Misconceptions About Wildfire in LA Times: Exterior sprinklers, too much fire, and cultural appropriation

The Los Angeles Times has been a champion in helping the public understand the truth when it comes to wildfire. But today, they made a mistake. They repeated numerous misconceptions that have held us back from crafting effective fire risk reduction policies.

The letter we wrote to them explaining why their article was inaccurate is below. If you are so moved, please write your own. It can make a difference. Limit it to 150 words or less and use this link to send it.

Our short letter to the editor can be found at the end of this post.


Dear Mr. Serna,

We are extremely discouraged over the inaccurate statements in today’s article, To guard against wildfire, it takes a neighborhood.

The focus on reducing wildfire risk from the house out was spot on. But the article is riddled with so many misconceptions that readers may end up making poor choices that could result in the loss of their homes during a fire.

More frustrating is the fact that we recently discussed this topic in an interview. We provided the most current science and references that could have been used to write a powerfully influential, accurate piece. Instead, the article reaffirms many of the same misconceptions that have held us back from solving the wildfire crisis, and even added a new one – debunking exterior sprinklers, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Here are the facts.

1. Exterior sprinklers have been extremely effective in saving homes and they can be installed quickly and at a reasonable cost. They saved 188 homes in the 2007 wind-driven Ham Lake Fire and have been used effectively in Canada and Australia. A quick search on the internet would have revealed this. We have a detailed analysis here.

We do not know why Jack Cohen dismisses exterior sprinklers out of hand, especially since he once described their effectiveness. In a video produced by the USFS Fire Lab, Dr. Cohen said (starting at mark 9:50),

“… because people, if they have the water supply, in fact can put their sprinklers on, wet things down, which definitely inhibits the firebrands, the flying embers that can potentially ignite this (vegetation)… putting the sprinklers out, it just guaranteed that anything like this that might have been fuel ends up being wetted, such that it’s no longer fuel.”

It would have been helpful to do a deeper investigation regarding the use of exterior sprinklers during the Woolsey Fire. Such a search would have revealed that exterior sprinklers were credited in saving the visitor center in Malibu Creek State Park, which was near the center of the Woolsey inferno.

We urge you to call Steve Yusi back and have a longer conversation with him concerning how he felt about Dr. Cohen’s rejection of his sprinkler system. Rather than being “deflated,” Steve was actually shocked that Dr. Cohen was unwilling to discuss the matter seriously or observe their home’s sprinkler system in action. Having visited Steve’s home and observed the system in action myself, we can assure you, it dramatically reduces the building’s ignitability, just as Dr. Cohen mentioned in the video.

The truth was not revealed in this case. Instead, a potentially life-threatening misconception was given a pass. Worse, readers are left with the impression that exterior sprinklers are a waste of time. The evidence clearly indicates otherwise.

sprinkler closeup-1b
The exterior sprinklers on Steve Yusi’s and Diana Ungerleider’s home profiled in the inaccurate LA Times article.

2. “A century of aggressive fire suppression” has nothing to do with what we face in southern California in regards to wildfire threats. The evidence is clear on this as I wrote to you in my note of May 25, 2019 (below). As noted, the LA Times has communicated this many times in editorials and articles. We don’t understand why the current article didn’t at least provide some balance to help the readers sort things out for themselves.

In addition, the spread of non-native, invasive weeds due to excessive fire and soil disturbance is not limited to “some suburban foothills.” It is a statewide problem that is destroying native habitat and increasing fire risk. This is a major problem. The USFS recognizes this, as has the LA Times in many past stories. We have assembled data on this problem here.

Road and type conversion-1b
The elimination of native shrubland like chaparral and California sage scrub has been caused by too many fires on the landscape. Non-native weeds and grasses usually take their place as shown in this photo of Hwy 78 east of Escondido, CA. The area to the right of the road was burned in 2007 and again in 2018.

3. Repeating the now discredited notion that somehow if we just did what Native Americans did, we wouldn’t have a wildfire problem defies modern science and is disrespectful to indigenous peoples.
What did Dr. Cohen’s reference to Native Americans on the Great Plains have anything to do with what we face in southern California? That should have at least been questioned. In fact, the article itself contradicts this idea by indicating that extreme wildfire conditions are inevitable (Cohen), wind-driven fires ignore fuel breaks and lighter fuel loads (Camp Fire), and that the environment today is different than what Native American’s faced due to Climate Change.

Beyond the fact that Native Americans didn’t have to deal with a polluted atmosphere, millions of people on the landscape who have no connection with Nature, and highly flammable, non-native weeds and grasses, using their image in order to promote the desires and financial interests (habitat clearance) of the dominant society is cultural appropriation, plain and simple.

Indigenous peoples have been exploited for centuries by conquering empires. Cultural appropriation is the final insult – using Native American culture and symbolism for economic gain. Creating stereotypes of Native Americans and creating myths about what they did and how they lived are utilized by corporations, schools, and government agencies to promote their products and policies.

Fire is an extremely complicated subject and we understand how experts can shift the conversation in directions that fail to reveal the truth. But we are running out of time to deal with this situation due to the impact of the human-caused Climate Crisis. Therefore, it is imperative that everyone is questioned, especially those who seem to know the answers. This is why the kids are marching in the streets. They are done with adults and their failure, our failure, to fix the mess we’ve caused and our inability to break out of our paradigms.


Here’s our letter to the editor:

The focus on reducing wildfire risk from the house out was spot on. However, the article is riddled with so many misconceptions that readers may end up making poor choices that could result in the loss of their homes during a fire.

Exterior sprinklers which have been shown to be extremely effective in saving homes during wildfires in the US, Canada, and Australia, and can be installed quickly and at a reasonable cost.

Secondly “a century of aggressive fire suppression” has nothing to do with southern California’s wildfires. Rather, it is the excessive fire frequency that is causing the region to become more flammable due to the spread of non-native, highly flammable grasses.

Finally, repeating the now discredited notion that somehow if we just did what Native Americans did, we wouldn’t have a wildfire problem ignores how the environment has changed and is cultural appropriation plain and simple.

4 Comments on “Misconceptions About Wildfire in LA Times: Exterior sprinklers, too much fire, and cultural appropriation

  1. I guess I’m a little confused as well. I do think you are being a bit defensive when you bring up the cultural appropriation and maybe it doesn’t really get to the point in question: do exterior fire sprinklers help save houses and does Dr. Cohen indorse their use or not. He does, w/o question suggest that the basic problem is one of “home ignition” and sites a demonstration video (USDA) that shows the ability of fire brands to penetrate and cause home ignition and suggest this (may) cause adjacent homes to catch fire via radiant heat.

    If in fact Dr. Cohen dismissed exterior fire sprinklers as a viable combustion inhibitor, then I am surprised, but I don’t actually remember him addressing it in the video I watched. Maybe you are referencing something that came after the video that I watched with his commentary. If that is the case, I would like to read what he may have said.

    I do support and appreciate your commentary and get much useful information from it.

    John Dougherty
    Redding, Ca.

    • Hi John,

      Cohen is spot on regarding everything he said, except when it came to exterior sprinklers. He dismissed Steve’s system (the man who was profiled in the article) out of hand and ignored Steve’s offer to demonstrate it to him. We really just don’t get it. The science, and pure logic, do not support this perspective at all. Jack is an excellent scientist, so his opinion in this regard does not make sense at all. This, especially in light of the link to the video in our post that shows Jack talking about how sprinklers can defeat embers.

      All we can imagine is that the journalist twisted Cohen’s words (we have information indicating the journalist was biases against sprinklers from the very beginning). But Cohen’s response to Steve seems to confirm what was in the article.

      As you point out, the cultural appropriation issue has really nothing to do with the article. But that was one of our points in bringing it up. The cultural appropriation label is a perspective we have arrived at based on the constant reference to Native Americans by those who are trying to justify environmentally destructive policies. It is thrown in nearly every time the prescribed burn issue is raised, or the myth that large fires never existed prior to European settlement. We see your point about it sounding defensive, but if you think about it, if a group kept using your name to justify something they were doing, the same group that wiped out your people, we suspect you’d be defensive as well. The whole this is just ugly.

      Thank you for your comments on this.

      • I appreciate your response. My perspective is somewhat personal having lived through the Carr Fire. While we were seven miles away, the ability to evacuate was constantly shrinking as smoke closed the interstate and in reality, where would we go? We had early reports of people dying and had no way of knowing how many. We had the same choke points when it came to evacuation. Still do.

        Nothing has really changed with regard to evacuation. It’s as if it never happened. We thin fuels in the WUI forest, but we do nothing in regard to evacuation. I watched all of the videos about how individuals saved their houses and I make decisions based on their experience. I have stored water, pumps and fire clothing. I actually have a list that tells me such things as opening the powered gates to get out and let FF’s in.

        I have tri-pod sprinklers to squirt the shrubs around my house and know to remove pool furniture from the exterior. I have fire pumps that will draw from stored water and the pool. I also have some experience that tells me that radiant heat can defeat me. I have tested my nozzles to know how far they will squirt and the volume they produce.

        I also know that no matter how good your insurance is, it will take two years to rebuild, and if you are not part of an emergency declaration, you will not have FEMA financial assistance. UGH!

        So I know what to expect and I really appreciate the info I receive from you, it helps a lot.

        John Dougherty

        • You’re welcome John. What you say is so, painfully so accurate.

          We are updating our sprinkler system handout this month and will send you the new one when it is available.


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