The cover story of the July 25 edition of New Times ("Prevention and protection") tackled one of the most pressing issues we face on the Central Coast: how to best protect communities from wildfire. While the story covered some important aspects of this issue, there are also several key measures fire scientists have identified as the best ways to protect homes and people. These same scientists are also coming to new understandings about our local ecosystems, which can help improve how communities adapt to fire in the region.
The areas where wildfires typically burn in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties are generally covered with unique shrubland ecosystems called chaparral and coastal sage scrub. These shrublands are similar to those found in only four other places on the planet. While they are astoundingly diverse and complex, they are commonly misunderstood.
The natural fire cycle for our native shrublands is characterized by large and intense fires every 30 to 150 years. It is entirely normal for these fires to burn most or all of the aboveground vegetation, which will naturally regenerate from seed or by resprouting from underground plant structures. If these areas burn too frequently, native species can't keep up and are replaced by flammable non-native grasses and weeds that dry out earlier in the year and ignite more easily. These same invasive plants also tend to dominate where vegetation is cleared by heavy equipment, presumably to reduce fire risk.
Chaparral fire ecology is quite different than that of conifer forests where trees are the dominant vegetation, though both ecosystems are subject to misconceptions about what is normal or abnormal when it comes to fire. Forestry officials often claim that all of these forests are too dense due to past fire suppression. This assertion is not only disputed by many forest ecologists, but it's often used as justification for hastily approving commercial logging projects and other intensive vegetation removal activities.
For example, Los Padres National Forest officials recently approved two massive commercial logging projects near Mt. Pinos without preparing an environmental assessment or soliciting much public input. Both projects will allow a private timber company to remove trees of any size, including old-growth conifers used by endangered California condors—the same trees that fire scientists say should be left in place to reduce fire risk.
No matter what ecosystem we're considering, study after study and fire after fire have shown us that large habitat clearance projects far away from communities aren't just ecologically damaging, they're ineffective when it matters most: during extreme weather conditions. These are the conditions under which the vast majority of wildfires that cause damage to communities occur. We need only to look at the 2017 Thomas Fire or 2018 Camp Fire to see where fast, wind-driven fires moved through areas that were logged, cleared, or burned just years before without slowing down. In fact, those cleared areas actually allowed the fires to accelerate.
If these methods haven't been working, then why are lawmakers and agencies doubling down on them? Hundreds of millions of dollars will be thrown at lofty vegetation clearance projects over the next few years in California, while no funds are being directed to the mitigation measures fire science consistently shows to be the most effective.
For example, there are currently no funds being invested in programs that help homeowners in at-risk areas retrofit their structures with fire-safe materials. While this isn't a foolproof method, it can help improve the odds of a home surviving a wildfire according to fire scientists, including those at the Forest Service's own Fire Sciences Lab.
None of this is to say that vegetation management doesn't have its place. The science is clear that pruning vegetation and removing flammable materials immediately around homes is an important (though again, not foolproof) part of community protection. However, a recent report by The San Diego Union-Tribune also found that Cal Fire hasn't been enforcing defensible space requirements around homes in many counties, including San Luis Obispo. Strangely enough, this is in part due to a lack of funding to Cal Fire—one of the most well-funded agencies in the state—for these critical inspections.
More importantly for the future, local governments must find ways to reduce the number of new homes built in high fire risk areas. Just in the last 25 years, more than 5,000 homes have been built in state-designated high or very high fire hazard severity zones in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties combined—and there's no sign that this will stop anytime soon.
Finally, for existing developments and communities, we must ensure that people receive adequate warnings and know what to do in the event of a wildfire. This may require improving alert systems or even installation of outdoor sirens as a backup. And if evacuation isn't possible, communities should look at alternatives, such a creating large, fire-safe areas or "fire parks" where trapped people can find safe refuge as a few fortunate ones did in Paradise during the 2018 Camp Fire.
The information for what needs to be done to truly protect people from inevitable wildfires is available. Policymakers just need to pay attention and find ways to divert some of the massive amount of money being poured into ineffective methods of the past into smart mitigation measures known today. Δ
Bryant Baker is the conservation director for Los Padres ForestWatch; Richard Halsey is the director of the California Chaparral Institute; and Chad Hanson is the forest and fire ecologist for the John Muir Project. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com or write a response for publication and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.