Silver Fire Defies Popular Beliefs About Wildfire
by Burning Within the Deadly 2006 Esperanza Fire Scar
According to conventional wisdom, the seven-year-old vegetation
was not supposed to burn
SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Defying the fundamental assumption underlying Cal Fire’s new vegetation treatment proposal (that older “overgrown” vegetation is the cause of large wildfires), the devastating Silver Fire near Banning, California, burned through invasive weeds and young, desert chaparral recovering from the deadly 2006 Esperanza Fire (see attached map). Such high fire frequency will lead to the spread of more weeds and the loss of native chaparral.
Proponents of backcountry vegetation treatments have maintained that the cause of large wildfires is unnatural “fuel” build up due to past fire suppression efforts. Younger fuels, they maintain, will not carry a fire. For example, in commenting on the July 2013 Mountain Fire near Idyllwild, UC Riverside geographer, Dr. Richard Minnich, maintained that allowing fires to consume as many acres as possible would increase the protection of nearby communities for fifty years (Press Enterprise 7/18/13). The loss of 26 homes and the burning of young vegetation by the Silver Fire contradicts Dr. Minnich’s contention that much of southern California is in pretty good shape because older vegetation burned off during a spate of wildfires over the past decade (KPCC 8/10/13).
While sounding intuitively correct, such fuel-focused perspectives are not supported by the most recent scientific research. With a rapidly drying climate and an increasing population causing more ignitions, whether the fuel be weedy grasses, young or old native shrubs, or trees, southern California wildfires will likely continue to be large and intense.
Like earthquakes, large wildland fires in southern California are inevitable. Instead of trying to prevent them by clearing large areas of backcountry habitat, we need to use strategies that have been proven to be the most effective in protecting lives, property, and the natural environment from wildland fire. Namely, create communities that are firesafe through hazard relevant zoning, fire resistant construction and retrofits, appropriate defensible space, and strategic fuel breaks (within 1,000 feet of homes) in conjunction with firefighter safety zones. For those communities in indefensible locations, evacuate the residents, then focus firefighting resources on communities that are defensible. Such an approach needs to be incorporated into Cal Fire’s proposed Vegetation Treatment Plan.
Additional information regarding the most recent science on fire is available on our website:
Research rejects past fire suppression and “unnatural” fuel build-up as factors in the size and occurrence of large fires in southern California
A new scientific review and five major studies now refute the often repeated notion that past fire suppression and “unnatural” fuel build-up are responsible for large, high-intensity fires in southern California. Such fires are a natural feature of the landscape. Fire suppression has been crucial in protecting native shrubland ecosystems that are suffering from too much fire rather than not enough.
The research has also shown that the creation of mixed-age classes (mosaics) of native chaparral shrublands through fuel treatments like prescribed burns will not provide reliable barriers to fire spread; however, strategic placement may benefit fire suppression activities.
The research will be presented during a special California Board of Forestry hearing, August 8, 2013, 8am, at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel, in Ventura, California.
We all want to prevent another loss of firefighters like the 19 young men killed during the Yarnell Fire in Arizona. And like the 5 killed during the 2006 Esperanza Fire.
Change the objective.
Protect lives (including firefighters) and property rather than attempt to stop wildfires in the backcountry. The two are often mutually exclusive.
Spending millions of dollars engaging in battlefield-like tactics against an uncontrollable force and attempting to modify the natural environment miles from developments is not working. Instead, we need to create communities that are firesafe through zoning, fire resistant construction and retrofits, appropriate defensible space, and strategic fuel breaks (within 1,000 feet of homes) in conjunction with firefighter safety zones. For those communities in indefensible locations, evacuate the residents and then focus firefighting resources on communities that are defensible.
The Esperanza house (lower left), an isolated structure in the backcountry on a hilltop above a steep canyon. Indefensible. Five firefighters were killed defending it in 2006. A statement made at the time: It was a “freak area ignition.”