Many in the fire science community are disappointed by the recent reporting in High Country News (HCN) on the tragic fires in northern California (Shrub-choked wildlands played a role in California fires, HCN 10/24/2017).
Portraying the ecology of the region as “choked” by native shrublands not only demonizes California’s richly biodiverse, characteristic habitat, the chaparral, but fails to come close to explaining why and how the fires occurred. Little effort was made in the article to help readers understand the situation. Instead, the article simply repeated hackneyed phrases over-used to describe fires in the western US.
Every fire is different. Large, high-intensity wildfires have long been a natural feature of these chaparral landscapes. What has changed is that we have put people in harm’s way.
A quick overview on Google Earth of what burned in the devastating Tubbs Fire would have revealed that it was not “shrub-choked wildlands,” but rather a complex patchwork of non-native grasslands, oak woodland, conifers, chaparral, and unfortunately, a lot of homes intermixed.
“Shrub-choked wildlands?” The area burned in the Tubbs Fire was actually a complex patchwork of non-native grasslands, oak woodland, conifers, chaparral, and unfortunately, a lot of homes intermixed. Most of this area shown above burned within the southern portion of the Tubbs Fire, including the neighborhood of Coffey Park (in the lower left hand corner).
The distance of the devastated neighborhood of Coffey Park (tip of arrow) was approximately 1.6 miles from any significant amounts of wildland vegetation (beginning of arrow). Brown/amber colored areas under arrow indicate non-native grasslands burned during the Tubbs Fire.
Blaming nature and past efforts by firefighters to save lives and property through fire suppression ignores the actual problem – poorly planned communities in high fire risk areas.
Ironically, the article quotes a source that admits large fires have occurred before, but the source goes on to ignore the full history to support his contention that the recent fires were unusual, a classic logical fallacy. Yes, the article reads, there were large fires in the past (when we were suppressing fires), but the recent fires are different because we have been suppressing fires.
Memories are short. Despite claims to the contrary, wildland fires along California’s west coast and inland valleys have not changed much since the 1964 Hanly Fire, a blaze which burned nearly the same territory as the Tubbs Fire but was even larger. What has changed is human demography.