I Thought Prescribed Fire Was the Answer
In the last five years everyone on the west coast has become familiar with fire. Often it's from a personal experience with a particular fire, one that made us feel vulnerable. I visit homes in the Santa Monica Mountains to help people prepare their houses for wildfires as part of the Free Home Ignition Zone Evaluation Program run by the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains. Residents often tell me stories which begin like this, “When the Woolsey Fire came through…”
For me that fire was the Tubbs Fire, when my family awoke to friends frantically calling us to make sure we’d seen the evacuation orders. That was when I learned what a “firestorm” was. And that was when I really started paying attention to the public narrative about fire.
The public narrative had a lot to say about why this fire (and the next one, and the next one) was so large, so devastating, so costly. I heard that years of fire suppression by the forest service had created an abundance of fuel which needed to be reduced.
In a forestry course, I learned about the impacts of logging and “total wildfire suppression” on natural fire regimes. Later, I learned about “jute netting” and “wattles”, ways to prevent erosion and loss of hillsides during rain in the months following a fire. I learned about creating a firebreak in preparation for a prescribed burn.
This September, I started a GrizzlyCorps position at the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (SMM). In my interview I asked Antoine Kunsch, the Community Resiliency Coordinator, if the organization ever did prescribed burns. “No,” he said. “The chaparral and coastal sage scrub communities in southern California are very different from northern California. Fire suppression didn’t work down here”. When I accepted the position, I had a lot of reading to do.
Covered by chaparral and coastal sage scrub vegetation types in the comfortable Mediterranean climate, the Santa Monica Mountains are a biological hotspot. Beautiful oaks, toyon, mountain lions, lizards, frogs, even salmon find a home in the SMM. Lightning is very infrequent so naturally started fires were also infrequent. The plants that grow here are adapted to this pattern of fire-- some resprout after fire and others germinate from seeds stored in the soil seed bank. As fires have become more frequent, these native species do not have enough time to rebuild their seedbanks and are at serious threat for long term survival. I wanted to learn more, so I called an expert, Dr. Marti Witter, fire ecologist of the National Parks Service.
Talking to Dr. Witter, I got the feeling that she was happy about a young person interested in fire ecology. She told me about her roundabout journey of getting into fire ecology in the SMM, from getting her PhD in evolutionary genetics to marrying an ecologist focused on Mediterranean ecosystems, working while raising children, and then accepting her current position as fire ecologist with the NPS. Now preparing for retirement, Dr. Marti Witter is a wealth of knowledge.
“We have a pretty much wholly human driven fire regime,” Dr. Marti Witter told me. Lightning is rare in the SMM and so when lightning does occur it is usually with rain that does not create large fires. She explained how the Woolsey Fire is a perfect example of the typical wildfire in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was caused by human infrastructure failure in the fall when the vegetation is driest, with strong Santa Ana wind conditions which caused rapid spread. It was exacerbated by the Camp Fire in northern California and the Hill Fire in Ventura County occurring simultaneously, reducing the amount of firefighting resources available. Finally, years of previous drought had caused chaparral dieback throughout the mountains that likely contributed to its extreme rate of spread.
“Suppression and build up of fuels is not the problem,” Dr. Marti Witter made clear. Power lines, arson, sparks from vehicles… humans have increased the amount of wildfire in southern California dramatically. While all Mediterranean climates, except Chile, are fire dependent, ours is not the only one suffering from an increase in wildfires (think of the massive fires in Australia). The state of California is focused on reducing fuels, but fuel buildup in shrublands that are burning so often is not the problem. While shrublands make up 15% of the state, they disproportionately account for 55% of area burned in fires that caused structure loss and 60% of area burned of fires that did not burn structures.1
“California has an incredibly diverse landscape. When looking at wildfire we must remember H.L. Mencken’s quote, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’” – Dr. Marti Witter (from Frank Landis)
Adding more fire (prescribed burning) to the chaparral does not make sense ecologically because the plants need more time between fires to regrow their seedbank and carbon stores for resprouting. It does not make sense from a fire prevention viewpoint either because annual grasses that act as “flashy fuels” often replace shrubs after too many fires and create a positive feedback loop, increasing the frequency of fire. Prescribed fire makes sense in some parts of California but not in the SMMs.
Dr. Marti Witter helped me realize that while there is no silver bullet for wildfire in California, there is a silver lining. Since humans are causing fires, we can also prevent them. The most effective management tool for preventing structure loss due to wildfire statewide is to put more funding and energy into home-hardening and defensible space, particularly in shrublands. With fewer fires and better home fire resistance, southern California would be more sustainable and fire resilient.
Schwartz, Mark W., and Alexandra D. Syphard. 2021. Fitting the solutions to the problems in managing extreme wildfire in California. Environmental Research Communications 3: 9pp. DOI 10.1088/2515-7620/ac15e1
Huge Thank You to Dr. Marti Witter!