Global warming is often cited as the primary cause of the increase in the number and intensity of wildfires occurring in California. Though I am sure that it is a contributing factor, another major contributor is rarely mentioned: 100 years of successful fire suppression that has caused an accumulation of highly volatile fuel loads throughout wildland and wildland-urban interfaces. Fire ecology is a scientific approach that needs to be incorporated into our fire protection strategy.
I am a lifelong resident of Marin who has fought fires from the air for the last 35 years. During the last 30 years I worked as an airtanker pilot on contract with Cal Fire. During that time, I witnessed both the frequency and intensity of wild land fires greatly increase. I also witnessed whole communities destroyed by fire and, sadly, the loss of life of both citizens and firefighters. My experience observing fire behavior from a ring-side seat and my work with fire control experts has given me some insight into the problems that pose such an extreme threat to our county.
Before the influence of large-scale human activity, seasonal fires and intentional fire sets by native Indian tribes cleared out the accumulation of underbrush, dead trees, deadfall and pyrophitic species, greatly reducing the conditions for the extreme fire storm events that are now happening at an increasing rate. California’s wildlands are densely populated by pyrophitic species, whose life cycles are dependent on fire. They ignite easily, then they burn with such intensity that they kill all competing species. The heat of the fire triggers their seed pods to burst open and reseeds the crop, insuring the survivability of the species.
Many of us have decided to live in the environs surrounded by these highly volatile fuel types. In addition, many of our hillside communities have only one way in and one way out, posing the danger of entrapment for large numbers of people. These hamlets often have no planned safety zones where citizens trapped by fire can shelter in place.
There are solutions. Human activity got us into this predicament and it will take human activity to get us out of it. We cannot count on nature alone to return us to a balanced condition. Nature often wipes the slate clean and starts over
The first and most obvious remedy is to create defensible space around homes and businesses. This not only protects structures from fires, it also protects the wildland from house fires. Fire officials make urgent pleas every year to encourage citizens to take these essential measures.
In the long range and large-scale, our remedial actions must include managing vegetation and modifying volatile fuel types. Fire breaks, covered fire breaks and safety zones must be created to insure the survival of people located in designated high-threat areas. They are locations where evacuation and or rescue would be problematic at best and where entrapment is likely.
Vegetation management adjacent to evacuation routes should also be a priority. Controlled burns conducted every year are necessary to manage the thousands of acres of pyrophitic fuels, such as chaparral and chemise. Some potentially dangerous species, such as stands of eucalyptus, cypress and bay (laurel) trees should be thinned or removed once they are evaluated and deemed trigger points or a threat to residential areas.
These actions should be conducted to mimic what would happen in a natural environment if there were no “human activity.” Our best results will be realized if we work with nature rather than against it.
Jim Barnes is a retired airtanker pilot and lifelong Marin County resident. He lives in Woodacre.