By Richard W. Halsey Modified from an article appearing in the San Diego Union-Tribune October 31, 2007
The vast amount of acreage burned and the tragic losses caused by the 2007 Southern California wildfires were not the fault of failed fire suppression policies, “overgrown” chaparral or environmental regulations.
The promotion of such simplistic explanations only complicate efforts to develop a successful strategy to help Californians adapt to one of the most fire-prone environments on Earth. We can, however, create communities that can safely coexist with large wildland fires if we have the courage and humility to objectively examine our own perceptions and listen to what science has to offer.
How to reduce fire risk is not a one-answer question. It involves multiple variables and values that can only be properly addressed by examining the entire fire environment. Fire risk reduction is a land-planning issue, not something that can accomplished by simply grinding up native wildlands in a quixotic attempt to control nature. In order of importance, the three critical factors involved in reducing community fire risk are location, building design, and appropriate defensible space.
A significant number of homes that burned in San DiegoCounty's Witch fire had proper defensible space, but failed in placement or design. Developers had placed some of these homes at the top of canyons where wildfire heat is funneled like a blast furnace. This is inexcusable. When you put a flammable structure in a flammable corridor it's like putting a bowling pin in a bowling alley – ultimately it is going to be taken out.
Fortunately, some counties have firefighters directly involved in the land-planning process. They have helped to ensure new wildfire death-traps will no will longer be built. However, because folks retire and people forget, such positions must be codified into county law. Firefighters need to have the final word in the planning approval process.
While new building codes are doing an excellent job in creating more fire-safe communities, there are still a large number of older structures designed to burn. In high fire-risk areas, these need to be immediately retrofitted. Embers can travel a mile or more and ignite a home surrounded by 300 feet of ice plant. Homes burn because they are flammable. It makes sense then to do what we can to reduce their flammability.
Did many homes burn because vegetation was too close? Yes, this is why wildland fires are called wildland fires. Stream channels provided wicks for flames to travel into communities, burning shrubs created extreme blasts of heat, and dried, flammable grass ignited large areas instantaneously. But fire will exploit the weakest link, so it is critical to not only create properly managed defensible space zones around structures, but also to make sure the structures themselves are not tinderboxes.
The social aspect surrounding the three components of the fire risk reduction equation is also vitally important. Citizens must become fire literate. This means not only understanding the fire environment in which we live, but taking personal responsibility to ensure their homes are capable of surviving a firestorm in order to protect ourselves and the firefighters we expect to help us. Every community in Southern California within the wildland/urban interface needs to establish a neighborhood “fire” watch program. Beyond encouraging everyone to do their share in creating a fire-safe environment, a cadre of able-bodied adults would be trained to stay behind to assist fire suppression efforts after other residents have been evacuated. Although certainly not without controversy, this approach has been successfully implemented in another highly fire-prone environment, Australia.
The basic facts supporting this “go early or stay” approach are simple. Early evacuations are often not possible, and there will never be enough professional firefighters to protect every structure during a large, severe firestorm. Staying behind to defend a home from fire is serious business and must not be attempted by untrained individuals. A homeowner was killed and his son, along with several firefighters, were seriously injured while defending a structure during San Diego County's 2007 Harris fire. However, within properly prepared environments, well-trained community volunteers can be extremely helpful in preventing the loss of many homes.
In addition to addressing the fire-risk-reduction equation, it is vital to understand the facts about Southern California fire patterns. Large wildfires are not abnormal for the region. Fires in the late 1800s burned much more acreage than blackened in this year's blazes. While some individuals can spin a convincing argument that large chaparral fires are the result of an “unnatural” fuel build up due to past fire suppression practices, scientific research over the past 20 years does not support such opinions.
What is unnatural is the dramatic increase in fire frequency in Southern California over the past century. Nearly all fires in the region are caused by human activity. This has resulted in too much fire on the landscape rather than not enough.Nearly two-thirds of the area burned by the 2003 Paradise fire and one-forth of the 2003 Cedar fire in San DiegoCounty burned again during the 2007 Witch fire. This has set the stage for an ecological disaster in which native plant communities will no longer have the resiliency to recover.
With all the “evil” brush eliminated and replaced by grassy weeds will we be any safer? Not likely. As the two-million-acre-plus grass fires in Oklahoma and Texas demonstrated in 2005-06, wind-driven flames do not need shrubs to create catastrophic firestorms. The fire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters one year ago in RiversideCounty was started in an area filled with non-native, grassy weeds.
Are grass fires easier to control than chaparral or forest fires? Under non-extreme weather conditions yes, but the myopic focus on vegetation fails to address the entire fire risk reduction equation. Trying to rid ourselves of flammable wildlands is not a realistic solution. Vegetation re-grows quickly, be it grass or shrubbery, making the return of large, Santa Ana wind-driven fires inevitable.
Rather than attempting to fireproof the landscape, an easier and more permanent solution is to fireproof our communities. Instead of avoiding difficult questions and pointing fingers, we all need to sit down and develop the most effective strategy to address the three basic components of the fire risk reduction equation: location, building design and appropriate defensible space.
Firefighters, scientists and advocates for the natural environment can reach common ground, but it will require all of us to step outside of ourselves for a time, consider our options, and think about the kind of world we want to create.
The Forum's Land Use/Fuel Management issue paper that addresses how to protect your home in a fire prone environment provides the answer to, "Why did my house burn down even though I thought I had complied with all fire safety regulations?"
Documents relating to developing "Go-early-or-stay" communities