Standard Story #1

NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center

By Frank Landis, Conservation Chair

The Cal Fire Vegetation Treatment Program PEIR (version 4) is out. Comments are due in January, and you are more than welcome to help. I'll be aggregating the comments for our chapter, so if you have any, send them to conservation@cnpssd.org. Since we have had issues with this, I should note that I follow CNPS state policies when I represent CNPSSD, so if you want to publish a comment that contradicts these policies, I'm not going to include it. You can submit such comments under your own name.

Here though, I'm going to talk about the aftermath of the Wine County fires, and the stories blaming chaparral for the fire's impacts. The prime example was High Country News publishing "Shrub-choked wildlands played a role in California fires" on October 24, 2017. This was particularly awkward, as there wasn't that much chaparral in the area of the Tubbs fire, and a variety of other vegetation burned too, especially close to homes.

Still, this seems to be a standard story. Journalists have a tendency to treat wildfire, forest fire, bush fire, and brush fire as synonymous. They then synonymize brush with chaparral and often make the cognitive leap to blaming chaparral for the loss of homes during wild fires. This ends with the proposition that getting rid of chaparral will get rid of wildfire dangers.

There are a slew of critical questions that aren't asked in this standard story: Can you get rid of "brush" by clearing chaparral, or are the weeds that replace it just as hazardous? Is chaparral even the major problem? How big a fire break is needed to prevent flying embers from reaching a house? Instead, we have what I'm beginning to think of as "Standard Story #1," that, any wildfire is chaparral's fault, and the solution is to kill it.

Why do we have this story?

Let's be honest: I'm a chaparralian, so I'm biased. Still, chaparral is not my most favorite vegetation to walk through. Not on trails, though. That's the problem with chaparral: if you value your skin, clothes, and time, you don't spend your days bushwhacking through dense chaparral. Chaparral isn't human-scaled. It's too tall to step over, too short to walk under, and you typically have to bushwhack either up or down a steep slope. It's also home to rattlesnakes, ticks, poison oak, and a century ago, grizzly bears.

Worst of all, at least to our capitalist sensibilities, chaparral is worthless. We moderns don't see it the way the Indians did, as a source of firewood (chamise) arrow points (chamise), medicines (every plant), tools (mountain mahogany, toyon, laurel sumac, scrub oak) and so on. No, for us it is, at best, biomass to be bulldozed, masticated, and burned in a generator for electricity. In Allan Schoenherr's summary of development in California as "the cow, then the plow, then the bulldozer" (ranching, then farming, then development), chaparral was the vegetation a rancher burned repeatedly to get a bit of grassland to graze his cattle on, until erosion made it worthless. It's seldom worth farming, and even building in chaparral often involves stabilizing slide-prone slopes

This perceived worthlessness makes it easy to blame chaparral for wildfires, and this scapegoating is not new. Just for fun, I hauled out my copy of the 1989 symposium minutes The California Chaparral: Paradigms Reexamined. The preface talks about 35 chaparral paradigms from the previous 50 years, all of which were mauled and modified or disproved in that symposium. They included the ideas that chaparral senesced after 30 years, that it was a "born to burn," and so on.

Some media outlet faithfully parrots these discredited paradigms on every major fire. My assumption is that it's a story they know how to tell. No research is required, it's part of a standard formula that includes contact information for charities and stories of heartbreak and miracle survivals. Sound familiar? That's why I call it standard story #1.

So what's the harm of using this formula? Let's go through the unasked questions.

What replaces chaparral if it's cleared? If you clear chaparral thoroughly enough or it burns frequently enough, it gets replaced by weed fields and non-native grasses. These have less biomass to burn, but they are much more ignitable, meaning that fires are more likely to start in them. When grass fires start, the flames move more quickly than they do in chaparral. That, paradoxically, makes them more dangerous, not less. Worse, these annual plants have minimal root systems, so when heavy rains hit grassy hills, there's erosion and mudslides. I'd argue that grass fires and mudslides are worse than a chaparral fire over time, and this doesn't even count the loss of carbon sequestration from replacing long-lived woody plants with annual forbs.

Is chaparral even the problem? In the Tubbs Fire, it's not clear that there was chaparral close to the houses that burned in Santa Rosa. In many other "brush fires," the view from the news camera often shows weeds and landscaping burning, not chaparral. I've learned to not expect reporters to know the difference between eucalyptus, fennel, palms, and chaparral plants. Heck, reporters so frequently grab hunks of grass by the side of the road and claim it's brush that I've given up trying to call them on it. Still, if they want to understand why I don't trust them to be correct about any issue, it's these annual displays of ignorance that put the question in my mind. How many other topics have they not bothered to get informed about?

On a more formal basis, chaparral does tend to burn with massive, stand-replacing fires under conditions of prolonged low humidity and high winds. These conditions, when the Santa Anas howl here, are also when the vast majority of homes get burned (based on research by Alex Sylphard, Jon Keeley, and CJ Fotheringham). The problem is that almost everything burns under such conditions. Worse, it's impossible to stop wind-driven wildfires, although firefighters can defend some homes.

The majority of fires aren't wind-driven. They spread slowly, are fairly easy to contain, and seldom burn homes. The tactics that work on such fires are utterly inadequate to stop a Santa Ana wind-driven catastrophe. Worse, we simply don't have the resources to support a fire department that could even theoretically fight such a fire. I'm not sure that even if we turned the Defense Department into the Wildland Fire Department and rigged all bombers to drop retardant, whether we could do it even then. And there's no point, because such fires don't happen every year. The only apparent solution is to clear the vegetation in advance.

Or is it? Greg Rubin, in The California Native Landscape (p. 331), captioned a picture of the remnants of a burned house as "clearing everything to bare ground around this house only created a perfect bowling alley for embers." This gets to the central point: mere clearance of surrounding vegetation doesn't mean your house and the surrounding trees won't remain the biggest things up in the wind catching embers.

How far can an ember fly and start a fire? So far as I know, the current record is 12 miles, in the Bunyip Ridge Fire, one of the Australian "Black Saturday Bushfires" of February 9, 2009. On that day, winds were over 60 mph, temperatures in nearby Melbourne were over 115oF, and relative humidities were as low as 2 percent.

Do you want to clear 12 miles of land on the windward sides of every single home? That's 141% of the 8.5 mile average commuting distance for San Diegans. If you want that much barren ground around you, the simplest solution is to move to Los Angeles, not to turn California into a wasteland.

Unfortunately, the alternative to the standard story isn't simple. It's understandable why news reporters pick on chaparral, but the standard story won't make people safer. Wholesale chaparral clearance causes other problems.

Making people and homes safer involves a combination of:

  • Good urban planning, which means not putting people in dangerous locations.
  • Good home design and landscaping, to make places as ember resistant and defensible as possible. We do need defensible spaces around homes, to give firefighters a place to fight fires safely, especially when the Santa Anas are not blowing. 
  • Public education, so that people understand the real risks and can take appropriate actions to minimize them, more than doing the very American thing of scapegoating and throwing money around after a disaster.

In this, journalists do play a role, and so do we. The stories journalists tell can, to some degree, defuse the scapegoating, highlight planning problems before they're implemented, and educate people about home design, landscaping, and preparing for fire season. Our job is to help them do this.

Perhaps one day there will be a better formula than standard story #1. I can dream, at least.