Many in the fire science community are disappointed by the recent reporting in High Country News (HCN) by Elizabeth Shogren on the tragic fires in northern California (Shrub-choked wildlands played a role in California fires, HCN 10/24/2017).
Portraying the ecology of the region as “choked” by native shrublands not only demonizes California’s richly biodiverse, characteristic habitat, the chaparral, but fails to come close to explaining why and how the fires occurred. Little effort was made in the article to help readers understand the situation. Instead, the article simply repeated hackneyed phrases over-used to describe fires in the western US.
Every fire is different. Large, high-intensity wildfires have long been a natural feature of these chaparral landscapes. What has changed is that we have put people in harm’s way.
A quick overview on Google Earth of what burned in the devastating Tubbs Fire would have revealed that it was not “shrub-choked wildlands,” but rather a complex patchwork of non-native grasslands, oak woodland, conifers, chaparral, and unfortunately, a lot of homes intermixed.
Blaming nature and past efforts by firefighters to save lives and property through fire suppression ignores the actual problem – poorly planned communities in high fire risk areas.
Ironically, the article quotes a source that admits large fires have occurred before, but the source goes on to ignore the full history to support his contention that the recent fires were unusual, a classic logical fallacy. Yes, the article reads, there were large fires in the past (when we were suppressing fires), but the recent fires are different because we have been suppressing fires.
Memories are short. Despite claims to the contrary, wildland fires along California’s west coast and inland valleys have not changed much since the 1964 Hanly Fire, a blaze which burned nearly the same territory as the Tubbs Fire but was even larger. What has changed is human demography.
Santa Rosa, one of the areas hardest hit by the northern California fires, has seen its population increase five times since 1964. This dramatic increase in population can impact fire losses in several ways. Since 99% of the fires in Sonoma County are caused directly or indirectly by people (e.g. intentional ignitions or powerlines igniting fires), increases in population contributes to an increased probability of a fire igniting under severe weather conditions. Increased incidence of human-caused fires also plays a role in the type conversion of native shrubland, converting it to highly flammable, non-native grassland, which increases ignition probability and rate of fire spread.
Therefore, the primary question to investigate is why neighborhoods like Coffey Park, a community devastated by the Tubbs Fire, were approved by a planning department in the first place. By looking at fire history maps and understanding the potential of fierce Diablo winds, planners should have recognized that Coffey Park was positioned in the wrong place and built with the wrong materials. It shouldn’t have taken much imagination to realize a repeat of the wind-driven Hanly Fire could sweep through Coffey Park with devastating ferocity.
(Addendum: The Fountaingrove development about 2 miles east of Coffey Park was devastated as well and was exposed to even more fire risk. The city approved the development anyway. In a comment below, Richard Nichols wrote, “Fountaingrove area was the worst case of fire planning. Santa Rosa allowed it go ahead even though it was against their own zoning, and were warned repeatedly that it was in a serious fire zone.” Please see our follow-up post for additional information).
The failure of planners, and the politicians who set the pro-development tone, to mitigate the potential for death and destruction from a wildfire in a known fire corridor borders on criminal neglect. The homes were built and the planners walked away, forcing firefighters to become the first line of defense instead of what they should be – the last line of defense after everyone else has fulfilled their responsibility to create and maintain fire safe communities in one of the most fire-prone regions on earth.
Second, the claim in the article that the Tubbs Fires started “well into wildland areas” is misleading and ignored the critical issue, roads. The current estimate of the fire’s origin is somewhere along Highway 128 near Bennett Lane about two miles northwest of Calistoga, an area with wineries, homes, and lots of invasive, flammable, roadside weeds. In fire country, roads represent one of the most common ignition points on the landscape (previously we indicated the origin was near the intersection of Calistoga and Porter Creek Roads based on available fire maps at the time).
Yes, the fire did sometimes move through dense chaparral. But the derogatory reference to the chaparral that burned as a “shrub-choked” wildland, supposedly created by “decades” of fire suppression, reveals a level of ignorance about California ecosystems that defies logic. Chaparral naturally covers large areas with dense, impenetrable species like manzanita and chamise. Its growth pattern has nothing to do with past fire suppression efforts. When it burns, it burns intensely. It’s not “designed to burn pretty hot,” as if the ecosystem was created by some kind of pyromaniac, but is what one can expect when a lot of small twigs (fine fuels) ignite, especially when those twigs have been subjected to long term drought, high temperatures, and Diablo winds.
While the description of wildland fire creating a “head of steam” like some kind of 100-ton locomotive creates a vivid image, it only reinforces public misconceptions and unnecessary drama about how fire behaves. Fire does not have any significant mass; therefore, it does not have any significant inertia. Flames stop the moment fuel is no longer available. If proper defensible space has been created, the next concern is the inevitable ember storm. Embers are like a wind-driven swarm of killer bees that will find the weakest link in any home, typically an attic vent or a pile of firewood stacked against a wall. Why the Coffey Park homes were built without ember-resistant vents and other fire safe features is a testament to criminal negligence, not because firefighters have extinguished past fires to save lives and property.
Regarding the critics of fire suppression, what do they want firefighters to do? We ask them to extinguish fires for a reason – they kill people and destroy property. Would we rather they just let fires burn and threaten our communities? How about more prescribed burns (fire agencies stopped calling them “controlled burns” long ago when many of them grew rapidly out of control)? That would only add more fire to a coastal and interior landscape that has already suffered too much fire, leading to the loss of native shrubland habitat, only to be replaced by more flammable weedy grasslands. Regardless, such an approach is impossible when people’s homes are scattered across the countryside. As an alternative, do we want to employ massive grinding machines to destroy the very natural landscape people enjoy, taking out habitat that supports one of the most biodiverse regions on earth?
We need to stop blaming firefighters for doing what we ask them to do and demonizing the natural environment in which we chose to live.
After misrepresenting nature around Napa and Santa Rosa, the article seamlessly flows into a discussion about climate change and conifer forests in the High Sierra and the Rocky Mountains as if the wildfires that burned in northern California are the same as higher elevation forest fires. They are not. Napa and Sonoma Counties do not have forests like those found in the Sierra Nevada, nor do they have the same climate. Is the climate changing? Yes, and its impacts will likely increase fire risk throughout California. But a one-size-fits-all explanation about how wildfires behave ignores critical factors that can help us create solutions that address problems specific to California.
The reason the Tubbs Fire was so destructive was not because of some kind of Frankenstein wildland created by firefighters, or climate change, or the failure “to cut down some trees and remove the underbrush.” The Tubbs Fire was so destructive because land planners have failed us, with firefighters left holding the bag.
Planning agencies need to be the first line of defense. Local leaders need to restrict development in fire prone areas, require strict fire codes for new developments throughout California, enforce proper defensible spaces regulations, and demand that older communities retrofit homes within ten years to increase their chances of surviving an ember storm. Such policies would cost significantly less than pretending we can stop wildfires in one of the world’s most fire-prone environments.
Trees, shrubs, grasses, or homes will all provide the necessary fuel for a wildfire. It’s part of California’s story, as are earthquakes and post-fire floods. So as we do with earthquakes and floods, our goal should be to reduce the damage when wildfires arrive, not continue to think we can prevent them from happening at all. And that goal starts at the planning department, not the fire house.
For more about protecting your home from wildland fires, please see our webpage on the topic.
Helpful information on the northern California fire from the New York Times.