Myths persist about wildfires in Southern California

There are a number of serious misconceptions about wildland fire in a 10/27/13 reflective article in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the 2003 Cedar Fire.

1. The Cedar Fire was not the largest forest fire in California history. The largest wildfire in California history was the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire. This is a well known fact in the fire science community and could have been discovered by typing into Google, “largest fire in California.” The Cedar Fire also wasn’t a “forest” fire. Except for a few areas in Cuyamaca, nearly all that burned was chaparral. This is an important distinction because the public has a difficult time understanding that fire acts differently in various ecosystems. More on the Santiago Canyon Fire here:

2. Fires in southern California do not “naturally” burn in a “patchwork pattern.” Chaparral has a crown fire regime. When it burns, especially during Santa Ana wind conditions, it naturally burns intensely, over large areas, and leaves behind little more than a moonscape. The notion that the way the Cedar Fire burned was somehow unnatural, as the quoted State Parks representative believes, is not supported by the last 20 years of research. The papers explaining this can be found here:

Also, the article leads the reader to think that the ceanothus currently growing in Cuyamaca is doing so as some kind of invading, unnatural “monoculture.” This is a value-laden forester’s perspective, one that places greater value on timber than the natural regeneration process of a post-fire environment. It is the same perspective that has led State Parks to conduct extremely damaging “reforestation” projects. We have summarized these projects here:

The quotes you used from the USFS representative apply to dry ponderosa pine forests in the southwest, not the mixed conifer forests in Cuyamaca. There is not enough science to support the notion that past fire suppression was responsible for what happened during the Cedar Fire in Cuyamaca. For reference, much of Cuyamaca burned in the 1889 Fire in the same manner it did during the 2003 Cedar Fire. This was long before the era of fire suppression.

It would have been helpful to double check these perspectives with the lead fire scientist you did interview, Dr. Alex Syphard. She has done extensive research on fires in southern California and is quite familiar with the latest science. The suggestion that there is a “fire deficient” in our region or that chaparral is supposed to burn in a “patchwork” is contradicted by what Dr. Syphard was quoted as saying later in the article.

Although it was good that Dr. Syphard’s comments were included, the average reader will likely still come away with the notion that chaparral needs more fire due to past fire suppression impacts. There is zero evidence for such a perspective. In fact, fire suppression has actually protected our native shrublands from too much fire. Dr. Syphard’s quoted statement also supported this. More here:

When it comes to fire, communicating the science properly to the public is essential because misconceptions not only lead to damaging land use practices, but can also encourage actions that increase fire risk in both human and natural communities.

The article:

Addendum: Another bit of mythology that you’ll probably stumble upon is the photo below. It is NOT a photo of the Cedar Fire as is often claimed. It’s actually a photo of the 2003 Old Fire, taken by Chris Doolittle from his backyard looking up Highway 330 in San Bernardino.


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