People are asking what they can do – and blaming those who they think didn’t do enough – before the fire is even put out. I heard that in the past people accepted that fires would happen every year and didn’t worry too much but viewed the fires more as entertainment. That was probably in the days when there were not so many people living so close to the forest, and those who did were a hardier sort. Now, so many new developments have brought people who don’t understand or don’t want to think about what it means to live right next door to native chaparral. They are searching for someone to blame, and recently they have settled on the Forest Service. It must be the fault of the managers, right?
Not so fast, says Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute: “The Station Fire is not the fault of federal land managers, firefighters, or environmental laws. Huge wildfires will occur in Southern California regardless of how the government ‘manages’ its lands. They are an inevitable part of life here.” You can read more about Rick Halsey and his California Chaparral Institute, but he is someone who I trust. As a teacher, fire fighter, author, and passionate advocate for California chaparral, he focuses on current research and his own experiences.
My own interest in chaparral started when I took a plant taxonomy course at Occidental College and had the good fortune of having Dr. Jon Keeley as my professor. Jon spends his time studying the interactions between wildfire and our California wildlands. I learned then about the different strategies chaparral use to recover from fire (and I’m using chaparral broadly to include all plant communities in our Mediterranean climate forests). Over the last 30 years of living in California, I have witnessed fire recovery first hand. In the early 80’s we had beehives in one of the canyons off Kanan Dume Road. After the big Malibu fire, I could track the recovery of the chaparral by the taste and color of the honey. Initially, in the spring we got the most wonderful, yellow-colored honey from native sunflowers, but no sage honey. Over about five years the amount of sunflower and sage shifted, until the early spring honey was back to all sage. I saw the incredible diversity of “fire-followers,” those flowers that only grow after a fire. I was amazed to see Yucca whipplei plants rolling down the hill, having been severed from their roots by the fire, sending up flower stalks and blooming successfully. And all of the sumacs send up new stalks using energy stored in their root system (this is why it is futile to cut down a sumac bush as it will just resprout from the base and come back even larger than before).
So, back to the Station Fire. Why is this fire so large, and what can we do once it is out? And is it true that the Forest managers should have done more “brush clearing” to prevent the fires? According to research by Drs. Jon Keeley and Paul Zedler, drought is probably the major reason for this fire and its large size. Their research showed that there have been eight extremely large megafires (150,000 acres or larger) since the 19th century and all were preceded by unusually long droughts. As Rick Halsey points out, “The main reason this fire spread as quickly as it did had more to do with the current long term drought conditions and steep terrain than the age of the vegetation.”
The San Gabriels are among the steepest and youngest of mountain ranges. With our Mediterranean climate, chaparral plants are uniquely adapted to live here and thrive with occasional burning. Trying to the strip the back country of native plants is most ineffective – think of the consequences from erosion alone. Before the County Flood Control District built the system of debris basins, foothills communities were regularly inundated by mudflows, the most disastrous of which occurred after fires. Not only would we suffer loss of life and property from mudflows, the damage to the watershed would result in even more water running off rather than percolating to refill our aquifers.
Homeowners can and should keep dry dead plants away from houses, but we have to stop making plants the villains. A laurel sumac bush kept watered and pruned is as fire resistant as a camellia and should be just as prized. In my neighborhood, we have just formed a Fire Safe Council to educate ourselves about best practices. What we have learned is how important it is to selectively remove certain plants – like pine and eucalyptus trees – and that making your house fire-safe is just as important, and maybe more important – than brush clearance. Enclose your roof vents and the sides of your porch. Use fire-resistant roofing. Windows should be double-paned. Keep tree limbs from overhanging your roof (oaks excepted). Every wildland community should incorporate as a Fire Safe Council.
Lastly, what to tell all those who want to volunteer…to do something? I would tell them to stay home and be patient. Support organizations whose work benefits the Forest (disclaimer – I am president of one non-profit and Executive Director of another that work to improve our watersheds and preserve wildlands). Wait until the Forest Supervisor says it is safe to go into the Forest again, and don’t pester land managers with demands that you be let in. Right now the recently burned lands are very fragile and more dangerous than usual. And please don’t go spreading seed (a topic for another day) – the chaparral has its own seed bank and will recover if we let it.
A final word from Rick Halsey: “Rather than blaming land managers, fire agencies, or environmental laws for the fire, we need to take responsiblity for our own properties, understand the natural environment in which we live, and value California’s most characteristic ecosystem, the chaparral.”