The Fallacy of "Fuel" Treatments
The West Camino Cielo fuel break above the Santa Barbara County coast. This 300 foot wide strip of weeds have been expanded over the years. The 2017 Whittier Fire started on the north facing slope to the right and raced to the ridge and over the fuel break. The fire continued (as seen in the background auburn-colored area) almost to the coastline (out of the photo to the left). This failed, massive fuel break has caused significant ecological damage (habitat loss, spread of flammable, invasive weeds, etc.) and has cost millions of dollars to create and maintain. Photos below show a close-up of the tree farm area. We were able to prevent the extension of this habitat clearance project to the west, far from any community at risk and right through some of largest stands of a sensitive manzanita species.
When chaparral is viewed primarily
as "fuel" and not as a valued ecosystem, it is threatened
by poor land management practices
"FUEL" TREATMENTS and WEEDS
As shown in photo above, the spread of highly flammable, invasive, nonnative weeds can be the unfortunate consequence of "fuel" treatments whereby pristine chaparral stands are clear cut by large masticating machines. The older treatment area is in the background, now filled with weeds. The most recent treatment is in the foreground. Note the massive soil disturbance. Such disruption of the soil destroys the ancient soil crust that teams with life and allows the spread of weeds.
Unfortunately, many continue to deny the fact that chaparral can be type-converted into a weed lot by such activity. For example, here is a quote from a Santa Barbara New Press editorial on 9/11/10 that criticized those who are concerned about the excessive removal of native habitat in the Painted Cave area:
"Nowhere in my local experience have I seen any type conversion (one plant community replacing another in an area) or permanent noxious weed invasion directly attributed to fire hazard reduction."
The evidence shows otherwise.
For additional photos of the Painted Cave chaparral removal project in Santa Barbara and other nearby areas being damaged by the excessive removal of native habitat, please go to the Los Padres NF album. We also have more information on the Painted Cave situation here.
For photos of similar damage in the Cleveland National Forest, please see our Trabuco Ranger District album.
"Fuel" Treatments Fail When it Matters Most
In the 2007 Grass Valley Fire, the US Forest Service and the Natural Resource Conservation Service conducted several fuel treatments around the community of Lake Arrowhead (see left hand map above). Reportedly, the fuel treatments performed as expected by allowing firefighters to engage the fire directly and reducing the rate of spread and intensity (Rogers et al. 2008). However, the end result for the community was much less positive. One hundred and seventy-four homes were lost (See right hand map above).
The comprehensive analysis of the Grass Valley Fire by US Forest Service scientists (Cohen and Stratton 2008) concluded that,
"Our post-burn examination revealed that most of the destroyed homes had green or unconsumed vegetation bordering the area of destruction. Often the area of home destruction involved more than one house. This indicates that home ignitions did not result from high intensity fire spread through vegetation that engulfed homes. The home ignitions primarily occurred within the HIZ due to surface fire contacting the home, firebrands accumulating on the home, or an adjacent burning structure. Home ignitions due to the wildfire were primarily from firebrands igniting homes directly and producing spot fires across roads in vegetation that could subsequently spread to homes."
California Wildlands are Not the Unmanaged, Unburned
Landscapes You are Led to Believe
References relating to the effectiveness of "fuel" treatments
to protect lives and property
The 2007 Southern California Wildfires:
Lessons in Complexity
"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."
The Impact of Fuel Breaks
"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... 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... This study illustrates the importance of strategic location of fuel breaks because they have been most effective where they provided access for firefighting activities."