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Nativist myths die hard

May 5, 2010

A book about the 1991 wildfire in the Oakland/Berkeley hills illustrates the power of the legend that non-natives are more flammable than natives.  In Firestorm:  the study of the 1991 East Bay fire in Berkeley (Margaret Sullivan, 1993) the author states repeatedly that native plants and trees were involved in that fire.  Every tree mentioned in the following quotes from that book is native to the Bay Area:

  • “…flames surging through the dry underbrush and live oaks that line the street…”
  • “…neighborhoods…are built into the contours of the grassy hills and live-oak-and-laurel studded canyons…”
  • “…hillsides covered in seasonal grasses or had overlooked ravines of oak and madrone…were devastated by the fire.”
  • On Vicente Road, “Two redwoods up the street caught fire like matchsticks.”
  • “Roble Road and… Roble Court, derive their name from the…Spanish word for the live oak tree that grows densely there…the devastation on lower Roble…was fairly complete…”

In the single mention of the role of eucalypts in the fire, the fire skips over the tree canopy:  “The fire swept right over [the houses] scorching the crowns of surrounding eucalyptus trees.”  And the Monterey pine—also targeted for eradication by native plant advocates—plays a similar role in a nearby location:  “Across the street a grove of Monterey pines shields the white clapboard buildings of the private Bentley School…”

After presenting all this evidence about the role of native plants in the fire, the book concludes with the legend that non-natives are more flammable than natives:   “Gardens of drought tolerant and fire-resistant California native plants have become symbols of the rebirth of the fire communities.”  This statement is illustrated with a photo of a native plant garden.

Chamise is an example of a native plant in the chaparral community that is extremely flammable.

“The relationship between fire and Chamise is illustrated by the plant’s tendency to ‘encourage’ burning.  A thermometer was placed within a Chamise shrub as a fire approached, and the following changes were documented.  At about 200⁰F the plant began to wilt as its temperature approached the boiling point of water.  At about 400⁰F the plant began to emit combustible gases such as hydrogen, alcohol, and methane.  At about 600⁰F the shrub smoldered and began to turn black.  At about 800⁰F the plant burst into flames!  This species must have evolved in association with frequent fires to have reached the point where it seems to encourage burning.” (A Natural History of California, Schoenherr, page 344)

Chamise, Tilden Park Botanical Garden

As Mark Twain said, “A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.”

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