Denying the Threat of High Fire Frequency in the Chaparral

The beauty and magic of the chaparral ecosystem is dependent on long fire return intervals. If fires occur more frequently than once every 30 years, the chaparral’s rich biodiversity is lost.

It saddens us to learn there remains resistance to this fact, despite overwhelming scientific evidence.

As with climate change denial, the active rejection of the threat of high fire frequency to the chaparral presents a serious environmental challenge – it delays needed change that can help us protect what wild nature we have left. Equally important, believing constructs that attempt to force nature to conform to our personal biases makes it more difficult for us to find connections with nature, a force that has shaped our needs and souls for millions of years.

Direct Rejection of the Science

For example, in a recent article entitled, Botany in San Diego County before European Contact (Oberbauer 2018), the author wrote:

“In other locations, such as the area below the Alpine View Point on I-8, repeated fires in Chaparral, even when burned several times in a dozen years, have not changed the chaparral and it has recovered.”

San Diego County’s Alpine View Point is shown in Figure 1 below. The chaparral that the author claims has not changed due to frequent burning is shown in the lower, right hand corner. After being burned in 2001 and again in 2003, native plant seed germination was minimal to non-existent, many chamise shrubs failed to resprout and consequently died, and the bare ground became dominated by non-native weeds.

Figure 1: The Alpine View Point. Dates indicate when the areas had last burned. The Laguna Fire burned the entire area in view in 1970. Most of the area burned again in 2001 (Viejas Fire). A portion re-burned in 2003 (Cedar Fire). The twice-burned area has lost biodiversity and is dominated by non-native weeds. The San Diego Natural History Museum uses this photo in their prize winning native habitat exhibit, Coast to Cactus in Southern California. Photo taken 7/2004.

Ten years later (as shown in Figure 2 below), the area was still suffering from the impact of high fire frequency, characterized by a sparse population of weakly resprouting chamise shrubs and large empty patches filled in with non-native weeds. The re-bruned area remains compromised today with a dramatic loss of biodiversity, 15 years post-fire. The comparison to the adjacent area that has not been subjected to frequent fire is stark.

Figure 2. The Alpine Viewpoint ten years later. After being burned in 2001 and again in 2003, the area to the right is not recovering properly after ten years. Note the area to the left that was not re-burned in 2003. It is has established a dense canopy of chamise and other characteristic chaparral shrubs. Photo taken 11/2013.

It is difficult to understand how the author could claim the area “has recovered.” The failure to recognize the damage may have to do with access. To reach the twice-burned site requires an arduous, rock-scrabbling hike over steep terrain. It is possible the author made assumptions based on observations from the view point alone, perhaps after a wet winter. From that distance (about 1,500 feet), the area can appear to be filled with green vegetation. The problem is that much of the green is composed of non-native weeds, not healthy chaparral.

A close up of the twice-burned area is shown in Figure 3 below. During drought years, weeds disappear and much of the space between the poorly resprouting chamise shrubs is bare dirt.

Figure 3. Much of the twice-burned area below the Alpine View Point is a depauperate environment, with many dead chamise shrubs that would have normally resprouted, failed seedling recruitment, and bare areas dominated by non-native weeds during wet years. The gray shrubs are dead deerweed. Photo taken 11/2013, ten years post-fire.

We have studied the Alpine View site extensively, and continue to do so. Thus far, the research has resulted in two papers published in peer-reviewed science journals (Halsey et al. 2009, and Keeley and Brennan 2012). There is another paper forthcoming that examines the differences in biodiversity between the area burned in 2001 fire and the portion that was re-burned in 2003.

The Alpine View Point site is such a classic example of what can happen when chaparral is burned too frequently, that the San Diego Natural History Museum uses Figure 1 in its award wining Coast to Cactus in Southern California exhibit on chaparral and fire. There are few areas that show the destruction of chaparral due to high fire frequency so clearly.

Acknowledging the Science, but then Rejecting it

A more subtle rejection of the science has occurred in some fire management plans.

After multiple drafts and years of scientific input, Cal Fire finally acknowledged in their proposed 2017 Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP) draft that chaparral has a different fire regime than forests and that high fire frequency is a threat.

“… in its present state, and in consideration of the substantial pressure from human-caused or human-related fire, chaparral does not need more fire, it needs less.” (4-179)

Unfortunately, once the actual proposed treatments are examined, Cal Fire still appears to be locked into the notion that chaparral needs more fire. Large portions of old-growth chaparral in southern California are slated for “treatment” (i.e. prescribed burning or mastication), and all the chaparral in the northern part of the state is seen as needing more fire for the purpose of  “ecological restoration.” We have pointed out these contradictions in our 2018 comment letter to the agency.

The 2018 Community Wildfire Protection Plan draft  for the Goleta Valley Mountainous Communities has similar contradictions. The plan’s introduction does an excellent job describing the natural fire regime in chaparral, how high fire frequency is a threat, and what actually causes homes to burn (embers). However, the plan then ignores the science by suggesting a number of vegetation treatment projects that would encourage the continued elimination of chaparral, potentially increasing the amount of area covered by highly-flammable, non-native grasses and weeds. You can read our comment letter on the Goleta Plan here.

Why the Resistance to the Science?

It is sometimes difficult to explain why some refuse to accept fact and insist in believing outdated ideas. Research has shown that when confronted with facts that are contrary to closely held beliefs, otherwise known as cognitive dissonance, people often dig in even deeper. One can either respond to this psychological challenge with cognitive competence, accepting the new data point or idea and changing one’s opinion, or refusing to believe and/or dismissing new facts. There is a short article in Scientific American about this phenomenon and how to respond to it when trying to help someone accept the truth. There are a number of useful videos on the subject as well.

In the case of Cal Fire and other agencies deeply involved in vegetation management projects, there are significant financial and career incentives to ignore information that question such activities. The author of the 2018 article mentioned above was one of the lead proponents of San Diego County’s plan to conduct habitat clearance projects over 300 square miles. One of the County’s main rationales for the project was that chaparral “needs” to burn and that high fire frequency is not a problem.

We filed a successful lawsuit against the project and the County eventually dropped it.

We have asked the board of directors of the San Diego Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, whose newsletter published the 2018 article, to publish a follow-up to correct the misinformation as they did in a similar situation in 2011 (Naturally Large Fires in Southern California). Thus far, they have rejected the idea.

On the upside, over the past decade, the fire science community, most environmental organizations, and the informed public have come to accept the science that demonstrates the negative impact too much fire has on the chaparral. The US Forest Service has adopted a policy recognizing the ecological risk of high fire frequency in chaparral and the Los Angeles Times has published numerous articles and editorials describing the risk.

Paradigms are difficult to budge, but as younger generations learn the new knowledge and slowly find their way into academia and government agencies, older ideas eventually fade away. However, considering the speed at which climate change is altering the natural environment, we can’t afford to wait that long.

There are a number of other examples of cognitive dissonance relating to beliefs about chaparral described in our recent book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires – Nature’s Phoenix.

Figure 4. Beautiful, old-growth chaparral near the Alpine View Point that San Diego County considered as a “decadent” fire hazard in need of removal.

2 Comments on “Denying the Threat of High Fire Frequency in the Chaparral

  1. Thank you for this article. I hope it will be published in the CNPSSD Newsletter.

  2. Pingback: Winston and Waterman | Concrete Chaparral

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: