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Fire ecology’s lessons for a more resilient future

Leilani Clark, CIVIL EATS

“Bigger homes, closer together is a recipe for more fuel on the landscape,” says Gregory L. Simon, an associate professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Colorado and author of Flame and Fortune in the American West. “In my opinion, we shouldn’t be building homes in areas of high fire risk at all. It’s not a matter of building fire-safe construction or zoning in certain ways. Simply because of the loss of life involved and the risk to first responders.

A few times a year, Edward Willie tends to the last remaining dogbane patch in Sonoma County. Situated on a three-acre preserve bordering Highway 101 in northern Santa Rosa, the patch is estimated to be centuries old and once spanned a five-mile radius. Neighboring tribes—mainly Pomo and Wapo—cultivated the fibrous, stalky native plants to make cordage for hunting and fishing nets and other tools.

In October, the Tubbs Fire burned hot and fast through the preserve on its way to hopping the six-lane highway, leaving behind a scorched landscape of Himalayan blackberry roots and the black skeletons of wild plum trees and coyote bush. Yet, for the most part, the dogbane survived. In some formerly vegetation-choked areas of the preserve, the spindly plants are all that remain.

“The dogbane needs fire—that’s what makes it grow tall and strong,” says Willie, a native Pomo, Walaeki, and Wintu teacher and cofounder of the Buckeye Gathering, an annual nature-based, paleo-technology meeting in Northern California. Researchers have found that dogbane sprouts quickly after fire and can become more abundant. Burning actually stimulates new, straight growth.

Less than a mile away from the preserve, block after block of ruined homes, businesses, and cars stand as a reminder of the conflagration that wreaked havoc across three Northern California counties. Despite the scope of the tragedy, Willie sees regeneration and even radical hope in the region’s fire ecology.

“It’s a happy [dogbane] patch now,” he says, as he demonstrates how to peel the taut fibers from the plant’s stalk. “It’s filled with life. New sprouts are already coming up. It’s a California plant, a fire plant. It was made to survive this.”

There is no silver lining to a fire like those that struck Sonoma and Napa counties in October, or the still-burning Thomas Fire in Southern California, which has burned 281,900 acres to become the largest California wildfire in modern recorded history. But for people like Willie and Erik Ohlsen, an ecological designer and director of the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, the North Bay fires are a wake-up call, a chance to proactively address the way the plants and animals of Northern California, and most of the Golden State, have co-evolved with fire—and to rebuild these communities with fire in mind.

Others go further, saying that poor planning and land management practices turned a natural feature of chaparral landscapes into a catastrophic force, leaving in its wake $3 billion in estimated damages. The city of Santa Rosa alone has already blown through $5 million from their general fund to fight the fires and the massive recovery effort has just begun.

Read more at: Fire Ecology’s Lessons for a More Resilient Future | Civil Eats

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A Plea to Journalists – Wildfires in California: please investigate poor land planning rather than denigrating the region’s iconic, native ecosystem

Posted October 31, 2017, by THE CALIFORNIA CHAPARRAL INSTITUTE BLOG

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.
http://google.org/crisismap/google.com/2017-tubbs-fire

Tubbs veg area south no fire

“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).

Tubbs distance with arrow

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.

Read more at: A Plea to Journalists – Wildfires in California: please investigate poor land planning rather than denigrating the region’s iconic, native ecosystem | The California Chaparral Institute Blog