for losses caused by wildfires in the future for developments built in very high fire hazard zones. Prevent developers from externalizing costs and making taxpayers pay for their mistakes.

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Posted in Fire, Habitat Clearance, Politics | 1 Comment