The Wrong Focus of Fire Policy – Letter to California Governor Brown

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:
http://www.californiachaparral.com/images/Gov_Brown_2017_Wildfires.pdf

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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.
http://www.californiachaparral.com/images/Gov_Brown_2017_Wildfires.pdf

Sincerely,

Richard Halsey
Director
California Chaparral Institute

Kathryn Phillips
Director
Sierra Club California

Brian Nowicki
CA Climate Policy Director
Center for Biological Diversity

Figure 1. The devastation of the Fountaingrove II community in Santa Rosa during the 2017 Tubbs Fire was predictable. The city was warned this area was too dangerous to place homes. The area had burned in a wind-driven fire in 1964. In 2001, the city’s planning division issued a report concluding the development did not properly follow the city’s general plan’s goals and policies (Regalia et al. 2001).

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4 Responses to The Wrong Focus of Fire Policy – Letter to California Governor Brown

  1. “Threatens us most” – Who is “us” in this letter? This is a classic example of coastal Californians ignoring the lives of people who live in the Sierra. Fuel reduction treatments in the dense mixed conifer zone of the Sierra Nevada SAVE LIVES. Yes, there are more people in wildland-urban interface in coastal California, but for this reason should we ignore the lives of people in the Sierra?

    The letter also ignores the numerous ecological benefits of fuels reduction treatments (e.g., more resistant and resilient forests and carbon storage, improved water quality). Before you say this executive order won’t benefit you, ask where you get your water from and where does the water come from to grow your vegetables. Think outside your immediate surroundings.

    At best, this letter is misguided. At worst, it aims to keep Sierra forests outside of their range of historical variability, endangering people’s lives.

    • Nicholas, the number of homes and lives lost in the coastal zone is what we need to focus on. Until that is done, other fire hazard reductions need to take a back seat.

      Agreed, some of the forests on the western side of the Sierra have missed some fire cycles. But that is not where lives are most at risk.

  2. Your concept is a good thing to do, but it is not enough, as the fires first start in the over grown landscape and grow to extensive size before they become a major threat to communities. So the policy of Governor Brown to cut and clear lands that are over grown is best done to prevent out of control capacity of wild land fires, as was the case for the fires that devastated northern Santa Rosa. Those fires started many miles out of town and blew into town. Reduction of fuel load would have slowed it down, if there were more vineyards in the landscape it would have provided fire break capacity. In the case of building homes with fire resistant capability should be a building code concept and people should be warned of such fire threat and actually set up a sprinkler system of their roofs.

    • David, the governor’s initiative is focused on the Sierra Nevada, not where families suffered in the 2017 wildfires. Unfortunately, it is being driven by economic interests (timber companies, agencies that conduct clearance operations as part of their budgets, and forestry schools that obtain grants to clear habitat), not on the most effective policies to protect people.

      Regarding the Tubbs Fire, it started in a non-native grassy weedland next to vineyards. Much of the landscape burned was burned at low severity under oaks and conifer woodlands. As the wind-driven fires in 2017, 1964, and 1870 in nearly the same footprint demonstrated, it doesn’t matter what is available to burn. Wind-driven fires will only stop when the wind stops. Vegetation treatments under those conditions are usually worthless.

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