When chaparral is viewed primarily as "fuel" and not as a valued ecosystem, it is threatened by poor land management practices.
On the cover of the Fall 2007 issue of Fremontia (above left), the quarterly journal of the California Native Plant Society, a remarkable stand of manzanita chaparral was featured (located in the Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest). The area was clear cut by the US Forest Service shortly thereafter in an attempt to reduce “fuel” around an artificial tree plantation (above right). The plantation was established in 1956 with a mix of Coulter pines and a Frankenpine-like hybrid between Monterey and knobcone pines. Coulters are native to the area and have adapted to living within the chaparral plant community by having serotinous cones which open when exposed to fire: being surrounded by chaparral is their natural condition.
In recent USFS land management plans for Southern California, forest types were carefully distinguished and management strategies were offered for each. Silvicultural methods were detailed for seven forest types. Yet when it came to chaparral, types were neither distinguished nor was a vegetation management plan developed. It’s time to start treating chaparral as a valued ecosystem, not as an afterthought to trees.
"FUEL" TREATMENTS and WEEDS
The gradual invasion of non-native weeds into areas where chaparral has been "masticated" during three separate "fuel" treatment projects in the Painted Cave area, Santa Barbara, CA.
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 oldest treatment area is in the middle of the photo, the next in is in the background, and the most recent in the foreground. Note the massive soil disturbance. Such distruption 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 on our Panic Over Fire page.
The most effective method to protect homes from wildfire is within and directly around communities, not far out in wildland areas through the destruction of native habitat.
After investigating why homes burn in wildfires, research scientist Alexandra Syphard concluded, "We're finding that geography is most important—where is the house located and where are houses placed on the landscape."
The scientists gathered data on 700,000 addresses in the Santa Monica Mountains and part of San Diego County. They then mapped the structures that had burned in those areas between 2001 and 2010, a time of devastating wildfires in the region.
Buildings on steep slopes, in Santa Ana wind corridors and in low-density developments intermingled with wild lands were the most likely to have burned. Nearby vegetation was not a big factor in home destruction.
Looking at vegetation growing within roughly half a mile of structures, the authors concluded that the exotic grasses that often sprout in areas cleared of native habitat like chaparral could be more of a fire hazard than the shrubs. "We ironically found that homes that were surrounded mostly by grass actually ended up burning more than homes with higher fuel volumes like shrubs," Syphard said.
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 below). 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 below).
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."
The 2007 Grass Valley Fire, Lake Arrowhead, California. Map on the left show fuel treatments as orange and green polygons (Rogers et al. 2008). Map on the right shows location of 174 homes burned in the fire (Cohen and Stratton 2008).
Two important papers relating to the effectiveness of "fuel" treatments to protect lives and property
The 2007 Southern California Wildfires: Lessons in Complexity
From the Abstract: 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.
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.