The Los Angeles Times has been a champion in helping the public understand the truth when it comes to wildfire. But today, they made a mistake. They repeated numerous misconceptions that have held us back from crafting effective fire risk reduction policies.
The letter we wrote to them explaining why their article was inaccurate is below. If you are so moved, please write your own. It can make a difference. Limit it to 150 words or less and use this link to send it.
Dear Mr. Serna,
We are extremely discouraged over the inaccurate statements in today’s article, To guard against wildfire, it takes a neighborhood.
The focus on reducing wildfire risk from the house out was spot on. But the article is riddled with so many misconceptions that readers may end up making poor choices that could result in the loss of their homes during a fire.
More frustrating is the fact that we recently discussed this topic in an interview. We provided the most current science and references that could have been used to write a powerfully influential, accurate piece. Instead, the article reaffirms many of the same misconceptions that have held us back from solving the wildfire crisis, and even added a new one – debunking exterior sprinklers, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Here are the facts.
1. Exterior sprinklers have been extremely effective in saving homes and they can be installed quickly and at a reasonable cost. They saved 188 homes in the 2007 wind-driven Ham Lake Fire and have been used effectively in Canada and Australia. A quick search on the internet would have revealed this. We have a detailed analysis here.
We do not know why Jack Cohen dismisses exterior sprinklers out of hand, especially since he once described their effectiveness. In a video produced by the USFS Fire Lab, Dr. Cohen said (starting at mark 9:50),
“… because people, if they have the water supply, in fact can put their sprinklers on, wet things down, which definitely inhibits the firebrands, the flying embers that can potentially ignite this (vegetation)… putting the sprinklers out, it just guaranteed that anything like this that might have been fuel ends up being wetted, such that it’s no longer fuel.”
It would have been helpful to do a deeper investigation regarding the use of exterior sprinklers during the Woolsey Fire. Such a search would have revealed that exterior sprinklers were credited in saving the visitor center in Malibu Creek State Park, which was near the center of the Woolsey inferno.
We urge you to call Steve Yusi back and have a longer conversation with him concerning how he felt about Dr. Cohen’s rejection of his sprinkler system. Rather than being “deflated,” Steve was actually shocked that Dr. Cohen was unwilling to discuss the matter seriously or observe their home’s sprinkler system in action. Having visited Steve’s home and observed the system in action myself, we can assure you, it dramatically reduces the building’s ignitability, just as Dr. Cohen mentioned in the video.
The truth was not revealed in this case. Instead, a potentially life-threatening misconception was given a pass. Worse, readers are left with the impression that exterior sprinklers are a waste of time. The evidence clearly indicates otherwise.
2. “A century of aggressive fire suppression” has nothing to do with what we face in southern California in regards to wildfire threats. The evidence is clear on this as I wrote to you in my note of May 25, 2019 (below). As noted, the LA Times has communicated this many times in editorials and articles. We don’t understand why the current article didn’t at least provide some balance to help the readers sort things out for themselves.
In addition, the spread of non-native, invasive weeds due to excessive fire and soil disturbance is not limited to “some suburban foothills.” It is a statewide problem that is destroying native habitat and increasing fire risk. This is a major problem. The USFS recognizes this, as has the LA Times in many past stories. We have assembled data on this problem here.
3. Repeating the now discredited notion that somehow if we just did what Native Americans did, we wouldn’t have a wildfire problem defies modern science and is disrespectful to indigenous peoples. What did Dr. Cohen’s reference to Native Americans on the Great Plains have anything to do with what we face in southern California? That should have at least been questioned. In fact, the article itself contradicts this idea by indicating that extreme wildfire conditions are inevitable (Cohen), wind-driven fires ignore fuel breaks and lighter fuel loads (Camp Fire), and that the environment today is different than what Native American’s faced due to Climate Change.
Beyond the fact that Native Americans didn’t have to deal with a polluted atmosphere, millions of people on the landscape who have no connection with Nature, and highly flammable, non-native weeds and grasses, using their image in order to promote the desires and financial interests (habitat clearance) of the dominant society is cultural appropriation, plain and simple.
Fire is an extremely complicated subject and we understand how experts can shift the conversation in directions that fail to reveal the truth. But we are running out of time to deal with this situation due to the impact of the human-caused Climate Crisis. Therefore, it is imperative that everyone is questioned, especially those who seem to know the answers. This is why the kids are marching in the streets. They are done with adults and their failure, our failure, to fix the mess we’ve caused and our inability to break out of our paradigms.
Here’s our letter to the editor:
The focus on reducing wildfire risk from the house out was spot on. However, the article is riddled with so many misconceptions that readers may end up making poor choices that could result in the loss of their homes during a fire.
Exterior sprinklers which have been shown to be extremely effective in saving homes during wildfires in the US, Canada, and Australia, and can be installed quickly and at a reasonable cost.
Secondly “a century of aggressive fire suppression” has nothing to do with southern California’s wildfires. Rather, it is the excessive fire frequency that is causing the region to become more flammable due to the spread of non-native, highly flammable grasses.
Finally, repeating the now discredited notion that somehow if we just did what Native Americans did, we wouldn’t have a wildfire problem ignores how the environment has changed and is cultural appropriation plain and simple.