Forest Fires in the Hills of Orange County?

Misinformation about California Wildfires
from those who should know better

As non-native grasslands and low-growing California sage scrub were being consumed by fires in Orange County this week, in areas that had burned a decade before, USA Today provided a solution – we need to manage these “forests” better and regularly burn off all that “fuel” that keeps accumulating. And they appropriated Native American culture to support the idea (Fig. 1).

  • The nearest forest is miles away.
  • Too many fires are already threatening the habitats that are burning.
  • Euro-Americans have long since paved over or damaged the lands in Orange County that once supported Native American families and their sustainable relationship with Nature.

The contrast between reality and what USA Today portrays is stunning.

Fig. 1. USA Today inserted this graphic and video into their story about the Orange County fires. It cites forest mismanagement with claims about how we need to burn the landscape as they think Native Americans did. The Orange County fires are burning non-forested landscapes that burned 12-years-ago and are consequently threatened by too much fire.

Let’s take a look at the fire suppressed, mismanaged forest USA Today suggests needs more fire.

Fig. 2. Chino Hills State Park is hardly an overgrown “forest.” Although much of this area was covered by non-native grasses prior to the current Blue Ridge Fire, there were healthy remnants of native habitat. However, those remnants are now at increased risk.

What has actually been suppressed is the ability and interest to question, to discover the truth.

Examining the perimeter maps of the fires provides additional insight into why the claims by USA Today are so misguided.

The Blue Ridge Fire in the Chino Hills is reburning an area last burned in the 2008 Freeway Fire (Fig. 3 below). This area has already been seriously damaged ecologically due to overgrazing when the area was ranched and past fires, resulting in a massive invasion of non-native weeds and the elimination of most native habitat.

Fig. 3. The Blue Ridge Fire in the Chino Hills (orange polygon) is burning within the 2008 Freeway Fire perimeter (gray perimeter).

The Silverado Fire (Fig. 4 below) is burning within the 2007 Santiago Fire perimeter. This area was an important California sage scrub dominated plant community inhabited by a wonderful array of native species, including the Endangered California Gnatcatcher. It was just about to attain the habitat structure of a fully functioning native shrubland prior to the current fire. Now, non-native weeds and grasses will gain a stronger foothold, threatening the area with type-conversion (native habitat being replaced by weeds).

Fig. 4. The Silverado Fire (orange polygon) is burning within the 2007 Santiago Fire (gray polygon).

Taking a larger view of the entire southern California landscape (Fig. 5), it’s clear that rather than being fire “suppressed,” the region’s wildlands are overly fire-saturated.

Fig. 5. The overly fire-saturated landscape of southern California. Dark polygons show all the fires over the past 20 years. ALL these areas are now threatened with type-conversion (replacing native habitat with non-native weeds and grasses) if they are burned again within the next decade, a likely possibility.

The orange, cross-hatched polygon in the center of Fig. 5, above Los Angeles, is the recent Bobcat Fire. The area contained some of the last old-growth chaparral stands left in the Angeles National Forest. Although it is distressing that such an increasingly rare plant community burned, it will come back beautifully IF it is left alone. Although the US Forest Service referred negatively to the habitat’s age during the fire, it was well within the chaparral’s natural fire return interval. As a result, the fire naturally burned with high-intensity, setting the stage for the development of a remarkable pyrogenic habitat that will explode with wildflowers, new shrubs, and a wonderful succession of animal life over the next ten years – as long as it doesn’t burn again.

Unfortunately, about 5,000 acres of Bobcat Fire reburned habitat within the 2009 Station Fire perimeter, setting the stage there for habitat type conversion.

The Need to Question

Journalism requires verification, and due diligence. It’s clear USA Today didn’t do either by inserting the misleading graphic and video into an otherwise accurate article. As a result, the editors compulsively repeated the same fire suppression fallacy that appears in nearly every news story about wildfires. It doesn’t matter what’s burning, or where, the false narrative about fire suppression in forests is applied, be it the native shrublands of Malibu, the Berkeley hills, or the vineyards of Napa.

Nature, and all the beautiful habitats we enjoy in southern California are being eliminated by wildfires because they are occurring too frequently. Continually promoting the false narrative, as many news outlets and political leaders do, that the wildfire problem can be solved by adding even more fire to the landscape, will only accelerate habitat loss. It also ignores the fact that increased fires can also INCREASE fire risk by spreading highly flammable, non-native weeds and grasses.

Unfortunately, Cal Fire, the state’s lead fire agency, also promotes the fire suppression fallacy in order to support their Vegetation Treatment Program (VTP) – burn, clear, or herbicide a quarter million acres per year of native habitat. The area burning in Chino Hills is one of the many areas targeted for “treatment” in Cal Fire’s VTP – adding more environmental harm to what has already occurred. To discover how Cal Fire is targeting your favorite wildland, see their map here.

Appropriating Native American Culture

The USA Today article also illustrates the most recent example of exploiting Native American culture – invoking the name and culture of Indigenous Peoples in pursuit of control and profit – in this case, habitat clearance operations. Due to collective guilt over the past treatment of Native Americans, few are willing to challenge the characterization.

However, the fire and land use agencies who see habitat as only fuel and use massive machines to grind up native shrublands, forest understories, and other important habitats rich in biodiversity, are about as far removed from Indigenous Peoples’ sustainable relationship with Nature as one can get. The notion that agencies will be gently lighting fires under carefully selected patches of trees is naive. The scale of pre-prescribed fire activity, where bulldozers, chainsaws, and huge grinding machines rip up the landscape in an attempt to manage the “fuels” after igniting a fire is environmentally devastating.

Nature, now viewed as “fuel,” is vilified in the process.

Who will profit from more prescribed burns and habitat removal? Timber companies come first to mind, as do biomass corporations and clearance contractors. But the budget expansion provided to the US Forest Service and Cal Fire via government grants can also be added to the mix. Politicians also benefit by identifying an enemy, Nature, and providing a “solution” to get it under control.

Please see our webpage for more regarding historical fire use by Native Americans in California. Also, an informative article by George Wuerthner provides a broader look at the subject.

The Human Toll

During the Bobcat Fire, we lost a place where generations have celebrated California native wildlands for decades – the iconic nature center at Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area in Los Angeles County. We had the pleasure to visit the center in 2017 and had the honor to meet Ranger Dave Numer, a remarkable naturalist who has inspired visitors for more than 43 years. The loss of the nature center is incalculable.

The Devil’s Punchbowl nature center in 2017.
The nature center burned during the Bobcat Fire.

Two Orange County Fire Authority firefighters were seriously injured while fighting the Silverado Fire. Please support them by donating to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

For additional information on wildfires in California and how they are threatening native landscapes, please visiting our website.

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