We’ve sent an important letter today (with 12 recommendations) to Governor Brown regarding his recent Executive Order on fire.
The basic problem is that the order focuses on forests, many miles away from where wildfires threaten us most. It makes no sense.
The first portion of our letter is pasted below. You can download a full copy of it including our recommendations and an enlightening primer on fire in California here:
Dear Governor Brown,
We have reviewed your May 10, 2018, Executive Order on forests and fire. We are writing to urge you to develop a response to our increasingly flammable environment by focusing on the factors that led to the loss of so many lives and homes in the 2017 wildfires, not on forests far from our communities most at risk.
The current focus on dead trees in forests is especially misguided because all of the wildfires most devastating to communities in California had nothing to do with such forests. And while it is reasonable to remove hazard trees immediately adjacent to roads and homes, it makes no sense to spend millions of dollars to treat entire forests while the actual fire threat facing thousands of families occurs very far away from these forests.
We urge you to break from the conventions that have led to the current crisis and to turn California toward a more rational and effective response to the threat of wildfire. What we have been doing, trying to control the natural environment, is not working.
While large, wind-driven, high-intensity wildfires and post-fire debris flows are an inevitable part of California, the devastation to our lives and communities is not inevitable. We can choose to reject the predominant view that there is little we can do to stop the destruction to communities caused by wind-driven fires, but it will require a significant change in thinking.
Part of that change in thinking requires us to realize that the unacceptable loss of nearly 10,000 structures and 45 lives in the 2017 wildfires and the losses caused by the 2018 Montecito debris flow have little to nothing to do with forests or the treatment of wildland habitat. Most of these losses resulted from building flammable homes on flammable terrain, not the condition of the surrounding natural environment.
The current approach sees nature as the “fuel.” Eliminate the “fuel,” the thinking goes, and we can control the fires. Consequently, millions of dollars are spent clearing habitat and removing dead trees. The focus on fuel has become so powerful that some incorrectly view all of our forests, native shrublands, and even grasslands as “overgrown” tangles ready to ignite, instead of valuable natural resources. As evidenced by the 2017 wildfires, the wildland fuel approach is failing us.
We must look at the problem from the house outward, rather than from the wildland in. The state must take a larger role in regulating development to prevent local agencies from ignoring known wildfire risks as the city of Santa Rosa ignored with the approval of the Fountaingrove community in the 1990s (Fig.1). And the state should support retrofitting homes with proven safety features that reduce flammability – external sprinklers, ember-resistant vents, fire-resistant roofing and siding – and focus vegetation management in the immediate 100 feet surrounding homes.
We must address the conditions that are actually causing so many lost lives and homes – wind-driven wildfires and the embers they produce that ignite flammable structures placed in harm’s way. We have provided a list of recommendations below that will help us do so.
As we incorporate this new way of thinking into our wildfire response, we must also endeavor to implement the changes we seek.
After the 2007 wildfires in southern California, former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman and others formed the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum. Chief Bowman introduced the Forum during a press conference on February 19, 2008, by dropping a large stack of fire task force documents from previous decades on the podium, documents filled with unrealized recommendations.
Eight years later, during the May 25, 2016 meeting of the California Fire Service Task Force on Climate Impacts, Chief Bowman distributed the After Action Report for the 1993 Southern California Wildfire Siege. As he did after the 2007 fires, he pointed out that the report’s ninety-five recommendations for improving future responses to major fire incidents were nearly identical to those recommended by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission after the 2003 wildfires. Again, most of those recommendations remain unrealized.
We urge you to break with the conventions that have led to the crisis and focus fire risk reduction efforts where it matters most – directly on our homes and communities, not forests far from where most of us live. This will allow us to tailor fire policy to the needs of our families most at risk.
Please see our full letter with recommendations to you at the link below. Hard copies available upon request.
California Chaparral Institute
Sierra Club California
CA Climate Policy Director
Center for Biological Diversity