Five Reasons we are Taking Cal Fire to Court

Cal Fire has approved a program that will make the landscape more flammable, fail to protect communities most at risk, accelerate the loss of native plant communities, and reduce the carbon absorbing abilities of native habitats.

How is this possible? The answer is simple.

Like those who failed to prevent the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil platform blow out, Cal Fire managers are guided by an outdated paradigm that “normalizes deviance,” meaning they focus on positive data about operations that support their beliefs while ignoring contrary data or small signs of trouble. Hence, despite multiple warnings since the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County that demonstrated habitat clearance projects continually fail during wind-driven fires (the ones that cause all the devastation), wildfire managers responded by calling for even more clearing and logging, often far from communities at risk.

The loss of more than 80 people during the 2018 Camp Fire was a direct result of institutions adhering to a belief system that prevents the acknowledgement of changing conditions.

With an rapidly increasing population and a changing climate, time is short. We can not allow government agencies to pursue policies that risk our lives and the landscapes we love because those policies support what agencies have always done.

We have spent more than 15 years working with Cal Fire and the California Governor’s office to craft a comprehensive, science-based wildfire risk reduction program. They have refused to listen. Instead, they have produced a huge habitat clearance plan (the Vegetation Treatment Program – CalVTP) with the goal of clearing a quarter million acres of habitat a year, while admitting they are ignoring the real threat to our communities – wind-driven wildfire.

To determine how the CalVTP will be impacting your favorite natural place, send us a note with its location and we will make a map for you (see #3 below).

Grinding Mastigators on the LP II
Giant masticators grind up beautiful old-growth chaparral above Goleta, California. The CalVTP claims this kind of devastation can improve “habitat function.”

1. The CalVTP will Increase Fire Risk.

One the common denominators in fire fighter fatalities is the presence of grassy fuels. The reason being is that grass, as compared to shrubs and trees, does not look threatening as a fuel source. Firefighters often feel a false sense of security. However, grassy fuels are much more deadly because when they burn, they burn suddenly, quickly, and release tremendous amounts of heat. As any experienced wildland firefighter knows, at least one who hasn’t forgotten his or her basic training, shrub and forest fires are much safer – they are easier to escape if an entrapment situation occurs. While sounding counter intuitive, understanding the danger of fine, grassy fuels can save a firefighter’s life.

Grass it the common ignition fuel for most wildfires.

One of the main reasons the Camp Fire was so deadly to the town of Paradise was because it moved quickly through 30,000 acres of fine, 10-year-old, post-fire vegetation and areas that had been salvaged logged.

If a mature forest, dense or not, had been present, the fire would have moved much slower. As a consequence, the residents of Paradise would have had an hour or more lead time to evacuate or prepare for the fire.

The primary impacts of the CalVTP is to remove native habitat and disturb soils. Removing native habitat and disturbing soils will result in one outcome –  setting the stage for non-native grass and weed invasions = type conversion.

Camp Fire
The devastating 2018 Camp Fire move quickly through fine fuels from its origin near Pulga, raining millions of embers on the town of Paradise.
DigitalGlobe satellite image shows damages in the Kilcrease circle community aftermath of the Camp Fire in Paradise California
Camp Fire, showing the devastation of homes in the Kilcrease Circle community of Paradise. Note the surrounding green, mature forest with little or no scorching. The homes were not burned by a high-intensity crown fire, but were ignited by embers, followed by home-to-home ignitions. Photo: Digital Globe, a Maxar company via Reuters, 11/17/2018.

2. Cal Fire Admits They are Ignoring the Real Threat.

Despite the fact that all the devastation to human communities is caused by wind-driven wildfires, Cal Fire has decided to ignore those fires and instead focus on the ones that do not pose much risk.

The CalVTP admits that,
“Since 2010, the number of wildfires occurring annually has been increasing, as has the number of acres burned. Much of this increase in acreage, especially in 2017 and 2018, is the result of record-setting fires primarily driven by wind…”

“…given the current severity of fire hazards in the SRA (State Responsibility Areas), vegetation treatments may not be able to slow or halt extreme wind-driven fires.”

Then they write,
“However, destructive fires primarily driven by wind are a small proportion of the thousands of fires that occur every year that do not reach catastrophic levels. Fires driven by topography and those that move more slowly through the landscape, as well as primarily wind-driven fires that have slowed, are those that might be further slowed or stopped entirely by a vegetation treatment implemented under the CalVTP.”

Just think about this for a moment. Of the 16,000 wildfires during 2017 and 2018, six of them caused 87% of the damage (destroyed homes). Therefore, the CalVTP ignores the wildfires that pose the greatest threat to life and property. Instead, the program will only address the least dangerous ones. This is like the government ignoring tornadoes because they represent only a small portion of the thousands of daily breeze events every year that do not reach catastrophic levels.

We have made 12 recommendations to correct this failure of the public trust. Cal Fire and Governor Newsom have ignored all of them.

3. Cal Fire Admits that Native Shrublands are Threatened by too much Fire, but they’re Going to Burn/Grind/Herbicide them anyway.

The CalVTP says,

“Chaparral and coastal sage scrub are sensitive habitat types, because of the large-scale loss of these vegetation types from development and type conversion.”


Fires have increased substantially in southern California coastal areas, and in places this has led to a conversion of native chaparral and coastal scrub vegetation to annual grassland cover dominated by nonnative species.”

Trabuco Dist Type Conversion fuel break IV
A rich chaparral ecosystem type converted to non-native weeds and grasses above Temecula, California. This was done to create a ridge line fuel break.

Despite acknowledging the fragility of native shrubland ecosystems, the CalVTP will be clearing many native shrublands through burning, herbicide application, grinding, and/or grazing for “ecological restoration” purposes. Restoring to what, the program never explains. These actions will ultimately lead to compromising already endangered native plant communities.

Below is the CalVTP map showing areas targeted for “ecological restoration” (not community protection). These are basically most of the lands they have jurisdiction over, but are not part of the official Wild-Urban Interface (WUI).

Screenshot (56)
Areas targeted for “ecological restoration” by Cal Fire. Nearly all of these areas in central and southern California are primarily threatened native shrublands.

For a closer look at a particular area being targeted for “ecological restoration,” see the magnified maps of east San Diego County below showing portions of Rancho Cuyamaca and Anza-Borrego State Parks.

AB_Cuy State Parks Final
Areas targeted for “ecological restoration” (shown by red overlay) by Cal Fire in eastern San Diego County. Rancho Cuyamaca State Park on the left, Anza-Borrego State Park on the right.

A closer examination of several areas marked above show the fragile areas Cal Fire deems as needing “restoration.”

1 AB State Park
Area 1. Anza-Borrego State Park targeted for some type of restoration which may include burning, herbicide, grinding, or grazing. This area is far from any human community at risk. Desert chaparral (left), rare desert springs (upper right), and sparse desert scrub. Why such a protected habitat needs to be “restored” is never explained.
2 East Mesa
Area 2. East Mesa, Rancho Cuyamaca State Park targeted for “restoration.” Another area far from any human community, we are unsure exactly what Cal Fire plans here, but they have shown a preference for expanding “rangelands,” so the native shrublands surrounding this special meadow will likely be targeted for clearance. This area burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire, therefore it is still well below the minimum natural fire return interval of 30 years (which the CalVTP acknowledges is below the system’s ecological tolerance for another disturbance).
Stonewall Peak
Area SP. Stonewall Peak, a popular hiking destination, is also targeted. The area was burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire and will be at severe ecological risk if it is disturbed within the next 15 years.

From the three examples above it is clear the CalVTP is ignoring its own acknowledgement that native shrublands, like chaparral, are threatened. The areas being targeted do not have any relation to what “ecological restoration” actually addresses. Does Cal Fire really intend to go into the Anza-Borrego desert and clear out the sparse, fragile cactus/scrub habitat that exists there? For what reason?

The reason is that Cal Fire sees every square inch of land that it has jurisdiction over as “treatable.” If they couldn’t fit it into community protection category, they placed much of it into their “ecological restoration” category, regardless of the fragility of the landscape in question.

For more on type conversion, please visit our Threats to Chaparral page.

4. The CalVTP Ignores Environmental Impacts by Claiming the Habitat Fragments they will Leave Behind Compensate for what they destroy.

As mitigation for the habitat clearance they will conduct, Cal Fire says they will leave behind little islands of undisturbed shrubs as they clear up to 65% of the shrub cover. They consider such an arrangement, one which is never found in healthy chaparral or California sage scrub, as preserving “habitat function.” The CalVTP says they will:

“Develop a treatment design that avoids environmental effects of type conversion in chaparral and coastal sage scrub vegetation alliances…”

“The treatment design will maintain a minimum percent cover of mature native shrubs within the treatment area to maintain habitat function.”

“Mature native shrubs that are retained will be distributed contiguously or in patches within the stand.”

Below is an example of what the CalVTP projects will look like after they conduct their prescribed mitigation – a few scattered shrubs in a sea of disturbed soil.

ECCMasticator 029 IIb
A clearance project above Santa Barbara.

Below is what a fully functional habitat should look like.

Gaviota area II
A beautiful, intact mature chaparral stand near Gaviota, California.

5. The CalVTP Violates Public Law Because its Habitat Clearance Projects will cause Type Conversion in Native Shrublands.

California’s Public Resource Code states that,

‘Prescribed burning, mastication, herbicide application, mechanical thinning, or other vegetative treatments of chaparral or sage scrub shall occur only if the department finds that the activity will not cause “type conversion” away from the chaparral and coastal sage scrub currently on site.’

The CalVTP attempts to ignore this law by claiming type conversion is not a useful term, therefore Cal Fire will substitute it with the vague concept of  “habitat function.” As long as “habitat function” is preserved, all damage will be mitigated. How is proper habitat function to be determined? The CalVTP doesn’t say (such a concept has never been ecologically defined for native California native shrublands). Rather, “habitat function” will be somehow determined by the local project proponent, the agency or individual who has a vested interest in conducting the clearance activity.

Below are several examples of what happens when native shrublands are cleared, even when “islands” of shrubs are left behind = type conversion.

DSC_0049 III_edited-1
The spread of highly flammable, invasive, nonnative weeds is typically the consequence of “fuel” treatments whereby pristine chaparral stands are clear cut by large masticating machines. The older treatment area is in the background, now filled with weeds. The most recent treatment is in the foreground. Note the massive soil disturbance. Such disruption of the soil destroys the ancient soil crust that teams with life and allows the spread of weeds. Location: Near Painted Cave, California.
DSC_0158 II
The massive Camino Cielo fuel break, Santa Barbara County next to a tree farm. Native habitat was ground into chips except for two specimen manzanita shrub and an isolated wood rat nest.
Post Whitter-1
Same location after the 2017 Whittier Fire. The tree farm burned and the fuel break failed to provide an opportunity to stop the fire. It is now type converted and filled with highly flammable weeds, the typical consequence of habitat clearance.
Whittier fire jump-1b
Showing the scale of the massive Camino Cielo fuel break. The Whittier Fire (background) jumped the fuel break and nearly reached the ocean.

For more information about what the CalVTP is dangerous to communities and Nature please see our Cal Fire EIR page.

3 Comments on “Five Reasons we are Taking Cal Fire to Court

  1. Fascinating. All the more so because this “conservative” (by current definitions) finds this strongly environmentalist take to make great sense. (I know, DUH!). A CA liberal government should be paying much more attention to your POV in regards to wildfire management.

    • Thanks for your comment, Roderick. We value your perspective mainly because one of our primary goals is to remove the political polemics from this discussion. The traditional view of the California state government would predict it would blindly follow environmentally friendly policies. Not so. As liberal as it clearly is, it is just another political animal looking out for its own self interest. In this case, using taxpayer money (and increasing those taxes) to support favored vested interests.

  2. Pingback: The Missing Factor in Western Wildfire Reporting | NEC

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