A significant number of misconceptions were promoted during the 2009 Station Fire in Los Angeles County. We issued the following press release on 9/4/09 to help correct those misconceptions:
Large Fires Natural and Inevitable in Southern California
Excessive fuel treatments can increase fire danger
News articles and editorial commentary have suggested that the US Forest Service is partially responsible for the Station Fire in Los AngelesCounty because it failed to “clear underbrush” in the AngelesNational Forest. “The Station Fire is not the fault of federal land managers, firefighters, or environmental laws,” said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. “Huge wildfires will occur in Southern California regardless of how the government ‘manages’ its lands…they are an inevitable part of life here.”
Many fire scientists are deeply concerned by the amount of misinformation being released in response to the latest wildfires. “To state that the Station Fire could have been prevented if the Forest Service had only completed its planned “underbrush” clearance operations or prescribed burns in the National Forest indicates a profound misunderstanding of our region’s fire-prone environment,” Halsey said. “The San Gabriel Mountains are covered primarily by chaparral, not forest. There is no ‘underbrush’ in chaparral since the entire ecosystem is composed of native shrubs. Calling this area a ‘forest’ is a misnomer. Considering the condition of the vegetation and where the fire started, it is unreasonable to suggest that 1,500 acres of additional prescribed burning would have prevented the Station fire from scorching more than 145,000 acres.”
Current estimates from USGS indicate there are approximately 10,000 acres of fuel treatments and more than 160 miles of fuel breaks within the Station Fire perimeter. Many of these areas have been invaded by highly flammable, non-native weeds. Scientists are currently analyzing what impact, if any, these treatments had in modifying the fire’s spread.
Although news reports have continually emphasized that the Station Fire area had not burned for decades, about half of the area burned was within the average fire rotation period for wildlands in Los AngelesCounty. “The main reason this fire spread as quickly as it did,” Halsey said, “had more to do with current long term drought conditions and the steep terrain than the age of the vegetation. When conditions are this dry, anything will burn—whether it be grass, shrubs, or trees.”
Earlier this year, researchers Drs. Jon E. Keeley and Paul E. Zedler confirmed the importance of drought in large fires and that large fires have been occurring in Southern California long before we attempted to control them. They have shown that eight extremely large “megafires” (~150,000 acres) have occurred since the 19th century, and all were preceded by unusually long droughts, from 1–4 years. In 1889, the Santiago Canyon Fire burned more than 300,000 acres in San Diego and OrangeCounties. This remains the largest wildfire recorded in California history.
Science and firefighter experience have shown that the most effective way to protect lives and structures is through proper community design and fire preparation around homes, not trying to strip the backcountry of native plant communities—which people erroneously call for during wildfires. Trying to clear vast areas of native chaparral will not only destroy valuable public wildlands, but will increase fire danger by replacing iconic, native shrubs like manzanita with highly flammable weeds and destroy vital watersheds that are critical in protecting our region’s water supply and our communities from mudslides.
Rather than blaming land managers, fire agencies, or environmental laws for the fire, we need to take responsibility for our own properties, understand the natural environment in which we live, and value California’s most characteristic ecosystem, the chaparral.
As a trained wildland firefighter and a fire scientist, I found the Register’s editorial attempt (9/2/09) to blame the federal government’s land management policies for large fires in Southern California extremely naïve and counterproductive. You accuse government agencies for not regularly “clearing out the brush” on public wildlands and assume if they did so, there wouldn’t be large fires. Setting aside the fact that this is contrary to firefighter experience and scientific research, I am wondering how you suggest we do this. Have you considered the consequences? Such actions will not only destroy beautiful wildlands, they will increase fire danger by replacing iconic, native shrubs like manzanita with highly flammable weeds and destroy vital watersheds that are critical in protecting our water supply and our communities from mudslides. When conditions are dry, anything will burn – whether it be grass, shrubs, or trees. Large wildfires will occur in Southern California regardless of how the government “manages” its lands – they are an inevitable part of life here. To suggest we should try to force nature to adapt to us is foolhardy. The most effective way to protect lives and structures is through proper community design and fire preparation, not trying to strip protected public lands of vegetation.
Lessons from the 2007 fires that can be applied to the 2009 Station Fire
On 9/2/09 the Associated Press released an article with the headline, "Feds failed to clear brush in LA area." The headline and the way the article was written left the distinct impression that had the US Forest Service finished burning 1,700 acres it had planned, then the Station Fire could have been avoided. This is a classic example of how poor journalistic standards lead to jumping on and sensationalizing the usual, knee-jerk reaction by many politicians and members of the public to blame someone for wildfires. Unfortunately, the panic spread and government leaders pledged to provide more money to unnecessarily destroy more of the public's wildlands. Our press release above was a response to this unfortunate example of how information can be manipulated. The consequences are serious because such stories lend support to the creation of damaging land management policies.
So what about these prescribed burns and fuel treatments the USFS was accused of failing to perform? Would they have prevented the Station Fire? Of course not. Download the paper below to see that wildfire is much more complicated than the Associated Press is willing to explain in their articles.
The 2007 Southern California Wildfires: Lessons in Complexity
From the Abstract: The Slide and Grass Valley Fires of October 2007 occurred in forests that had been subject to extensive fuel treatment, but fire control was complicated by a patchwork of untreated private properties and mountain homes built of highly flammable materials. In a fashion reminiscent of other recent destructive conifer fires in California, burning homes themselves were a major source of fire spread. These lessons suggest that the most important advances in fire safety in this region are to come from advances in fire prevention, fire preparedness, and land-use planning that includes fire hazard patterns.
As wildfires have increased in frequency and extent, so have the number of homes developed in the wildland–urban interface. In California, the predominant approach to mitigating fire risk is construction of fuel breaks, but there has been little empirical study of their role in controlling large fires.We constructed a spatial database of fuel breaks on the Los Padres National Forest in southern California to better understand characteristics of fuel breaks that affect the behaviour of large fires and to map where fires and fuel breaks most commonly intersect. We evaluated whether fires stopped or crossed over fuel breaks over a 28-year period and compared the outcomes with physical characteristics of the sites, weather and firefighting activities during the fire event. Many fuel breaks never intersected fires, but others intersected several, primarily in historically fire-prone areas. Fires stopped at fuel breaks 46% of the time, almost invariably owing to fire suppression activities. Firefighter access to treatments, smaller fires and longer fuel breaks were significant direct influences, and younger vegetation and fuel break maintenance indirectly improved the outcome by facilitating firefighter access. This study illustrates the importance of strategic location of fuel breaks because they have been most effective where they provided access for firefighting activities.