How Truth Metastasized Into A Lie – The Fire Suppression Fallacy (Part I)

– The Justification Du Jour to Eliminate Nature –

We are being lied to.

It didn’t start out that way, but as is often the case when money and power are involved, the truth has suffered. And the lie has been crafted to be so compelling, to appear so intuitive, that many of us, including myself, have sometimes unwittingly contributed to its spread.

My career as a champion of the chaparral began in response to the lie. The journey since has been one of pitched battles, political intrigue, and enemies at the gate, but also of inspiring discoveries, triumphs, and friendship. I’m sure you’ve traveled a similar path many times in your life when you have spoken up for yourself, for a friend, or for a cause.

The truth has prevailed in the chaparral, mostly.

  • Large, infrequent, high-intensity wildfires are the natural pattern for chaparral. Past fire suppression has not played a role in altering that pattern.
  • Chaparral is suffering from too much fire, rather than not enough. And the threat is spreading north.
  • Too frequent fires (more than once per 30 years) compromise the chaparral’s biodiversity and can lead to the elimination of the plant community, frequently converting it to non-native grassland.
  • Prescribed fire in chaparral typically causes environmental harm, especially in light of a drying landscape due to human-caused climate change.

The climate has changed not only physically, but socially as well. The anti-Nature pitchfork mob we vanquished in San Diego County more than a decade ago has reappeared and is sweeping down from the plains of Sacramento into the precious wild places we cherish – cool, dense forests, expansive stands of old-growth chaparral, and secret pockets of Great Basin sage. To the mob, all of wild Nature is “overgrown,” full of “fuel”, and waiting to ignite. And they intend to fix it.

The fight for the chaparral in southern California was much easier than what we face now. Since humans have never figured out how to squeeze much monetary value from native shrublands, we never had to face entrenched financial interests. But the beautiful montane and episodic chaparral found in forested regions of the state is hated by those who make money (and advance careers) off of timber. Be it legacy lumber companies, new biomass corporations, the US Forest Service, Cal Fire, or researchers who depend on grants that fund forest research, chaparral is seen as a threat to trees. Demonized as ladder fuels, overgrowth, or brush-fields, chaparral that finds itself as part of the forest community, especially post-fire episodic chaparral, is seen as the enemy.

I’ll forever have the image etched in my mind of Steven Brink, a representative for the California Forestry Association, literally spitting as he described his negative feelings about manzanita and the need to get rid of it in the forest during a US Forest Service tour of the Rim Fire area in 2014. Similar antagonism towards episodic chaparral has led to the environmental devastation now occurring at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

I have been warned many times to stay out of the forest. But I’ve never been able to reconcile what I saw on the ground as I hiked to what I was hearing from those in the forestry world – forests are supposedly “unhealthy” because they are clogged with overgrowth due to a century of fire suppression. Since the public and the media are consistently incapable or unwilling to make distinctions between different ecosystems, “forest” is a proxy for all of Nature. Hence, all of Nature is clogged and overgrown. That fallacy has been taken advantage of by all those who profit from exploiting Nature in all of its manifestations.

The profiteers are not limited to to those who obtain direct financial gain. They also include those who are able to expand bureaucracies, pass legislation that benefits future electoral success, obtain grants to conduct forest research or support land conservancy programs, or those who are just worried about their careers. One doesn’t get far in an agency or an organization that has embraced the fire suppression fallacy if one resists the company line.

The cost of pushing back can be high. The pressure to not offend, to not oppose those who control one’s livelihood, can be overwhelming. Jobs and friends can be lost. I was told by one of my best friends several years ago to “not come off appearing as though you are contradicting the fire suppression story because that will marginalize your ideas to many.” Fair warning. I’ve ended up ignoring that advice and have indeed upset a fair number of people, including the friend who warned me. I’ve made new friends.

The social fabric these days has been torn. Disagreements quickly become personal. If you are aligned with the work we have done at the Chaparral Institute, you’ll find much of what you read below as agreeable. If you had a visceral, negative reaction to the title of this piece, have already been upset with me, or disagreed with what the Chaparral Institute has done, most of what you read below will be contrary to what you believe.

I can’t control any of that, but I can control my own judgement of such things – a realization I’ve finally figured out after spending much of the past year studying Roman history. We are indeed in control of our lives and how we react. A warning I have embraced that has helped me put it all into perspective came from Marcus Aurelius – “The memory of everything is very soon lost in time.”

With such a view, the world looks to be a beautiful place.

Regardless of your views on fire suppression, environmentalists, and other living things, I think it is reasonable to assume that you have a full measure of wonder for Nature within. You enjoy being outdoors and are renewed by wildness. I also think you are probably well aware that the natural environment is at risk. I think we can find common ground there. With that spirit, I’m hoping you can read this series and understand the threat we face with our species’ chronic inability to think beyond ourselves.

“And anyone with a feeling for Nature—a deeper sensitivity—will find it all gives pleasure. Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call out to him constantly—things unnoticed by others. Things seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Part II The Fire Suppression Fallacy

Despite the rhetoric, dense “episodic” chaparral is a natural, successional response to a forest fire. The growing shrubs, especially Ceanothus species, enrich the soil with nitrogen and provide nursing shade for growing conifers. Photo: Episodic chaparral 12 years after fire in 1937, Sierra Nevada. CalPhotos, UC Berkeley.

It’s still happening as it always has. Episodic chaparral in 2019, six years after the Rim Fire, Stanislaus National Forest, Sierra Nevada.
The US Forest Service’s response to the fragile, post-fire habitat after the 2013 Rim Fire: grinding up episodic chaparral, logging, pile burning, and cows. Photo: Stanislaus National Forest, by Tonja Chi, 2019.

17 Comments on “How Truth Metastasized Into A Lie – The Fire Suppression Fallacy (Part I)

  1. In the 1970’s, I was in my 20’s, showing how old I am, I attended a gathering of study papers on things like the Chaparral with fire suppressing ideas. It was demonstrated that regular burns was healthy for the chaparral, as often as every 15 years. These studies showed the health of plants and animals benefited to regular burns. I do not know where the studies are at this time, but scientist and students showed real science, with recorded evidence. This was detailed long term study. What else can I say?

  2. Keep up the good work, Rick. You have presented a very clear, well documented statement of facts!

  3. Probably worth mentioning too, that CalFire estimates about 85% of what are erroneously called “wildfires” are human-caused: either individual carelessness or corporate carelessness (PG&E refusing to update and secure its obsolete power lines in forested areas), or arson.

  4. I haven’t been able to hike for a long time now, but when I put together a task force of County fire agencies after the 1970 Kitchen Creek fire, I spent a lot of time with the researchers (Eamor Nord, Clive Countryman, and colleagues) at the Western Region Fire Lab in Riverside and in the field. The Task Force report was “iced” by the City Manager, so never published. The fire lab scientists were all about studying fire behavior and were “out of the old rock.” Honesty counted. Fantasy was not part of their repertoire. I used to attend the various meetings until I was “dis-invited” by the staff person in charge, a CNPS member.

    Rick has done a far better job at trying to spread the truth than I have, but now I’m wondering (especially now that I’m in my 80’s) who is going to step into his shoes . . .

  5. Rick,
    The statement that makes the most sense is that forest is a proxy for all Nature. I agree with you that scientists need to work with land managers, industry and the community to find realistic management of each individual ecosystem. We definitely need to stop blanket statements and start to make a concise effort to understand particular ecosystems, succession and biodiversity. Of course you would find yourself making enemies, but that’s when you know you are doing something and change comes from being uncomfortable. I look forward to reading more on this series

  6. You’re preaching to the choir, and you seem content with that. We live during a time when our rhetoric is so polarized it’s nearly impossible to find compromise and solutions for many of the problems our society faces. Characterizations such as “the anti-Nature pitchfork mob” are provocative and are not likely to open the minds of those you disagree with to the facts you want to share. You know this, as you have “made new friends”, thereby deepening the divide.

    On a personal note: I meet with suspicion arguments presented through fear. Those are the tactics of the enemy used to overpower our judgment when the facts are not on their side. It troubles me to see those same tactics employed here. However, I will examine your citations with an open mind.

    -Friend of the chaparral

    • William, you are correct. Our approach to this is indeed provocative. But we face a dilemma.

      After nearly two decades of developing relationships, submitting hundreds of comments, participating in dozens of collaborative efforts, and being polite, we have been able to win a lot of battles. We’ve been able to get the USFS and media outlets like the LA Times to recognize the threat of increased fire frequency. Even Cal Fire has acknowledged the problem. And we have helped people recognize and appreciate the chaparral. But we are now, suddenly, losing the war.

      Billions of dollars are being funneled into logging and clearing habitat, all predicated on the fire suppression fallacy. Cal Fire has defined chaparral type conversion in a manner that will actually cause type conversion. USFS scientists are engaging is withering personal attacks on those of us who are pushing back against their clearance projects. Native American culture is being appropriated to justify massive, landscape scale prescribed burns. This, despite all the safe guards we fought so hard to put into place. It’s the money talking now.

      So we are under no illusion what we write here will have much impact, one way or the other. We can’t fight the money, but we can expose the lies that are being told to justify the clearance of habitat. Those who are engaged in this new effort to reshape the natural world will be offended by anything we say because we are getting in the way of their mission. Polite won’t help. We won’t be engaging in false claims and hyperbolic statements to get attention, but we will use direct language to point out the lies and use characterizations that will. The pitchfork mob phrase is provocative, but honestly, I feel it is a fair description of people who have convinced themselves that Nature is not what it is, but what they want it to be, marching forward with flags waving and drums beating to save us from the demon brush, the fuel, the wild we have become alienated from.

      This series of essays will be merely a testament about how our species has, once again, thought it knew best, when it didn’t. Concerning the divide, it will not be healed by us, but by those who come after, those who will have to deal with the consequences of bombing the village to save it. There is no rational way to view the last photo in our article above other than in that light.

      • Fire suppression by conversion of terrain was a “thin end of the wedge” tactic that paid off big for logging and ranching when drought-exacerbated fires got rolling in the West about 6 years ago. Removal of vegetation = removal of wildlife = nothing left, endangered species-wise, to stand in the way of big ranching. It’s no accident that our Secretaries of the Interior are often pulled from ranching families. Secretary Haaland’s family ranches. She’s refused to meet with the tribes who want to re-list the gray wolf.
        In the SF Bay Area where I live, the urban-rural interface is pretty abrupt and has resulted in loss of property/homes where fires occur each summer into fall. Right after the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm (a human-caused grass fire) FEMA made a study of what caused the fire and what the best way to apply lessons learned from that fire. In their recommendations, FEMA advised AGAINST tree removal, saying correctly that healthy, mature large trees such as eucalyptus, Monterey Pine and Cypress, and acacia, should be left standing, since they are a better fire shield than seasonal dried grasses. That was when the “cut them all down” “the only eucalyptus is a dead eucalyptus” etc. nativist societies (another incarnation of the pitchfork mob) started their pointless movement to re-wild, in the pre-1750 arbitrary and idealized plantscape, a Bay Area that now contains 8 million people, and our cars. The only way the pure native plantscape can be maintained is by hours of volunteer sweat equity and gallons of glyphosate which then finds its way into our water supply. Even then, the rewilded areas are tiny and not sustainable. My point here is that pitchfork mobs may come from many sides of the political spectrum but they have some things in common: they don’t like facts or science, or really, Nature.

        • Julie, yes, we are really familiar with the Oakland Hills situation. The anti-Euc and pro-Euc crowds have really developed slick campaigns that are generally devoid of facts. Trying times. Thank you for providing this story.

      • Thank you. I appreciate the response – I appreciate merely that my comments were read. That you proceed with your eyes open is reassuring. You know your business better than I do. It still saddens me that we must settle for raising awareness of the issue at the expense of changing hearts and minds. As for leaving it for the next generation to solve, well… perhaps that is the only path before us, but it still feels irresponsible. The next generation is already saddled with mending the social/political divide, climate change, the national debt, just to name a few. Even I, as an old man, gain a little solace from the knowledge that I likely will be dead before the day of reckoning for our reckless policies arrives. Then I think of those I leave behind.

        The case you present is defended with links to objective sources that give it credibility. That is why I don’t dismiss it out of hand like so many other environmental rants that seek to engage me emotionally rather than rationally. I wish you success as with it may follow the preservation of our environment.

        • Thank you, William. As you can imagine, I’ve gotten a number of emails laced with personal attacks. But most have been rational and informative. Funny, but this whole effort is my final attempt to set the record straight and then to move away from the madness and focus on what I love – teaching about Nature. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for about 5 years now. Yet, here I am, stirring the pot again.

          I concur about the wave of environmental rants. Now they have been combined with social justice polemics which only creates, as you said, even larger divides.

          The Marcus Aurelius reference is part of my own personal discovery about the limits of my influence and what really matters. I think it’s an age thing. I just wish some of that wisdom could be absorbed when we are younger.
          – Rick

  7. I appreciate that you highlight the “anti-shrubland” mentality as it pertains to forest systems as well as SoCal chaparral which are very different. In post-fire landscapes of the Sierra Nevada there’s a big push to greatly reduce shrub cover as an impediment to tree establishment, when in fact the shrubs are known to support natural regeneration over time by providing shade, holding moisture, reducing erosion, etc. I look forward to reading subsequent posts in your series.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jack. You’re definitely correct about the contributions shrubs offer to the ecosystem, including enhancing the ability of conifer seedlings to survive harsh weather conditions.

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: