Today’s SF Chronicle reports that yet another “controlled” (AKA “prescribed”) burn is responsible for a wildfire in California. This fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains burned 485 acres in October 2009, injuring 4 of the 1,700 firefighters who fought it at a cost of $4 million. That cost doesn’t include the claims for damages of the property owners who lost their homes.
This isn’t the only controlled burn that has caused major wildfires in California and elsewhere. For historical perspective, let’s start with the Bandelier Monument Fire in New Mexico. This fire, began in May 2000 as a prescribed burn and eventually burned over 45,000 acres, threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory and destroyed 235 structures. The Department of the Interior suspended all prescribed burns while an inquiry was conducted and policy was revised to theoretically prevent similar accidents.
Did revision of policy stop so-called controlled burns from causing wildfires in our national parks? No, it did not. In October 2009, the Big Meadow Fire in Yosemite began as a prescribed burn and eventually burned 7,425 acres. NPS apparently hadn’t learned much from their bad experience 9 years earlier at the Bandelier Monument.
The National Park Service isn’t the only manager of public land that has had bad luck with controlled burns. In 2003, the California State Park Department was responsible for starting a fire on San Bruno Mountain in South San Francisco intended to burn 6 acres that eventually burned 72 acres and came perilously close to homes, according to the SF Chronicle.
We should not be surprised by the unpredictable results of prescribed burns. Fire scientists at UC Berkeley conducted a series of experimental prescribed burns in chaparral in Northern California, hoping to arrive at a model of fire behavior that would improve the predictability of such burns. They arrived at the conclusion that “…it is extremely difficult to predict with certainty where the fire will spread…For more than half of the transects installed, the flaming front did not traverse the transects as predicted…” (1)
You might ask, “If these prescribed burns keep causing major wildfires, why do we continue starting them?” Good question, and we are going to answer that. The conventional wisdom is that because fires have been suppressed in the past century or so, fuel has built up that has become extremely dangerous. Theoretically, we must restore the “natural” fire cycle to prevent this dangerous build up of fuel that will inevitably cause a huge wildfire if we don’t reduce the fuel load with smaller (hopefully) fires. Sounds like a good argument, but is it true? Some scientists say it isn’t.
Jon E. Keeley, Ph.D. (Biologist, US Geological Service) says in “Fire Management in the California Shrublands,”
“Fire management of California shrublands has been heavily influenced by policies designed for coniferous forests, however, fire suppression has not effectively excluded fire from chaparral and coastal sage scrub landscapes and catastrophic wildfires are not the result of unnatural fuel accumulation. There is no evidence that prescribed burning in these shrublands provides any resource benefit and in some areas may negatively impact shrublands by increasing fire frequency. Therefore, fire hazard reduction is the primary justification for prescription burning, but it is doubtful that rotational burning to create landscape age mosaics is a cost effective method of controlling catastrophic wildfires.”
Obviously, there isn’t scientific consensus that prescribed burns reduce fire hazard, so perhaps there is another reason why we pursue this dangerous course. Yes, there is, and once again we turn to the native plant movement to explain why we are harming our environment and posing unnecessary dangers to animals, including humans.
The scientific literature is rampant with evidence that periodic fire is essential to the health of native plants. Here is an example from a renowned academic book about California’s ecology that has the status of a standard textbook:
“The [chaparral] community has evolved over millions of years in association with fires, and in fact requires fire for proper health and vigor. Thus it is not surprising that most chaparral plants exhibit adaptations enabling them to recover after a burn. Many species are sprouters; the aboveground parts may be killed, but new growth arises from roots or buds at the base of the stem…Other species have seeds that require fire in order to break dormancy; they will not germinate unless they have been heated. The cones of some chaparral conifers open only after they have been heated. Some herbaceous species will not germinate unless there is ash on the ground when it rains…In the absence of fire, a mature chaparral stand may become senile, in which case growth and reproduction are reduced.” (Schoenherr, A Natural History of California, 1992, UC Press)
This is also an opportunity to show how the native plant agenda has been adopted by local managers of our public lands. The “Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Resource Management Plan” of the East Bay Regional Park District announces its intention to conduct prescribe burns for the following purposes:
- “Grassland and Herbaceous Vegetation…broadcast burns in the summer or early fall [fire season] are known to favor native plants.” (page 128)
- “Maritime Chaparral…This [native] vegetation type and the Manzanita it supports are also fire dependent. Without disturbance by fire the Manzanita does not reproduce, becomes decadent, and is replaced by shade tolerant species.” (page 132)
- “North Coastal Scrub…This plant community [of native plants] is adapted to natural fire cycles, and most species found within this plant community resprout easily to rejuvenate individual specimens after fire, or require fire to trigger germination.” (page 139)
- “[Native] Coyote Brush Scrub…is adapted to natural fire cycles. Most species resprout easily to rejuvenate individual specimens after fire, or requires fire to trigger germination.” (page 149)
Are any of these purposes related to reducing fire hazard? You be the judge.
The management plan of San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program also announces its intention to use prescribed burns in the Initial Study (the first stage of environmental review under CEQA) of the program, but offers no information about the effect of these burns on the environment. In a city such as San Francisco, in which there is no history of wildfire, we must assume that the sole purpose of these burns will be to benefit native plants.
Clearly controlled burns frequently cause major wildfires. Fires, whether intentional or not, also release harmful particulates into the air and reduce air quality. There is no evidence that controlled burns prevent wildfires. Yet, there is considerable evidence that they benefit native plants. We conclude that the primary purpose of controlled burns is to benefit native plants.
(1) Scott Stephens, et. al., “Measuring the rate of spread of chaparral prescribed fires in Northern California,” Fire Ecology, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2008