Overgrown shrubs?

Our letter to journalists.

We respectfully request that in future articles on wildfires in California, you dispense with the word “overgrown” when describing environments dominated by native shrubs as used in your recent articles on the Detwiler Fire (e.g. overgrown shrubs, overgrown vegetation)(1). Or at the very least, question those who claim such things.

The notion that vegetation or shrubs in native shrublands like chaparral (the dominant native plant community that surrounds Mariposa) can be “overgrown” is not logical. By its very definition, “overgrown” is a human-centric term that implies something needs to be trimmed or, in case of shrubs, manicured like a garden would be. This is the last thing we want to communicate if we desire to protect what little wild nature is left in California. Plants grow, some large, some small. There is no natural process in a native shrubland environment that could produce overgrowth. Such a concept is in conflict with the basic principles of evolution.

Trails can be overgrown, as can backyards, and tree plantations. But these are human inventions, not natural systems.

Usually the notion of “overgrown” is in reference to claims that past fire suppression has created unnatural amounts of vegetation. While this is true for some forested systems below 7,000 feet, it is not true for native shrublands (2).

We agree with you that yes, “The flames are being fed by tall grass… that sprouted along the central Sierra Nevada foothills during the winter rains” as you quoted a Cal Fire representative as saying (7/20/2017). Non-native, invasive grasses are incredibly flammable and pose a real threat to communities and natural ecosystems. But it is incorrect to claim that native shrubs have produced much in the way of additional vegetation because of the past rainy season. Native shrubs typically grow quite slowly. At any rate, any new vegetation has a high water content and does not burn easily.

As you know, words are powerful and can communicate and reinforce biases and stereotypes that can lead to unfortunate consequences. When people read that wildfires are “being fed” by “overgrown shrubs,” this encourages the use of destructive land management practices in wild native shrublands such as clearance activities and prescribed burns (3). The chamise/manzanita dominated chaparral found in the Mariposa region represents a rapidly vanishing native ecosystem. We need to do what we can to protect it, not blame it for human-caused disasters. Please see photo below.

We also urge you to question the continual claim by fire officials that “many dead trees” play a significant role in fueling wildfires. In regards to the Detwiler Fire area, the primary trees are scattered oaks and gray pines, neither of which have been severely impacted by bark beetles or the recent drought. While there are certainly groups of dead trees in some locations, the reference to dead trees appears to be a standard comment from some regardless of the environment in which the fire is occurring (see map below). Secondly, there is growing scientific evidence that even in areas where there are a large number of dead trees (mostly conifers), the fire risk is not significantly increased (4).

We know you are doing your best to report on a situation where emotions are high and the possibility of loss of life is quite likely. As climate change continues and populations grow, we will only see more of this. So it is becoming increasingly important for journalists like yourselves to question those who are responding to the consequences of both to ensure they are addressing the real issues.


PHOTO: The chaparral dominated environment near Mariposa (photo taken August, 2015, about 10 miles north of town along Hwy 49. looking north). Note the gray pines to the left of center near the highway. They are typically very sparsely distributed. Also note the lack of any dead specimens. The is a beautiful, native California environment, not one filled with “overgrown” vegetation. Unfortunately, this area has been burned in the fire (see fire perimeter map below).

Citations for additional information:

(1) http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-detwiler-fire-mariposa-yosemite-20170719-htmlstory.html

(2) http://www.californiachaparral.org/fire/firescience.html

(3) http://www.californiachaparral.org/threatstochaparral/dprescribedfire.html

(4) http://www.californiachaparral.org/cforestfires.html

For more on how to protect your home from wildfire, please see our page here:

Detwiler Fire MC Trees II

Regarding the dead tree issue, the above map of Mariposa County shows the state’s tree mortality map overlaid with the Detwiler Fire perimeter (light area left center). You’ll notice the fire has basically not involved much in the way of dead trees.
The colors yellow to burgundy indicate the assumed level of tree mortality with a rather wide range.
o Deep burgundy depicting areas with more than 40 dead trees per acre
o Red depicting 40 – 15 dead trees per acre
o Orange depicting 15-5 dead trees per acre
o Yellow depicting 5 or less dead trees per acre

Below: the Detwiler Fire perimeter.

Detwiler Fire

17 Comments on “Overgrown shrubs?

  1. You make a very good point. This will not be popular but I’ll just put it out there. The natural grown things that are in place according to the specific area that they naturally thrive in are not the problem. The problem lies directly on those in positions of responsibility failing to plan for what we all knew would be a heavy fire season. Our resources to fight fires in a season such as this should have been anticipated. The large aircraft needed to battle the onset of wildfires and the abundance of staffing needed should have all been in place and at the ready to react in an overly aggressive manner to any onset of fire. Blaming the natural plant life for for the out of control blaze is ridiculous and only serves as a shield to those that were supposed to be responsible for planning what was obviously coming.

  2. I live near the Detwiler fire area and have already seen comments in various community fire and alert sites about the cause of the fire being a lack of logging due to forest management policies forced upon us by “the environmentalists” in plots dating back in the 70’s. This despite the fact that there was virtually nothing to be “logged” in the Detwiler fire area. Sometimes people have been propagandized for so long that the reality right before their eyes cannot be seen.

    • At the risk of overly-politicizing things, I will directly point the finger at Congressman Tom McClintock. Our absentee Congressman, who doesn’t even have a home within this district: waited until a week after the fire began to put in a perfunctory appearance and then took to the floor of the House to lambaste the NON-causes already noted here. It’s that sort of cynical, totally self-centered, partisan-agendizing rot that has actually created the problem we now face. At the risk of overstated the already-proven, it’s NOT “overgrowth of forests” or mismanagement of our forests, or the lack of thinning, or any of the other multitude of things the GOP wishes to blame. And I find it reprehensible that our local tragedy is being turned into nothing less than McClintock & Company’s latest diversionary crusade, having NOTHING to do with this fire, even while they cut the budgets of all the agencies which MIGHT help to actually protect us from, and fight: the next big fire. Which – with the drying of our climate, the heightening of temperatures – which YES, is incontrovertibly caused by the sorts of human activities the McClintocks of the world promote: is only a matter of time. He – and all those who refuse to accept settled science: should be held accountable.

      • We couldn’t agree more, maestrolm. We felt this way after the 2003 Cedar Fire. The owners of the homes in Scripps Ranch, a community basically designed to burn, should have filed a class action suit against the developer, the San Diego County Planning Department, and the Board of Supervisors.

  3. Can we access the Tree Mortality Viewer to interact with the map?

  4. The fact that at least 24 fires were active in CA at the same time seriously impacted the amount of equipment available during the Detwiler fire. It is unfair and irresponsible to assume there was any lack of planning on the part of fire officials.

    • Deborah, not sure where you got the notion that we mentioned anything about a lack of planning. We were only addressing the use of the word “overgrown” and the over generalization about dead trees…

      Perhaps you were replying to one of the comments?

  5. I appreciate this blog a lot. I just wanted to point out that the blue oaks in Mariposa county have been heavily affected by the drought. That doesn’t mean that the contributed to this fire or present a fire hazard in general, but it’s not true that the trees in the area haven’t been impacted. There are dead trees all around. Some areas of Catheys Valley look like winter.

  6. The ecosystems in the American continents had been managed by humans for at least 15,000 years. Extermination of the original apex predator and keystone species (the Indians) has resulted in runaway growth in many cases. These landscapes used to be deliberately burned on a regular basis for different purposes. Please read “Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Influences and the Original State of Nature,” Kay and Simmons, editors. There are chapters within the book dealing with Native American fire ecology. After reading this book, one might question the concept of “wilderness” as it is currently understood. It is an artifact of genocide.

    • A.P.R. The chaparral has been in existence for 10 million years prior to humans appearing on the North American continent. It did fine without any kind of human interference.

      We do not know where or how much Native Americans burned the chaparral as the evidence is no longer available. However, it is likely much of the native shrubland along the central coast of California was eliminated by excessive burning by Native Americans.

      The basic message here is that natural systems adapted and survived for millions of years before humans ever entered the scene. Fire was used in aboriginal times to modify the environment in a way that best suited survival needs. The historic observation that some Native Americans used fire to modify the landscape does not mean it is something we should emulate today or that the lack of it has caused ecological imbalances.

      We have more on the subject here:

  7. This is one of the most responsible treatments of the fire I’ve seen; both comments and CCI story.
    To mention planning brings up the lack of political will to control the building of residences throughout the Sierra front. Books have been written about the risks of fires and property destruction because state and country regulators have allowed the spread of building. State and local agencies such as CalFire, USFS, BLM, and counties cooperate to try to manage the risks laid onto the landscape by those chasing dollars. Looking at many of the aerial videos of the Detwiler burn showed me many residences with no, or vastly inadequate clearing and concern for self preservation.

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