Fire Misconceptions on the Radio

Dear Ms. Madeleine Brand,

Thank you for addressing the wildfire crisis in your December 14th Press Play radio show.

You asked some excellent questions. In particular, when a couple of your guests advocated for prescribed fire as a way to prevent another devastating Woolsey Fire, you kept pressing them on how such burns could be carried out safely with millions of people on the landscape. Mike Pierson reflected the problematic nature of prescribed fire best when he answered honestly, “I have no idea.”

Prescribed fire, along with many other issues relating to wildfire in California, are terribly misunderstood. Such misunderstandings lead to misconceptions that can enable counterproductive public policy. A number of these misconceptions were repeated during the show. We are writing in hopes that this information will inspire you to pursue these matters further in future interviews, or perhaps as subject matter for another show.

The most notable misconceptions repeated during the show include:

1. Prescribed fire will allow us to live safely with Southern California firestorms.\
2. Large fires in California were unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans because of Native American burning.
3. If we let fire burn like is supposedly done in Baja California, we wouldn’t have large fires.
4.Dead trees pose a significant wildfire threat.

1. Prescribed burns fail to protect communities in wind-driven fires/destroy native habitat

Prescribed fires in the Santa Monica Mountains, and in all native shrublands in Southern California, are no longer considered appropriate by the fire science community. This is why the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains has rejected prescribed burning in their fire management plan.

In Southern California, fire frequencies continue to increase with our growing population. As a result, native shrublands, especially chaparral, are disappearing and being converted to highly flammable, non-native weed lands (natural fire return interval for chaparral is 30-150 years). This type conversion process creates an even more flammable landscape and can be seen throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. Adding more fire to an ecosystem that already has too much will only guarantee the elimination of native habitat and increased fire risk (most fires start in dried grass).

In addition, prescribed burning and other large vegetation treatments beyond 100 feet of defensible space consistently fail to protect communities from wind-driven wildfires, the type of fire that devastates communities. This is because, as noted US Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen has demonstrated over three decades of research, “the wildland fire problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem.” We addressed this issue in our op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on December 11, 2018.

Research on why prescribed burning is not an appropriate strategy in California’s native shrublands.

DSC_0123 II
The impact of a cool season prescribed burn in the late 1980s: weeds and the destruction of the chaparral. Pinnacles National Park.

2. Native Americans could not have prevented large fires

There is no evidence that Native Americans were able to reduce or stop large fires in California. Such a belief is counter to not only the physics of fire and the power of our Mediterranean climate to drive fire, but significant evidence to the contrary. Infrequent, huge wildfires are a natural, recurring part of Southern California, and have been for millions of years.

Evidence for Native American burning is for localized management within a half-day’s walk from villages, not that they were able to reduce the severity and frequency of uncontrolled wildfires. There is little reason to believe Native Americans could have prevented the occurrence of large wildfires on the broader landscape. Indeed, one ethnographic report describes a massive wildfire in San Diego County prior to the time of European contact that resulted in a significant migration of Native American residents to the desert. Decades before the era of fire suppression, the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire in Orange, Riverside, and San Diego Counties burned an estimated 300,000 acres.

As one of your guests noted, years ago fire agencies replaced the term “controlled burns” with “prescribed burns” in part because of the recognition that these fires often escape control. First-hand experience has demonstrated that trying to “control” a wildland fire is problematic at best, especially under unpredictable weather conditions that frequent Southern California. Such would likely have been the case with Native Americans as well, especially since they didn’t have the vast fire suppression forces available today.

The notion that establishing a Native American burning regime will prevent catastrophic fires is demonstrably incorrect based on the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise. Before the fire hit the town, it burned through 30,000 acres of land that had burned ten years before. In another example, 70,000 acres burned in the 2007 Southern California firestorm that had burned in 2003. Instead of basing fire management practices on incomplete records from prehistory, we need to look forward and formulate plans based on fire science.

Please see our page on use of fire by Native Americans for more details.

3. Baja California fire patterns are not relevant to Southern California

The scientific community has rejected the 1980s notion that large fires north of the Mexican border occur because we have suppressed fire, while those south of the border remain small because they have supposedly allowed fires to burn. Yet, the myth persists because it has been repeated so many times. To quote a recent paper,

“Early studies characterizing differences in fire size north and south of the United States border invoked fire suppression as the primary explanation for these patterns (Minnich 1983, Minnich and Chou 1997). However, recent analyses show no evidence that 20th-century fire suppression has diminished fire activity on these landscapes. The fire regime in this region is dominated by human-caused ignitions, and fire suppression has played a critical role in preventing the ever increasing anthropogenic ignitions from driving the system wildly outside the historical fire return interval. Because the net result has been relatively little change in overall fire regimes, there has not been fuel accumulation in excess of the historical range of variability, and as a result, fuel accumulation or changes in fuel continuity do not explain wildfire patterns.”

A detailed analysis of why the so called Baja Fire Mosaic Hypothesis is false can be found here.

Research on the historical record of large fires in Southern California.

4. Dead trees do not pose an unusually high wildfire threat/are not relevant to California’s most devastating fires

Only one of the 20 most devastating wildfires in California involved dead trees. In fact, nearly all of California’s most devastating fires have occurred many miles from forested ecosystems (please see our map below). In areas were large number of dead trees do exist, they only pose additional fire risk within the first 2-3 years. Afterwards, the needles fall off and the fine material that fuels a fire is no longer in the tree canopy.

For additional information on this subject, please see our article here.

We have additional information regarding dead trees and how to deal with wildfire risk in our letter to the governor (updated letter to Governor Newsom). Unfortunately, both he and the state legislature chose to focus on the Sierra Nevada in response to the 2017 wildfires, not where the fires actually occurred.

Tree Mortality 14 Final

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